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Why Good Teams FIGHT

Oct. 13, 2008
Oct. 13, 2008

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Oct. 13, 2008

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Why Good Teams FIGHT

With hockey's dark art making a comeback, star players have to be protected. Call it insurance or self-defense, but clubs are muscling up with a new breed of tough guy

THE MONTREALCANADIENS' new bodyguard stands 6'3" and weighs 255 pounds. He enjoysmoonlighting as a radio deejay, fostering humanitarian causes and, whenprofessionally advantageous, punching people in the head. ¶ This would be aneye-catcher in the personals, but Georges Laraque never has to advertise. Nowon his fourth team in 2 1/2 years Laraque, seventh among active players with118 career fights, signed a three-year, $4.5 million contract at 31, anadvanced age for a hockey player who earns his living primarily with clenchedfists. The surprise was not the generous terms for a gregarious fellow who hadbeen entrusted to score the occasional goal and keep the flies off SidneyCrosby for the past year-plus in Pittsburgh but that it was Montreal ponying upfor a player who averages less than eight minutes a game and who did not evendress for the last five matches of the Stanley Cup finals.

This is an article from the Oct. 13, 2008 issue

Considering thatthe Canadiens had the best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference lastseason without employing an enforcer, and that Laraque turned into an outsizedhood ornament deep into the playoffs, why were they smitten with Big Georges?Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau is still dubious about fighting's role—"Therewere lots of times last year when I came into the [dressing] room betweenperiods and told them I didn't want them to fight," says Carbonneau, whoseteam ranks next to last in the league in fighting majors over the past threeseasons with 72—but he categorizes Laraque as a "good insurancepolicy." (Slogan: Grab a piece of Laraque!) As general manager Bob Gaineysaid of his new windup toy, "He helps us check off an area where we don'twant to be vulnerable. We're not a big team. We have new, formative offensiveplayers. Many are Europeans. It's nice to have a big brother in theschoolyard."

Minnesota Wildcoach Jacques Lemaire, whose team retains 6'7", 258-pound brawler DerekBoogaard, understands completely. "We all say, 'No, no, it's not necessary[to have a fighting presence]' before we go out and do exactly what theydid," Lemaire says. "They needed [Laraque]. Otherwise they wouldn'thave gotten him. It's that simple."

As the 2008--09NHL season begins, fighting—for the first time in the postlockout era—is backwith, well, a vengeance. Although the league does nothing to market fighting(new Tampa Bay Lightning coach Barry Melrose thinks the league is embarrassedby its resurgence), and skill and speed are at an alltime premium, playerspairing off and pounding away is trending upward. There were nearly 1.1fighting majors per game last season, up about 57% from 0.7 in 2005--06, thefirst season after the lockout. (If you have never seen 0.7 of a fight, youmissed the powder puff between Montreal defenseman Andrei Markov and Ottawacenter Jason Spezza in April.) Fighting won't ever return to the donnybrookdays of the 1970s, but after a period of restraint much of the league hasremembered that a player with thunder in his fists can still change a game—orin the case of the Carolina Hurricanes, perhaps a season.

CAROLINA HADN'Thad an intimidator for nearly two years when, in a game last Dec. 26, New YorkRangers ruffian Colton Orr wallpapered Hurricanes center Matt Cullen comingacross the blue line. The fallout from the hit was a broken nose and aconcussion for Cullen, and a promotion from the minors for 6'4", 225-poundtough guy Wade Brookbank. Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour speculates that ifBrookbank had been on the roster for the New York game, Orr might not have laidout Cullen with such force. Brind'Amour credits the arrival of Brookbank and,later, Tim Conboy, another enforcer from the AHL, for a 16-6-2 record over thefinal two months of last season. "Teams weren't so willing to run ourguys," Brind'Amour says. "If you have [an enforcer] on the bench, otherteams know there's going to be some retribution."

