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Why Good Teams FIGHT
MICHAEL FARBER
October 13, 2008
With hockey's dark art making a comeback, star players have to be protected. Call it insurance or self-defense, but clubs are muscling up with a new breed of tough guy
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October 13, 2008

Why Good Teams Fight

With hockey's dark art making a comeback, star players have to be protected. Call it insurance or self-defense, but clubs are muscling up with a new breed of tough guy

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"I told Babs that toughness is five guys clicking on the power play," Holland recalls. "That it's about four lines not backing off, about players going to the hard areas on the ice and winning battles."

But Detroit, as Lemaire says, "is different, special." The Red Wings are the exception to the fighting rule because, following a philosophy championed by Scotty Bowman when he coached there in the 1990s, they have drafted and developed a team that is a unique blend of high-end skill and two-way grit. There's no other NHL roster like theirs.

Yet even Detroit has wavered. Holland brought journeyman fighting specialist Aaron Downey to training camp in September 2007 following a discussion with star forward Henrik Zetterberg, who convinced the G.M. that the team was low on muscle. Downey had been a cipher at his previous stop in Montreal—he dressed for a total of 46 games in two seasons—but Babcock played him a career-high 56 games. When Colorado's Ian Laperri�re injured Norris Trophy defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom with a questionable hit last February, Downey fought the Avalanche pot-stirrer twice in the game. Says Babcock, "I thought Downey looked after that situation very well."

Downey, who had 10 of Detroit's 21 fights while averaging 4 1/2 minutes a game, never dressed in the playoffs, but he'll likely be a fixture again this regular season. The Red Wings also have Darren McCarty, a grinder and occasional fighter whom they repatriated late last season after he'd been out of hockey for a year. The Wings will remain the NHL's most reluctant pugilists this season, but they have to some degree joined the party. On the way to the Cup in 2007--08 Detroit fought five more times than it had in the previous two seasons combined.

Anaheim, Team Truculent, might have exacted a far heavier toll than Downey did on the Avalanche had some brazen opponent mussed one of their stars. Although Anaheim wins with fundamental hockey elements—excellent goaltending, franchise defensemen such as Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, superb young forwards such as Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry—its identity is almost cartoonish, like its former name and logo. G.M. Brian Burke can live with the stereotype. "You bring a toolbox into the arena for every game," Burke said. "There's lots of things in that toolbox: speed, goaltending, scorers, intimidation. If you make a team pay a physical price, many nights that's going to influence the outcome of a game."

With fourth-liners George Parros and Brad May eager to scrap (the NHL's favored euphemism for fighting), the Ducks' 2007 Cup campaign sometimes was perceived as a regression to the '70s Era of Bad Feelings. Actually the Ducks merely returned fighting to historical levels. In 1989--90, for example, 10 of 21 NHL teams had more than the league-high 71 fighting majors that Anaheim accumulated in its fractious championship season.

"We didn't do anything revolutionary," Burke says. "We were merely honoring the past, the way the game used to be played, at the highest skill level and intensity level. But I do think you're seeing teams getting bigger and meaner in part through our influence.... Look, we're charged with entertaining you. From the time the puck is dropped, that's what our team will do. That's done with goals, big saves, scoring chances, a big hit, a fight. I guarantee you—without the requisite level of hitting and fighting, we'd have empty buildings."

This is the NHL's dirty secret. Many editorialists may hate fighting, but fans of a league that relies heavily on its gate revenue seem quite content to extract a brawl for their ticket price. Consider that in a sophisticated, standing-room-only hockey market such as Minnesota, four-minute-per-game Derek Boogaard's jersey outsells every other Wild player's except franchise star Marian Gaborik's. Says Penguins G.M. Ray Shero, whose father Fred coached Philadelphia's Broad Street Bullies in the '70s, "The two things that get people to their feet are the anticipation of a fight and the anticipation of a shootout. For many of our fans, these might be the two most exciting things in the game, too."

WITH THE Sharks leading 3--0 less than 13 minutes into Game 3 of a first-round playoff series against Calgary last April, Patrick Marleau was lugging the puck head-down along the boards in his own zone when Flames defenseman Cory Sarich vaporized the San Jose captain. There was much milling after the seismic hit, but other than Matt Carle's shove of Sarich, the Sharks had no significant response. Carle was assessed a roughing minor, and Calgary scored on the ensuing power play, starting a comeback that would end in a 4--3 Flames home ice win. As Barry Melrose, then an ESPN analyst, watched in the studio, he concluded that the absence of a fight had been a momentum changer. "If San Jose had jumped in and fought," Melrose says, "I think the message would have gotten through to Calgary. The Flames wouldn't have won that game."

Not surprisingly the gloves are off this season in Tampa Bay, where Melrose has Koci, Ryan Malone (nine fights in 2007--08) and Shane O'Brien (20 over the past two seasons) to ward off anyone who even looks cross-eyed at prized rookie Steven Stamkos. Melrose, who hails from an area of Saskatchewan that produced fabled punchers Joey Kocur, Kelly Chase and other tough guys, adores enforcers for their willingness to protect teammates and the team logo. For Melrose, a fight can be a wake-up call for a sluggish club, a warning of dire consequences to an opposing player who is running amok, simple retaliation or sheer intimidation.

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