The face of hockey has changed drastically over the past 30 years or so. Back in the “old-time hockey” days, it was commonplace for more fisticuffs to occur in a contest than actual goals. Each club had its own cast of cement-heads, wielding frontier justice at the bat of an eye with bare knuckles and sharp elbows. Most of these hooligans didn’t even need a stick out on the ice—unless it was to smack someone in the grill with.
Today’s NHL, the streamlined version of puck we know so well, is an entirely different beast, with speed and skill unrivaled in the history of the league. The current ruffians have to be able to pull double duty, not only administering doses of discipline to the opposition, but also playing solid defense and occasionally even lighting the lamp.
Thugs from yesteryear, like former Flyer Dave Brown, Bruin bashers Jay Miller and Lyndon Byers, and ex-Edmonton assassin Dave Semenko, simply couldn’t cut it in today’s climate. Those “players” were more familiar with putting on the foil than developing as all-around hockey players, because of the state of the game during their heyday. Flash-forward to the present crop of enforcers in the NHL, and you’ll find guys who not only mallet-mash with the fists, but also play proud claim to hockey skills. What used to be gravy for a team is now the norm: tough guys who can play a bit while they’re at it! The Bob Proberts and Rick Tocchets brought the NHL into its current era of double-tooled toughies back in the mid 1980s, and the game has continued to change much for the better since then. Ranger bad boys Sandy McCarthy and Matthew Barnaby, Capital crusher Chris Simon, and San Jose smacker Scott Thornton are all present-day players who entered the NHL primarily as grill-denters but have developed their overall skills.
McCarthy (145 penalty minutes, nine fights), once the king of the hill when it was time to dance, is now taking a regular shift for the Broadway Bombers and has produced some nice numbers (69 games, eight goals, 11 assists, including three game-winners). Barnaby (187 penalty minutes, 18 fights) has skated the same path, developing from fighter extraordinaire to a solid two-way player who doesn’t hurt his team out on the ice (64 games, six goals, six assists, one game-winner). Simon (125 penalty minutes, 11 fights) entered the NHL feared like no other when the gloves hit the ice, but he’s now one of the Caps’ top forwards and is very effective in the trenches on the power play (69 games, 13 goals, 10 assists). And the Sharks’ Thornton (103 penalty minutes, 11 fights) still fills the pugilist role when called upon, but he’s having a breakout season as a skill player (64 games, 20 goals, 10 assists, three game-winners). Although each of these scud-throwers has continued to dish it out when that magic moment arrives, it’s their elevated hockey skills that have opponents cringing every time they take to the ice.
Until next time, see ya in the sin bin!
More of this year’s best bouts:
February 12 Jeff Odgers (atl) vs. Bryce Salvador (stl)
A melee develops in front of the benches, and out come Odgers and Salvador, flailing away with the right hands. They tap each other’s melons with their fistic assaults, but then the zebras come in and break them up until another day.
February 26 Ryan Flinn (la) vs. Jody Shelley (clb)
As the lamp is lit, the leather is shed. A King goal takes second stage to the main event: these two rookie ruffians at center ice. Squared-off, they come together and go toe-to-toe for a bunch of shots. Then they grapple a bit and finally are separated as the crowd voices its approval.
February 28 Darren Langdon (car) vs. Dennis Bonvie (bos)
This battle royal features two rugged hombres who won’t take lose for an answer. They approach this one tactically, measuring each other and unloading their right hands when open. A marathon bout, it continues in the Bruin zone until they can’t raise their arms any longer and head to the box.
February 28 Reed Low (stl) vs. Robyn Regehr (cal)
The main attraction that emerges from a full-scale brawl ignited by a wicked hit on St. Louis superstar Doug Weight. Things seem calmed down until Low takes a poke at Regehr. Then the linesmen back away and let ’em go. The two big fellas get things going, each taking a turn ringing bells before ending their fistic encounter exhausted.
March 3 Bryan Marchment (sj) vs. Derian Hatcher (dal)
Hey, Marchment is a tough guy, but so is Hatcher. These two titans meet well behind the play—it’s not the first time they’ve faced off. Hatcher has the reach, but a game Marchment lets fly with a left, and a dance of arms ensues, ending up pretty even.
March 5 Cale Hulse (nas) vs. Owen Nolan (sj)
Nolan can throw the dukes when called upon, and Hulse finds that out the hard way. They collide behind the net, and it’s all the reason they need to shed the leather and get it on. Nolan dominates this encounter, landing with some solid lefts and rights to the dazed Hulse. A huge southpaw scud mushes Hulse’s beak, leaving him bloodied as they head for the penalty box.
March 8 Eric Cairns (nyi) vs. Jody Shelley (clb)
A tough rookie who has taken ’em all on this season, Shelley adds the Isles’ main hammer, Cairns, to his list. They think about it, raise their fists to the John L. Sullivan pose, and start throwing. Down the stretch, it’s right for right, with Cairns taking a slim decision as Shelley enters the sin bin leaking scarlet from the nose.
March 10 Wade Belak (tor) vs. Todd Fedoruk (phi)
A pair of tenderfoots from knuckle junction gets ’em up in Philly! The Flyer faithful love the rough stuff, and this fits the bill perfectly. Fedoruk drops the gloves at the blue line, and is obliged by a game Belak. Both men hit the target hard in this bout, a slight edge going to the Flyer gunner toting the big right hand.
March 10 Scott Thornton (sj) vs. Mike Brown (van) and Ed Jovanovski (van)
It’s the tail end of a home-and-home series, and the Canucks want some payback. Thornton roughed up Jovanovski late in the initial contest, and now has to answer the bell all night long in round two. He takes on Canuck knuckle-chucker Mike Brown in a pair of early preliminary bouts, then racks up the rare fighting hat-trick by settling things bare fisted-style with the aforementioned JovoCop.
March 12 Eric Cairns (nyi) vs. Rob Ray (buf)
Active with his digits lately, Cairns continues his parade of pugilism by inviting Sabre slugger Ray to dance. These two really throw the bombs, slugging away with accuracy and intent. Both grills get dented, and Cairns lands the last big shot of the fight as the game winds down.
March 13 Dallas Drake (stl) vs. Gary Suter (sj)
Not the likeliest of foes when you think of do-si-doin’, but they don’t disappoint in this scrap. The fracas starts thanks to a huge hit by Drake on Suter behind the net. They get up off the deck, shake out the cobwebs, then shake off the gloves. Drake gets the right hand a-wailin’, but Suter returns the favor with his own volley of punches. A pretty even dustup ends with Drake sporting a nasty gash under the eye, but a smile on his face. Now that’s hockey!