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Hockey? Call It Sockey
E.M. Swift
February 17, 1986
Hockey's designated hit men are making a travesty of the game. It's high time to get rid of all the goons
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February 17, 1986

Hockey? Call It Sockey

Hockey's designated hit men are making a travesty of the game. It's high time to get rid of all the goons

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THE GOON SQUAD

 

Games

Goals

Assists

Points

Penalties In Minutes

PIM Per Game

Fighting Penalties

Games Suspended

TORRIE ROBERTSON, HART.

53

10

23

33

267

5.04

32

0

JOEY KOCUR, DET.

36

4

3

7

244

6.78

27

3

TIGER WILLIAMS, L.A.

48

13

22

35

233

4.85

12

0

DAVE BROWN, PHILA.

50

6

4

10

227

4.54

20

3

TIM HUNTER, CALG.

41

5

5

10

206

5.02

17

0

BRIAN CURRAN, BOS.

43

2

5

7

192

4.47

12

1

CHRIS NILAN, MON.

47

10

10

20

189

4.02

21

8

BOB PROBERT, DET.

31

7

11

18

164

5.29

14

4

The melee erupted as most of them do—suddenly and not very spontaneously. No, there was method to this madness. Playing at home, the Calgary Flames had just scored to pull within a goal of the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday, Feb. 1 when, in the midst of the celebration, Calgary's Tim Hunter collared Edmonton's Paul Coffey from behind. Coffey you know: 1985 Norris Trophy winner as the NHL's best defenseman, leading vote-getter for last week's All-Star Game, third-leading scorer in the league this season. Hunter you may not be so familiar with—unless you read the box scores, where you can find him in the PENALTIES agate type. High-sticking, cross-checking, roughing, fighting—all that. In 41 games this season, the 6'2", 205-pound Hunter has five goals, five assists, 17 fighting penalties and a total of 206 penalty minutes. Anyway, the Flames and their fans are jumping up and down congratulating themselves and here's Hunter, gloves off, trying to figure out a way to put Coffey in a head-lock and level him with a punch at the same time (Hunter would later claim he was speared by Coffey). To the rescue comes the Oilers' Kevin McClelland, who tackles Hunter, and a hockey scrum ensues. The refs move in and—well, you've seen it many times.

"Goon hockey is back," says a voice in the press box. Media sensationalist? Pantywaist pacifist? Nope, the speaker is one of the four NHL supervisors of officials, and he is watching with a rueful grin. In a moment penalties are handed out by referee Bryan Lewis, and we learn why goon hockey is back. It works. Lewis gives both Coffey and Hunter five minutes for fighting—despite the fact that Coffey never threw a punch—and McClelland is thrown out of the game for being the third man into the fray. The instigator, Hunter, and his team have made out like bandits.

"Hunter starts that fight as a tactic," says Oiler coach Glen Sather after the game. "He's out there to get Coffey off the ice." And this time he got a bonus with McClelland's banishment.

A few minutes later the Oilers get a man advantage, but without Coffey to quarterback the power play from his point position, it fizzles. Calgary gains the momentum and scores the lone third-period goal to emerge with a 4-4 tie, ending a streak of six losses to the Oilers.

Afterward Edmonton's co-coach, John Muckler, is so angry that his nose is purple. "If that's what this game comes down to—taking the skills away from a guy by pushing his face in—then we're in the wrong business. You know how you get rid of that——? You send your guy out to get their guy first."

McClelland, who has 201 minutes in the penalty box this season, nods. "If they're going to go after our goal-scorers," he says, "we'll go after their goal-scorers. Fight fire with fire."

Oh, dear. Just when you thought it was safe to take the kids to an NHL game again—Goon hockey is back! An isolated incident? Hardly. Teams are fighting fire with fire throughout the league this year. The result? Through 515 games, major penalties have risen by 33% and minor penalties are up 19% compared with the same period last season. Overall, the average penalties in minutes has increased from 37.2 to 44.6 per game—and this despite the fact that NHL referees seem to call only one of five transgressions on the ice. That's 1.24 minutes in the box per skater per game. In 1952-53 Maurice Richard led the NHL with 112 penalty minutes in a 70-game season; that's no more than a couple of months' work for Joey Kocur, the Detroit Red Wings' rookie goon, who in 36 games this season has spent an incredible 244 minutes in the sin bin, an average of 6.78 per game. Kocur's pace is even quicker than former Flyer Dave Schultz's in 1974-75, when he was penalized a record 472 minutes, or 6.2 minutes a game. Fighting penalties, which were down slightly last season, were up a whopping 34% midway through the schedule. High-sticking was up 40%, roughing 32%. "There's been a substantial increase," admits NHL president John Ziegler, "but the pure statistics don't necessarily tell you whether it's an increase in fighting for fighting's sake or a stricter enforcement standard."

Come, come, John. Pure statistics be damned. The refereeing is generally atrocious, the worst in major pro sports; the one-referee system is clearly inadequate to police all the mayhem. And pure mayhem's what we're talking about. In January alone, Red Wing coach Brad Park was suspended for six games for ordering his players into a bench-clearing brawl against the Toronto Maple Leafs (Red Wing forward Bob Probert was suspended for four games for a head-butting incident in that fracas); and Jim Schoenfeld, then the Buffalo Sabres' coach, was fined $5,000 for heaving a water bottle at a referee. Talking about firing things at zebras...Minnesota North Star G.M. Lou Nanne was allowed to bring up defense-man Bill Stewart while Stewart was serving a three-game suspension in the American Hockey League for shooting a puck at an official.

"Intimidation is still a big factor in hockey," says Calgary G.M. Cliff Fletcher. "In fact it's probably the major factor. Every team likes to have one or two enforcers or designated hit men so that the rest of the team feels comfortable."

Designated hit men? Is this hockey? Or a gang war? Calgary has been feeling so comfortable this year that the Flames have gone from 17.5 penalty minutes a game to 28.5 minutes. "I've said before that if Edmonton's five best players are better than your five best," says Fletcher, whose team must play the Stanley Cup champs eight times each year before the playoffs, "then you'd better not get into a wide-open shootout with them."

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