Coach PeterLaviolette had a no-fighting policy during the Hurricanes' 2006 Stanley Cuprun, but this year the question among NHL coaches and front-office thinkers isnot whether to fight—moral ambivalence, incidentally, is practically impossibleto find—but simply how often to do it and who to entrust with theresponsibility. In the traditional model a team carries a full-time head-bopperlike the Philadelphia Flyers' Riley Cote. "Cote doesn't even realizethere's a puck on the ice," an Atlantic Division center says of theup-by-his-bootstraps player who averaged a little more than four minutes of icetime per game last season. But with the salary cap inhibiting investment insuch one-dimensional players, more clubs are entrusting fisticuffs to playerswho can also help in other ways. Consider the NHL's reigning fight leader,Columbus forward Jared Boll, a 6'2", 206-pound stripling who also chippedin five goals last year. "Boll is part of a new generation of fighterbecause he can play [a good amount of] minutes and fight, too," star RickNash says of his 22-year-old Blue Jackets teammate, who averaged eight minutesand engaged 27 times last year. "He's a good player."

The ChicagoBlackhawks, who dispensed with pugilist David Koci (now with the rock 'em--sock'em Lightning), will try fighting by committee this season, relying on toughguys with some skill such as Adam Burish, Ben Eager and James Wisniewski. TheBoston Bruins, second in the East to the Flyers in fighting majors last season,don't have an old-style tough because of players such as rampaging sophomoreMilan Lucic, an impressive winger who battles as well as he plays. ("Lucicplayed his role to perfection in the playoffs, trying to get into[rough-and-tumble defenseman Mike] Komisarek's head and abusing him alittle," Carbonneau says. "I'm sure with a guy like Georges around,Lucic will stay a little quieter.") The dukes-up Vancouver Canucks, thirdin the league in fighting majors last season, are trying it both ways: Just ashaving Laraque in Montreal means Komisarek can sidestep some fights, signingone-dimensional Darcy Hordichuk to a three-year, $2.3 million deal relieves thefighting burden on core defensemen such as Willie Mitchell and Kevin Bieksa,who'll still get their swings in.

Anyway, enoughwith the prelims. On to the main event. Since the lockout two teams haveappeared in a league-best eight playoff series. Each has won a Stanley Cup. Inthe black-and-blue corner, the Anaheim Ducks, who have lapped the rest of theleague in fights with 178 since the lockout. And in the Greenpeace corner, theDetroit Red Wings, a one-off who are tougher than shoe leather but who alsohave been last in fighting majors in each of the past three seasons, totalingan astounding 141 fewer than Anaheim has.

To borrow fromring announcer Michael Buffer, let's get ready to ruminate.

WHEN THE RedWings broke training camp in 2005, new coach Mike Babcock was concerned aboutthe team's level of grit. Babcock, who had most recently coached Anaheim,believed intimidation was one of hockey's cornerstones. One of his favoriteteams had been in Spokane, where his junior players would "make you soscared, you couldn't play. Even when they were ahead, they would fight so youcouldn't get back into the game." He was uncertain this Detroit team hadsufficient gumption. On the eve of a season in which Babcock's Red Wings wouldfinish the regular season with a Gandhi-like six fighting majors, then getshocked by Edmonton in the first round of the playoffs, the coach asked G.M.Ken Holland, "Where's the toughness?"

"I told Babsthat toughness is five guys clicking on the power play," Holland recalls."That it's about four lines not backing off, about players going to thehard areas on the ice and winning battles."

But Detroit, asLemaire says, "is different, special." The Red Wings are the exceptionto the fighting rule because, following a philosophy championed by ScottyBowman when he coached there in the 1990s, they have drafted and developed ateam that is a unique blend of high-end skill and two-way grit. There's noother NHL roster like theirs.

