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Twilight of the Goons
Kostya Kennedy
March 08, 1999
Hockey's hit men are getting squeezed out by guys who can play
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March 08, 1999

Twilight Of The Goons

Hockey's hit men are getting squeezed out by guys who can play

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Rocky Thompson is only 21, but he's old school, definitely old school. The long-haired, snaggle-toothed son of a pulp-mill worker, Thompson used the chops that made him a Saskatchewan Golden Gloves champ to win a spot on the Flames' roster last season. He played in only 12 games all year. After sparring last summer in a Calgary fight club and engaging in several on-ice bouts during the preseason, Thompson was spotted limping around the Flames' locker room before the season opener sporting a purplish forehead and a split upper lip. Asked to assess his hockey skills, he paused and said, "My skating is a weaker part of my game."

For all his bare-knuckle appeal, Thompson didn't get into a game before being sent to the minors in October—another reminder of how hard life is for good-hit, no-skate players in today's NHL. Thanks to a crackdown on brawling and an influx of finesse-oriented Europeans, the NHL's fights-per-game has dropped from 2.1 in 1987-88 to 1.2. Listen to Nick Fotiu, a former Police Athletic League boxing champ who bludgeoned his way through a 13-year NHL career that ended in '89. "The way hockey is now, guys can't just fight," says Fotiu, now a minor league coach. "They also have to be able to play."

Good teams, such as Ottawa and Philadelphia, an doing without a facebreaker year, and the Red Wings have atop their division without the Services of cudgeler Joe Kocur, who has been injured for almost half the season. In the 1980s the Wings built a team and an ad campaign around Kocur and fellow hit man Bob Probert: the Bruise Brothers. "They beat a lot of people up and helped sell a lot of tickets," says Detroit president Jim Devellano. "You couldn't market that today, which is good—we're not the WWF."

Fighters still roam the ice, from the Blues' Tony Twist to the Mighty Ducks' Stu Grimson. But these aging pulpers have few heirs apparent. When Thompson got a January call-up, he played just three games and had a fight in each one. In his last dustup Rocky was felled by a punch from the Sharks' Brantt Myhres—a semi-tough who rarely suits up—and suffered a concussion. Thompson says he'll return soon. We hope so, Rock. When you do, work on your skating.