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Gone goons

NHL's beloved, colorful pugilists a vanishing breed

Posted: Wednesday September 27, 2006 11:45AM; Updated: Monday December 4, 2006 1:10PM
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Staunch hockey fan John Ondrasik has mixed feelings about players mixing it up.
Staunch hockey fan John Ondrasik has mixed feelings about players mixing it up.
Courtesy of Sony/BMG

I named my band after a hockey fight. Of course, that was more than 10 years ago -- the Golden Age.

You remember the names ... or at least the nicknames: Rob Ray, Shane Churla, The Twister, The Grim Reaper.

Every team had one, and on their respective slabs of ice these men were kings. They were more adored and despised than any Great One, Super Mario or Dominator perched between the pipes.

My defining moment came hours after a Marty McSorley vs. Bob Probert classic, when a record-company president asked me to forsake my birth name for a band name. (Singer/songwriters were the kiss of death, he poked.)

So came Five for Fighting. But that was then. Where has the goon gone?

It's no secret that fighting in the NHL has been on the decline. Games with punches tossed in anger dropped from 41 percent in 2003-04 to 29 percent last season. Total fights dropped from 789 to 466.

We in Los Angeles are a bit sheltered to this reality with Sean Avery on the Kings' roster. And to be clear, Tie (thanks for the memories) Domi, Matthew Barnaby and Donald Brashear were dropping gloves last season as they were in 1996. Truth is, more than 260 NHL players got into at least one fight in 2005-06. But fighting is fading out of hockey, fading fast. Is this a good thing? Is it long overdue? It depends who you ask.

This guy with the halo sitting on my right shoulder thinks so. He has to deal with his five-year-old son on game night.

"Daddy, why are those players hitting each other?"

"Uhh, they're just playing, Johnny. It's not real."

"I thought fighting was bad."

"It is, son. But this is different."

"Why, Dad?"

"Uhh. Come on, I'll buy you another puck."

Fight night: Sean Avery of the Kings crowns another opponent.
Fight night: Sean Avery of the Kings crowns another opponent.
Noah Graham/Getty Images

But the guy with the pointed tail perched on my broken left collarbone is steamed. He's the imp who gets caught up in the buzz when the coach sends his rough boy out to dance. He lives for, and through, a gladiator with an honor code who erases the pain of a bad game, allows a temporary respite from another losing season, or rips us away, if only for a minute, from the inevitable screws of life.

And while we're at it, for some, that goon thing was a bum rap. Many of these heavies could play. Most were among the most articulate individuals the league had to offer. They were labor reps turned commentators, tireless leaders in charity and team outreach, and always, for what it's worth, the recipient of the most popular player award.

As for the Dave Semenko argument for fighting in the NHL, we all know it, we've all regurgitated it. As for the saloon brawls of the '70s and the Bertuzzisms of late, they have no place in any game or society. And to be clear, I am not a "fight fan." The last sanctioned match I watched had a couple of guys named Hearns and Hagler participating. I wouldn't know the UFC from a UFO.

Still, it's a different ride to the rink than it was back in the day. The day when you opened the schedule to see when Marty and Bob would hook up, looked forward to a Twister tearing through town, and laid out some cash to see the Grim Reaper get his due.

Does the NHL need fighting? No. The new rules help. The salary cap curtails it. And, I know, they rarely fight in the playoffs. So officially, I'll take the Gretzky position. I won't be telling my son stories from the Golden Age. But don't ask me to change the name of my band to Two for Roughing.

Musician John Ondrasik is the creative force and voice of the platinum award-winning band Five for Fighting. His SI.com column will appear during the third week of each month during the NHL season.