Yet even Detroithas wavered. Holland brought journeyman fighting specialist Aaron Downey totraining camp in September 2007 following a discussion with star forward HenrikZetterberg, who convinced the G.M. that the team was low on muscle. Downey hadbeen a cipher at his previous stop in Montreal—he dressed for a total of 46games in two seasons—but Babcock played him a career-high 56 games. WhenColorado's Ian Laperri√®re injured Norris Trophy defenseman Nicklas Lidstromwith a questionable hit last February, Downey fought the Avalanche pot-stirrertwice in the game. Says Babcock, "I thought Downey looked after thatsituation very well."

Downey, who had10 of Detroit's 21 fights while averaging 4 1/2 minutes a game, never dressedin the playoffs, but he'll likely be a fixture again this regular season. TheRed Wings also have Darren McCarty, a grinder and occasional fighter whom theyrepatriated late last season after he'd been out of hockey for a year. TheWings will remain the NHL's most reluctant pugilists this season, but they haveto some degree joined the party. On the way to the Cup in 2007--08 Detroitfought five more times than it had in the previous two seasons combined.

Anaheim, TeamTruculent, might have exacted a far heavier toll than Downey did on theAvalanche had some brazen opponent mussed one of their stars. Although Anaheimwins with fundamental hockey elements—excellent goaltending, franchisedefensemen such as Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, superb young forwardssuch as Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry—its identity is almost cartoonish, likeits former name and logo. G.M. Brian Burke can live with the stereotype."You bring a toolbox into the arena for every game," Burke said."There's lots of things in that toolbox: speed, goaltending, scorers,intimidation. If you make a team pay a physical price, many nights that's goingto influence the outcome of a game."

Withfourth-liners George Parros and Brad May eager to scrap (the NHL's favoredeuphemism for fighting), the Ducks' 2007 Cup campaign sometimes was perceivedas a regression to the '70s Era of Bad Feelings. Actually the Ducks merelyreturned fighting to historical levels. In 1989--90, for example, 10 of 21 NHLteams had more than the league-high 71 fighting majors that Anaheim accumulatedin its fractious championship season.

"We didn't doanything revolutionary," Burke says. "We were merely honoring the past,the way the game used to be played, at the highest skill level and intensitylevel. But I do think you're seeing teams getting bigger and meaner in partthrough our influence.... Look, we're charged with entertaining you. From thetime the puck is dropped, that's what our team will do. That's done with goals,big saves, scoring chances, a big hit, a fight. I guarantee you—without therequisite level of hitting and fighting, we'd have empty buildings."

This is the NHL'sdirty secret. Many editorialists may hate fighting, but fans of a league thatrelies heavily on its gate revenue seem quite content to extract a brawl fortheir ticket price. Consider that in a sophisticated, standing-room-only hockeymarket such as Minnesota, four-minute-per-game Derek Boogaard's jersey outsellsevery other Wild player's except franchise star Marian Gaborik's. Says PenguinsG.M. Ray Shero, whose father Fred coached Philadelphia's Broad Street Bulliesin the '70s, "The two things that get people to their feet are theanticipation of a fight and the anticipation of a shootout. For many of ourfans, these might be the two most exciting things in the game, too."

WITH THE Sharksleading 3--0 less than 13 minutes into Game 3 of a first-round playoff seriesagainst Calgary last April, Patrick Marleau was lugging the puck head-downalong the boards in his own zone when Flames defenseman Cory Sarich vaporizedthe San Jose captain. There was much milling after the seismic hit, but otherthan Matt Carle's shove of Sarich, the Sharks had no significant response.Carle was assessed a roughing minor, and Calgary scored on the ensuing powerplay, starting a comeback that would end in a 4--3 Flames home ice win. AsBarry Melrose, then an ESPN analyst, watched in the studio, he concluded thatthe absence of a fight had been a momentum changer. "If San Jose had jumpedin and fought," Melrose says, "I think the message would have gottenthrough to Calgary. The Flames wouldn't have won that game."

