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Martin Lapointe was not being a stand-up guy. On this night in the mid-1990s, the Red Wings right wing would not fight, would not answer the bell for running Chris Pronger, the Blues' star defenseman. This irked Tony Twist, the St. Louis enforcer, very much.
"So I drop my gloves, but Lapointe turtles—he won't fight me. And he comes by the bench and starts laughing. Very next shift, [my coach] sends me out there, and who's on the ice? Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov—all their best skill guys—and [tough guy] Joey Kocur.
"Joey looks at me; he goes, 'So what's up?' I said, 'Well, as soon as the puck drops, I'm gonna two-hand Yzerman.'
"Joey says, 'You can't do that.' I said, 'Joey, you know the job. I'm gonna two-hand him first; then you and I'll get busy.' I two-hand Yzerman, he goes down, Joe drops his gloves, I drop my gloves, the linesmen get in there, they break it up. We go to the penalty box together, and we've both got smiles on our faces.
"He said, 'What was that all about?' I said, 'You tell that mother------ [Lapointe], if he does that to Pronger again, I'll break Yzerman's f------ ankle, and then you and I can fight after. But if you'd rather not have that, you can go over there and tell Lapointe to cool it, and we won't have any problems.'
"So the rest of the game, where do you find Lapointe? Well, he's not out there running around anymore. He wants to make sure Stevie Y's O.K. So, I mean, that's the purest form of what we were trying to accomplish. Letting the best players play the game, allowing them the room to perform the way they can. That's what people are paying to see, right?"
That was then. A clash of titans on the scale of Twist vs. Kocur is now a thing of the past when these former (Chuck) Norris Division foes face off. Twist has no heir apparent on the current St. Louis roster. While the Blues embrace an ethos of "team toughness," as director of player personnel Dave Taylor put it in the preseason, "we don't have a pure fighter in our lineup right now. With the direction the game is going, I think that [player] is going to be a dying breed."
And while a handful of Red Wings can hold their own in a donnybrook—Justin Abdelkader, Todd Bertuzzi, Mike Commodore, Brad Stuart—"we prefer to play hockey," says Detroit G.M. Ken Holland, who notes that a superb power play, such as the one his club puts on the ice (fifth in the NHL in 2010--11), can be as effective a deterrent as Kocur and the legendary Bob Probert once were.
Between the influx of European players, rules changes and the stiffness of recent suspensions, "I just think you have to have more skill today," says Holland. By all means, stock your roster with a few enforcers. But those tough guys "have to be able to receive a pass, get up and down the ice, play a regular shift." Yes, Holland seeks "that sandpaper element" in his fourth-line forwards. "But we like those guys to have the potential to make plays and score goals too."
Like Taylor, Jack Ferreira believes the fighting specialist, the pure goon, is "a dinosaur" in today's NHL. Ferreira is the special assistant to Kings G.M. Dean Lombardi and is now in his fifth decade in pro hockey. In the next breath he expresses the belief that fighting isn't going anywhere. It remains an effective, efficient way of policing the game, he says. Also, too many people like it. "In all my time around this sport," he says, "I've never seen anyone get up and go to the concession stand during a fight."