Thursday, 29 January 2009

Examining The Code - Part Three

Throughout the annals of history in the NHL, there have always been the names of warriors who stand out above the rest: Bob Probert, Marty McSorley, Joey Kocur, Tim Hunter, Georges Laraque, Dave Semenko, Andre "Moose" Dupont, Dave "The Hammer" Schultz, Dave "Tiger" Williams, Tie Domi, and many others. These are the guys who policed the game - the guys who opened up space for the stars - by standing there and saying "no one will hurt you, not on my watch". But with the game evolving into a more skilled, less physical game thanks to rule changes, is the enforcer a dying breed of player? Is there any need for a guy who simply brings his fists to the game? Part Three looks at whether or not the enforcer is going extinct in the NHL in this final examination of "the code".

I first got the idea of writing about "the code" from two sources: a book that will be featured in Teebz's Book Club tomorrow, and Georges Laraque. Laraque had a column that on, and he routinely weighed in on topics of debate in hockey. As a player's perspective, Laraque routinely brought forth a good view. His most recent article, published on January 5, 2009, spoke volumes about fighting in hockey.

Laraque writes, "Fighting has changed a lot over the years. A lot of guys are lucky they weren't in the league 15 years ago. In those days, everyone was tough, everyone fought, and everyone was held accountable. Now, there's no policing, players are getting slashed in the face, guys are getting elbowed and hit in the head, and more and more guys are getting hit from behind."

For the most part, fighting and being an enforcer is a roster spot rarely open on an NHL roster today. Shane O'Brien of the Vancouver Canucks leads the league in PIMs this season with 132, but he's hardly considered a heavyweight by the standard seen in the 1980s. The next two players are David Backes of the St. Louis Blues and Daniel Carcillo of the Phoenix Coyotes. Both players have spent 123 minutes in the sin bin thus far, and neither would be considered a top prize fighter. Eric Godard is the first true enforcer to appear, and he sits fourth with 116 PIMs.

This trend can be traced back to a few things. First, the instigator rule simply shackles the enforcer to the bench. Coaches can't send out a tough guy to swing momentum with a fight at the risk of having his team penalized for instigating. Winning still pays the bills, and losing because of an instigator penalty is both selfish and stupid.

Secondly, there is an increasing international flavour in the NHL. International hockey has banned fighting outright, so Europeans and Russians rarely worry about fighting. The NCAA has also banned fighting, so American collegiate players never have to worry about dropping the gloves either. While this allows for a more skilled game to be developed, there is also the possibility of bad habits and dirty play being taught since no one has to answer for an indiscretion.

Laraque writes, "[I]t's a real joke now how guys are turning their back to checks. For a physical player, it makes the job harder because you always have to be ready to stop in case the player turns his back to you. It's a joke how some players turn around at the last moment to draw a penalty. In the past, nobody turned and if you did, too bad. But hitting from behind wasn't a problem then. Guys were always ready, so there's simple way to fix it by taking away the instigator rule."

Laraque may be right about removing the instigator rule. Players today get away with crimes on the ice that would have seen donnybrooks in the past. Yet players can't respond with the instigator rule hanging over the game. While I would never condone a line brawl or bench-clearing brawl, I do expect that players will play the game honourably and with respect for the game itself, his opponents, his team, and and himself. By turning your back at the last second, you've disrespected everything listed above in one move.

Laraque writes, "[W]e can talk about how last summer, all the tough guys were signed quite quickly and before any other player, other than the obvious nine or 10 megastars. Who is the first player Pittsburgh signed this summer? Eric Goddard [sic], three-year contract, figure it out. As much as you need a fighter, a good one that can play is hard to find and the teams that have them won't let them go".

When you have three or four superstars on your team, you want to protect your investment. This is the same reason that movie stars employ bodyguards: you do not harm the stars under any circumstance. For Pittsburgh, signing Godard was a shrewd move as Crosby and Malkin are more valuable on the ice scoring than in the box serving penalties for defending themselves.

If you look at the top two teams in the NHL right now, San Jose has Jody Shelley on the bench to protect Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Devin Setoguchi, and Dan Boyle. Boston is playing tough-as-nails hockey with Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, and Shawn Thornton looking out for Marc Savard, Phil Kessel, and David Krejci. Detroit is carrying Darren McCarty again this year, and has recalled Aaron Downey on occasion to add some toughness. New Jersey has David Clarkson and Michael Rupp out there to look out for the Devils' scorers.

Does the enforcer still have a role to play? My answer is yes based upon the success of San Jose and Boston this year. However, the enforcer is no longer just a guy who will chuck knuckles once per game. The enforcer has to be a regular part of the team now, chipping in the odd goal here and there in order for the coach to find room on his roster for the enforcer. As Laraque writes, "I take more pride in the 53 playoff games that I have played; for a tough guy to have played that many games in the post-season shows how much more than a one-dimensional player I became". And it shows that if an enforcer can add some scoring to his resumé along with the other intangibles he brings, he's worth more to his team than they know.

According to Laraque, "The toughest guy in the East is Donald Brashear, hands down. He's the king and has been for years. Pound for pound the toughest guys are Riley Cote and Chris Neil. And in the West, the toughest guy is Derek Boogaard and the toughest pound for pound is hands down Cam Janssen." Without doubt, those are some of the toughest hombres to ever lace up the skates in the NHL.

I hope you've enjoyed this small look at "the code", and how it affects the game, the players, and each shift in the NHL. Again, the code is an evolving system that changes with the situations presented. Tomorrow, I am proud to present a book that I believe should be read by everyone involved in hockey. While I'm sure that most owners will have never read the book, it should be part of the owner's handbook when someone buys a team.

Until tomorrow, keep your sticks on the ice!

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