Not surprisinglythe gloves are off this season in Tampa Bay, where Melrose has Koci, RyanMalone (nine fights in 2007--08) and Shane O'Brien (20 over the past twoseasons) to ward off anyone who even looks cross-eyed at prized rookie StevenStamkos. Melrose, who hails from an area of Saskatchewan that produced fabledpunchers Joey Kocur, Kelly Chase and other tough guys, adores enforcers fortheir willingness to protect teammates and the team logo. For Melrose, a fightcan be a wake-up call for a sluggish club, a warning of dire consequences to anopposing player who is running amok, simple retaliation or sheerintimidation.

Coaches don'tneed to explicitly tell enforcers when or upon whom to whale; most fightershave an intuitive grasp of the right time to step into their roles. In someways they serve a similar role to that of the chorus in Greek drama, offering apause in, and a commentary on, the narrative that drives the play. In thissense, fighting is scripted. "The biggest misconception is that fightersare mad at each other," Melrose says. "In fact, fighters are very muchin control ... like [players] taking a slap shot. They do it for areason."

Viscerallyappealing if intellectually indefensible, part of the show or sometimes merelya sideshow, fighting is a cultural artifact in the NHL, and it is very muchback in vogue.

SCENES FROM THEEDGE Fighting was up 57% last season, a rise that Melrose believes the leagueis embarrassed by.

"If you have [an enforcer] on the bench," saysBrind'Amour, "teams know THERE'S GOING TO BE RETRIBUTION."
"The two things that get people to theirfeet," says Shero, "are ANTICIPATION OF A FIGHT and of ashootout."

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SWINGERS
Get photos and video of fighters past and present, and see which on-ice boutschanged the game.

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Sid and Ovie Go West

THE PENGUINS were mobbed last season when their buspulled up to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul before a sold-out game againstthe Wild. "People went just to look at Crosby, and [a lot of them] didn'teven have tickets to the game," Minnesota general manager Doug Risebroughrecalls.

Sidney Crosby (right), now 21, truly drives the NHLbus: That he and the Capitals' fabulous forward Alexander Ovechkin both play inthe Eastern Conference provided much of the impetus for the league's decisionto revamp the heavily unbalanced schedule it had been using for the past threeseasons. Instead of eight games against each division rival with only the oddout-of-conference trip—Crosby, for instance, had not played in western Canadauntil last season, his third in the league—teams will play six times againstintradivision foes and will meet every other team in the league at leastonce.

Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock thinks that the NHLcould have gone further. "I prefer home-and-home," he said of facingeach team in the league at least twice every season. "This breaks up themonotony of the season. Our guys get excited to go to Montreal and Toronto, tosee different teams and to play in different buildings. Same old, same oldleads to boring stuff. I appreciate the benefits of playing your rivals, but Idon't think that sells the game as much as this [schedule change]will."

Habby Anniversary

ONLY TWO institutions in western civilization trulygrasp ceremony: the House of Windsor and the Montreal Canadiens. On the cusp oftheir centennial season—the official 100-year date is Dec. 4, 2009, but they'restarting a little early—the Canadiens are rolling out the bleu-blanc-et-rougecarpet. To begin, on Oct. 15 the club will unveil a ring of honor at the BellCentre for their 44 players and 10 builders in the Hockey Hall of Fame(including Maurice "Rocket" Richard, right). Five nights later theywill host the first of 12 games in which the players wear one of thefranchise's vintage jerseys. There's also a night to honor coaches, a night toretire Patrick Roy's number and lots of other stuff too. The league's in thespirit as well, staging All-Star festivities in Montreal in January and, inJune, the NHL entry draft.

There is, of course, a solid chance Les Habitants alsowill play a significant number of playoff games; the team hasn't had such highexpectations for a Cup run in more than 15 years. The last time Montreal washockey's premier destination was 1993, when the old Forum hosted the All-StarGame and the Canadiens won their record 24th, and most recent, Stanley Cup. Thefrequent sojourns that season to one of North America's liveliest citiesstrained the constitutions of visitors. As one member of the Fourth Estate saidduring those playoffs, "If the Habs keep winning, we're all going to bechecking into the Betty Ford [clinic]."

