Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Examining The Code - Part One

For as long as there has been hockey, fighting has been a part of it. The game is emotional, high-tempo, and physical - three key ingredients to promoting aggressiveness and potential fisticuffs. The entire problem with fighting in hockey is that there are no written rules explaining what is acceptable and what is not during an encounter between two players. Players cite the rules of "the code", but what is this code and where can one find the rules of said "code"? Why do some players get hurt while others never get hurt their entire careers? What happened to Don Sanderson is absolutely tragic, and there needs to be an examination of fighting in hockey. But to ban it outright could prove even more harmful. Today, I want to embark down the path of the long look at fighting in hockey, and what changes need to be done in order to restore order to the game of hockey.

It's clear that the players have no interest in removing fighting from hockey. Even the stars think that fighting is a part of hockey as much as sticks and pucks are.

"I'm a traditionalist when it comes to hockey," San Jose Sharks centre Joe Thornton said to TSN while in Montreal during the all-star break. "Fighting's been around since day one. I think it would be a shame to take it out of the game. It's part of hockey, like tying up your laces or shooting the puck. It's been part of hockey for a long, long time."

There has been talk of banning fighting in all hockey since Sanderson's death, and that sentiment gained momentum earlier this week when Garrett Klotz of the AHL's Philadelphia Phantoms went into a seizure after a fight last week. Here's the video of the event.

While the incident is scary, there are some other incidents that shouldn't be overlooked either. Klotz's career could have come to an end had he suffered a serious injury during that fight, and that's always on a fighter's mind. Nick Kypreos of the New York Rangers saw his career come to an end due to a fight.

I'm not encouraging fighting in hockey after seeing these two clips, but there is a strong precedence set in hockey that fighting actually works to police the game.

Everyone looks at the 1970s as being one of the toughest eras in hockey thanks to the Broad Street Bullies. The Flyers in the late 1970s won games by sheer intimidation. The "Flyers flu" was a common excuse for players who suddenly came down with an unexplained injury upon their arrival in Philadelphia to play the feared Flyers. Of course, Philadelphia won the Stanley Cup 1974 and 1975, proving that tough-as-nails hockey works.

There was an influx of skill into the NHL after the league expanded and absorbed the WHA, but there was also some dirty play, prompting teams to protect their stars. As hard as it is to believe, the number of fighting majors per game was at its highest in the 1980s. Ironically, goal-scoring in the 1980s also was at its highest level ever in the NHL. Traditionalists will say that it was due to expansion, but the WHA teams weren't expansion teams. The NHL absorbed the four most successful WHA teams, so there's no reason to think that these new teams were filled with grinders and role players.

Do you really think that the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s were as good as they were without Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley? Make no mistake that Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, and Paul Coffey were the engine that drove that dynasty. But for every goal that Kurri and Gretzky scored, Semenko and McSorley were there to make sure no one stopped the engine from doing what they did best.

If anyone even glared at Gretzky, there was a lineup of guys looking to take someone's head off. And they weren't the only team that had at least one tough guy at that time. Calgary, the Oilers' main threat to their legacy, had Tim Hunter and Neil Sheehy to protect Nieuwendyk and Fleury. Dave Brown patrolled the ice for Philadelphia when it came to someone taking a shot at Brian Propp or Tim Kerr. Chris Nilan looked after the Canadiens. There were lots of guys who played in the NHL for one reason: they were tough.

The best example of how important tough guys are comes from the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. In 1997-98, the Mighty Ducks missed the playoffs largely due to the fact that both Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne were hurt for most of the season after being taken out by opposing players. Kariya was viciously cross-checked by Blackhawks' defenceman Gary Suter in the face after scoring a goal, resulting in a serious concussion.

As a result of the injuries to their stars, the Mighty Ducks went out and acquired Stu Grimson in the off-season. Grimson, known as "The Grim Reaper" in hockey circles, was a feared enforcer, and he was employed for one reason: you don't touch Kariya or Selanne... or else. The following season, Kariya and Selanne ended up second and third in league scoring, and the Mighty Ducks made the playoffs.

Coincidence? Maybe, but there's more.

Stanley Cup winners are normally thought to be the most-skilled team in the league. There's no question that there is an immense amount of skill on those teams, but there's also that one player who makes everyone else think twice about doing any harm to star players. These guys are the heavyweights and middleweights who will throw the gloves off to right a wrong done to their team. Check out the list of Stanley Cup winners and the number of players over 100 penalty minutes.

1981 - New York Islanders: 5 players with 100+ PIMs.
1982 - New York Islanders: 3 players with 100+ PIMs.
1983 - New York Islanders: 2 players with 100+ PIMs.
1984 - Edmonton Oilers: 7 players with 100+ PIMs.
1985 - Edmonton Oilers: 1 player with 200+ PIMs; 5 with 100+.
1986 - Montreal Canadiens: 1 players with 200+ PIMs; 1 with 100+.
1987 - Edmonton Oilers: 1 player with 200+ PIMS; 4 with 100+.
1988 - Edmonton Oilers: 4 players with 200+ PIMs; 2 with 100+.
1989 - Calgary Flames: 1 with 300+ PIMs; 3 with 200+; 4 with 100+.
1990 - Edmonton Oilers: 8 players with 100+ PIMs.
1991 - Pittsburgh Penguins: 4 players with 100+ PIMs.
1992 - Pittsburgh Penguins: 2 players with 200+ PIMs; 4 with 100+.
1993 - Montreal Canadiens: 1 player with 200+ PIMs; 3 with 100+.
1994 - New York Rangers: 7 players with 100+ PIMs.
1995 - New Jersey Devils: 5 players with 100+ PIMs.*
1996 - Colorado Avalanche: 1 player with 200+ PIMs; 3 with 100+.
* = projected results due to shortened season.

