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Tough time for goons

Limited skill makes for limited role makes for mayhem

Posted: Monday October 15, 2007 12:08PM; Updated: Monday October 15, 2007 5:06PM
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Chris Simon brings more than knuckles to the ice. He was +17 last season and scored 29 goals for the Capitals in 1999-00.
Chris Simon brings more than knuckles to the ice. He was +17 last season and scored 29 goals for the Capitals in 1999-00.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
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Chris Simon returned to NHL action after serving a 20-game suspension at the same time that Jesse Boulerice began his 25-game sentence for a similar stick-to-the-head fit of rage. There's no linkage between the two incidents -- or with Steve Downie's reckless renegade run at Dean McAmmond (a 20-game violation) -- but it does make you wonder about the role of the tough guy in today's game.

In days gone by, one team's enforcer would engage the other team's designated hitter and the code was to oblige. More and more though, the challenges that once meant an immediate throw-down now garner a dismissive shrug. So what's a roughneck "role player" to do except try to redefine his role?

To that end, some have made the transition from baiter to skater and proved valuable forecheckers who can score a bit. Check out Chris Neil in Ottawa and Sean Avery in New York. Even Simon made the switch from one-dimensional puncher to tough guy who could also take a regular shift.

And maybe that's the difference. From the late John Ferguson to Tie Domi; from Tiger Williams to Rob Ray, and from Dave Schultz to Bob Probert, guys who got into the league because of their fists stayed in the league because they proved to be more than simply pugilists. But they were all part of a group that understood what they had to do and, in a way, supported one another by never backing down from a situation or a calling-out. In so doing they perpetuated the need for a deterring presence. By default, more so than by design, that led to them getting more shifts than today's emerging gunslingers typically receive.

Brian McGrattan in Ottawa, Derek Boogaard in Minnesota and Andrew Peters in Buffalo hardly hit the ice -- all got under five minutes per game last season -- and when they do, they have a need to live up to their pre-ordained legacy. But the most common response is that opposing teams would rather have them play -- to take advantage of their limited skill level. So, without a mission, today's toughs ride the bench more and can't get the ice time they need to get better in a regular-shift scenario. They're trapped in a recurring loop: Fewer fight challenges means less of an original role, which leads to limited opportunities to get more ice-time to provide a physical presence, which leads to...

What? Fits of rage? Frustration? Head shots? Stick-swinging? The Darwinian demise of fistic forwards slowly breeding the true hockey toughs right out of the game?

Maybe. But be careful what you wish for. The new breed of enforcers may end up being puck-optional punishers like Ryan Hollweg and Jordan Tootoo -- guys who fly around the ice looking to hurt unsuspecting players by leveling a slightly late, often high and always malicious body blow. Downie's hit was exactly that, but he also made contact with McAmmond's head, leaving him concussed, and thus the long suspension.

Fighting as a means of self-policing is a traditional part of the league's culture. And forget hockey's heritage for a minute and look at society as a whole, or at least that coveted 18-34 male TV audience. It's not roller derby that's all the rage -- and these "fearsome forecheckers" that roam unenforced make the game look at times like roller-derby on Red Bull -- it is mixed martial arts, or Ultimate Fighting. The NHL was all that and much, much more when the role of the enforcer was clear and unfettered by penalties for instigating.

The Week Ahead

This week's action has numerous highlights -- a couple of which pit playoff adversaries from last spring against one another.

Monday: The Red Wings visit the Ducks as part of their first foray to the West Coast. The Ducks beat the Wings in the Western Conference finals in May and former Wings' defenseman Mathieu Schneider signed with Anaheim in the off-season. He won't face his old team, however, as he is still out with a broken ankle suffered during training camp. Thanks to a rarity -- Sunday-Monday back-to-backs -- both teams are coming off games. The soaring 4-1-1 Wings prevailed over the Kings, 4-1, while the 2-4-1 Ducks -- still trying to catch their breath after opening the season with a five-game road trip that began in London -- fell on home ice to the unbeaten Wild, 2-0.

Thursday: The Rangers travel to Atlanta. In a first-round matchup in April, the Rangers swept the Thrashers, spoiling their first-ever playoff appearance. The Thrashers have yet to win this season and visit Philly on Tuesday. If they can't get their first win there, they will have to try to break through against the team that started all their losing six months ago.

Saturday: This season's first meeting between Sid the Kid and Alexander the Great. Crosby's Penguins take on Ovechkin's Capitals in Washington. Unlike when the pair broke in together in the fall of 2005, both now play on improved teams. The Pens have lofty expectations come playoff time while the Caps hope to have improved enough to make the postseason derby. Either way, catching Crosby and Ovechkin on the ice in the same game is always worth it.