FIVE FOR FIGHTING

Which tough guy do you want on your side?

SI insider Pierre McGuire rates the NHL's mosteffective pugilists

1. GEORGES LARAQUE, Canadiens
Vitals: 6'3", 255 pounds, 31 years old.
The most feared and respected fighter in the league. He's got amazing punchingpower, and no player is better at settling down a chippy game simply with hison-ice presence.

2. ZDENO CHARA, Bruins
Vitals: 6'9", 251, 31.
The mammoth defenseman (right, in black) plays more than 26 minutes per game,and when he gets angry, look out. His reach and hand strength help him dominateopponents. He also has a vicious uppercut.

3. DEREK BOOGAARD, Wild
Vitals: 6'7", 258, 26.
He's nicknamed the Boogey Man for a reason, and it's not because opponents fearhis scoring ability. He has two goals in three seasons. Boogaard is one of thelargest fighters in the league, and his only weakness is that he lacks a littlebalance.

4. DONALD BRASHEAR, Capitals
Vitals: 6'2", 235, 36.
He begins the intimidation process with one of the NHL's most fearsome glares.This veteran understands all the nuances of his role, and he knows when tospring into action as well as any other tough guy in the game.

5. DANIEL CARCILLO, Coyotes
Vitals: 6-feet, 205, 23.
Fearless and routinely playing on the edge, he may be the most unpredictableplayer in the NHL. Carcillo's league-high 324 penalty minutes last seasonstemmed mainly from fighting infractions. He can also play, scoring 24 pointsand going +1 in 57 games.

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The No. 1 Plan

BEFORE THE NHL entry draft in June, the Lightning putup billboards around the Tampa Bay area flaunting the premature marketingslogan SEEN STAMKOS? The team did subsequently land Steven Stamkos (right) withthe No. 1 pick, of course, which now leads to a somewhat more intriguingquestion: What will Tampa Bay do with him?

At 18 Stamkos, a silky center with a humble mien and aheavy shot, is in the NHL to stay. The 6'1" 196-pounder has nothing to gainby another year in juniors, not after putting up 58 goals and 105 points in 61games for Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League last season. "There areenormous expectations on Steven given the way [Chicago's Patrick] Kane,[Pittsburgh's Sidney] Crosby and [Washington's Alexander] Ovechkin have blownthe lights out," Tampa Bay's VP of hockey operations Brian Lawton says ofrecent No. 1 selections, who have already won two Hart, two Art Ross, twoCalder and one Rocket Richard trophy among them in seven combined seasons.

Stamkos, however, likely won't get the kind of minutesthat those players got as teenagers, in large part because Tampa Bay has asuperstar forward in his prime—center Vincent Lecavalier, who'll be therookie's mentor—while Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington did not. "He mightplay quite a bit, and some nights not as much," Lawton says. "We'll puthim in the best position to succeed."

Fresh Perspectives

WHEN SAN JOSE G.M. Doug Wilson interviewed ToddMcLellan (right) for the Sharks' coaching job in June, he was as impressed byMcLellan's answers as by his résumé, which included the 2002--03 AHLchampionship, although, pointedly, no NHL head coaching experience. "I hadno trepidation at hiring a first-timer," Wilson said after signingMcLellan, 41, to a three-year contract, "especially when you consider what[Anaheim's Randy] Carlyle and others have done in their first NHLjobs."

Carlyle, a Stanley Cup winner in his second NHL seasonin 2006--07, and Bruce Boudreau, a minor league coach who took over theCapitals last November and led them to the playoffs, have helped reshape thehiring mind-set. Of this season's nine new coaches, four—McLellan, Atlanta'sJohn Anderson, Florida's Peter DeBoer and the Islanders' Scott Gordon—are onmaiden voyages, even as several accomplished NHL coaches remain out of ajob.