Now, it's interesting to see that over those 15 years, each Stanley Cup winning team - with the exception of 1982, 1983, and 1986 - had at least four players with more than 100 penalty minutes. Ironically, the teams that were most successful during the regular seasons rang up a ton of penalty minutes.

In 1992, the NHL introduced the instigator rule that, essentially, allowed for a lot more players to earn jobs as "grinding fourth-liners". These players would typically be thrown out against an opposition's skilled line, and would freely take liberties with the stars. Enforcers couldn't step in to police the game as they risked making their team shorthanded with the instigator penalty. So guys like Gary Suter above could deliver all the Sherwood sandwiches he liked with no repercussions.

If you notice, the only team to have more than five players with more than 700 minutes in penalties after 1992 was the 1994 New York Rangers team. Since then? No Stanley Cup winning team has even come close to the penalty minutes seen from the 1980s. In fact, last year's Red Wings team only had 937 PIMs total. In 1989, Calgary had 8 players with more than 1000 PIMs combined.

So what does this all mean? Well, the game has seen the skill level improve from the latest wave of expansion, so the on-ice product is improving. However, the number of injuries to NHL stars has also gone up steadily as players no longer have to answer for their actions. The "code" used to provide for an enforcer to step in and rectify a situation where a player disrespects another player, team, or the game itself.

Now? Not so much. Instead, the guys who used to police the game and keep the scorers safe are all but extinct. The NHL needs enforcers. They aren't just hulking neanderthals on the ice, looking for blood and violence.

They were the guys who kept the game clean. They were the guys who rectified situations like the Gary Suter cross-check on Paul Kariya. They were the guys who knew "the code" - the unwritten rules passed down amongst hockey players about what is right and what is wrong. And they were the guys who enforced the code to the full extent of the unwritten law.

Are enforcers important for the game of hockey? Undoubtedly.
Do they do good? Absolutely.
How do we fix the problem? Big question.

Tomorrow, I will look at "the code" itself. One cannot fix the problem if one does not know "the code". With the examination of the code, I'll provide some additional examples as I did above so everyone can see how the code is maintained and respected.

Just as Marines have a code that they adhere to and live by, NHL enforcers do as well. And their code means just as much as that of the Marines. Especially when lives and livelihoods are on the line.

Until tomorrow, keep your sticks on the ice!


Unknown said...

I'm still on the fence about whether or not I think fights should still be a part of hockey but I did want to make one comment. You stated, "They were the guys who kept the game clean. They were the guys who rectified situations like the Gary Suter cross-check on Paul Kariya." But I have to say that the same could be said for better officiating, stiffer penalties and fines. If a vicious crosscheck such as one you referenced was punished by a multiple game suspension and a fine to the team, I can guarantee that player wouldn't be seeing the ice very much or would at least think about the consequences of his actions. Even with fighting, this guy who does the corss-checking is still going to be back in the game in a few minutes after serving a penalty for fighting whichever enforcer takes him on. It just seems to me that if you genuinely want the cheap shots out of the game, get rid of the players committing the acts instead of having them stick around in the hopes that you can pop them one in the nose.
But I will agree that the instigator penalty is a bad idea and indeed limits the enforcer's ability to intimidate.
Love the blog and look forward to the rest of your articles about "the code" because i think it is a really interesting topic for discussion especially in today's era of hulking men of muscle and agility.

Eric said...

"In fact, last year's Red Wings team only had 937 PIMs total"

That's particularly disturbing considering nowadays 6 PIM a game are for those questionable hooking and holding calls that a causing every game to be decided on the powerplay.

On the topic of enforcers:
I largely connect the 1990's decline of the enforcer to the influx of european talent that come from areas of the world that fighting isn't part of the game. I feel this created just enough of an increase in the league's skill level that your prototypical 4th line heaveyweight no longer keep a roster spot. I would be interested to see a plot over time of percentage of Europeans on rosters alongside of yearly fighting majors.

It's good to see that your views of traditional hockey are right on par with your love of the aesthetics of the game, Teebz.

Daniel said...

To me, fighting is a risk that people can chose to take if they want to. If two guys square off and are willing to throw punches, then they're assuming the risk of possible injury, and that's their business. There are a lot of other ways to get hurt in hockey. For example, guys can get seriously injured blocking shots, but if they chose to do it, then that's their business.

One thing that bothers me about the anti-fighting crowd is when they make the point that hockey is the only sport that tacitly approves of fisticuffs (as opposed to, say, basketball, where throwing a punch will get you suspended). They try to make it seem like hockey is unusually violent for allowing fighting. But to me, throwing punches isn't any more violent than grabbing a guy and throwing him to the ground... and that happens on every play in football. So I don't really see what the big deal is.