Beyond having success in the minors (or, in DeBoer'scase, juniors) the coaches' familiarity with the growing number of youngplayers on salary-capped rosters has appeal. When Boudreau took over inWashington, for example, he had eight players whom he'd coached before."When I hired John Anderson, I got a message from [Thrashers goalie] KariLehtonen, who was excited because he'd had success playing for him [in theminors]," says Atlanta G.M. Don Waddell. "Ten or 11 players that'll behere came through his teams. He's new to the league, but not to us."

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A Healthy Glow

BEFORE THE yellow virtual first-down line and thestrike-zone pitch tracker, there was the glowing hockey puck. Introduced in1996 to help viewers follow the action on NHL telecasts, the FoxTrax systemsuperimposed a blue glow on the puck, adding a neon-red comet tail on shotstraveling faster than 65 mph. Though ratings increased, traditionalistslambasted the technology, saying it looked like something out of a video gameand was more distraction than help. The glow puck was extinguished after twoseasons.

Now it's sneaking back in. During last season'sStanley Cup finals, NBC used a red-halo tracking system to highlight shots onreplays only; the network plans to bring it back next postseason. Versus, theNHL's full-season cable partner, will introduce a similar tracking technologyon replays (above)—especially to illuminate deflections and tip-ins—beginningwith its Oct. 9 Maple Leafs--Red Wings season opener.

There'll be no glow during live action, and puckswon't have computer chips embedded in them as in the 1990s. Those pucks werecostly to replace, and some players complained that they handled differentlythan regular ones. "Fox had the right idea, but the glow puck wasembryonic," says Marty Ehrlich, VP of production at Versus. "We'relooking to enhance the viewing experience, not disrupt it." Says Rangerscaptain Chris Drury, "I don't care if it's the corniest thing in the world,if it works and gets our ratings up and sells the game, then I'm all forit."

PHOTOPhotograph by Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDUCK! Anaheim's 178 fighting majors since the lockout—59 of them incurred by the always engaging Parros—lead the NHL.PHOTOELSA/GETTY IMAGES (COTE-THORNTON)SIX OF ONE Flyer Cote vs. Bruin Shawn Thornton; Duck May (24) vs. Blue Barret Jackman; Duck Brian Sutherby (in white) vs. Flame Mark Smith.PHOTOTOM GANNAM/AP (MAY-JACKMAN)[See caption above]PHOTOPATRICK PRICE/REUTERS (SUTHERBY-SMITH)[See caption above]PHOTOGENE J. PUSKAR/AP (TUCKER-RUUTU)HALF DOZEN OF ANOTHER Leaf Darcy Tucker vs. Penguin Jarkko Ruutu; Ranger Orr vs. Capital Brashear; Star Krys Barch vs. Canuck Jeff Cowan.PHOTOPABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/AP (ORR-BRASHEAR)[See caption above]PHOTOLYLE STAFFORD/REUTERS (BARCH-COWAN)[See caption above]PHOTODAVE SANDFORD/GETTY IMAGES (CROSBY)PHOTOIHA/ICON SMI (RICHARD)PHOTOCHARLES KRUPA/AP (CHARA)PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLA (STAMKOS)PHOTOCHRISTOPHER PASATIERI/US PRESSWIRE (CARCILLO)TODAY'S MAN Carcillo led Phoenix with 19 fights and chipped in 13 goals. He's one of several young pugilists with hockey skills.PHOTOMARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/AP (MCLELLAN)PHOTOGRAHAM HUGHES/AP (LARAQUE)CALL TO ARMS Montreal signed Laraque for security.PHOTOCOURTESY OF SPORTSMEDIA TECHNOLOGY CORPORATION (GLOW PUCK)