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A funny thing happened in the NHL the last month of the regular season: A case of old-school hockey broke out. The St. Louis Blues took a trip in the wayback machine to the days of the old “Chuck” Norris Division, shedding the mitts and renewing their rivalries with good old-fashioned donnybrook stylings against once fierce rivals in Detroit and Dallas. Back in the pre-Bettman days of the NHL, the Blues, Red Wings, and (then) Minnesota North Stars stood tall in the gritty world of hand-to-hand ice combat that was hockey reality. It was the era of message sending, a lost art in the “hockey as a product first” climate of today’s NHL. The balanced scheduling of the present-day NHL prevents teams from squaring off 12 times a season, as they used to when intra-division play was king. The present playoff structure seeds teams one through eight within each conference, unlike the old days, when seeding was done within each division, breeding contempt through familiarity. These were the factors that helped build the colorful rivalries that established the NHL as a kick-in-the-door-now, ask-questions-later brand of sport, before the league had its unique and lively personality ripped out. The Gary Bettman Era came along and sanitized the game, replacing such tradition-steeped division monikers as the Norris, Patrick, Smyth, and Adams with the bland and generic Northeast, Pacific, and Central, to name a few. Geographic location in a name does not encourage personality; it stifles tradition and results in mind-aching normalcy—I guess Mr. Bettman missed the memo in his ongoing attempt to bastardize Canada’s national game as a creation of our own in America. But in a recent adults-only stretch of play, the Blues nostalgically tap-danced on their opponents’ skulls and renewed some of those flickering feelings bred between only the most heated adversaries. Their March 23 game versus the Stars started and ended as a fight-filled affair that tallied 148 total penalty minutes, 10 fighting majors, three 10-minute misconducts, and three game misconducts. Only six days later, the Blues and Red Wings squared off in a Saturday-afternoon barn burner that started off high-pitched and ended up downright chaotic. Penalty-minute totals on the game read like they used to in the Carter administration: 239 total minutes of sin, 221 of which were racked up in the game’s final five minutes! Nine fighting majors, 10 misconducts, and six game misconducts came out of the fracas, which was capped off by a game-ending five-on-five melee involving everyone but the goaltenders.
Thanks to the Blues’ bashing down the stretch, fight fans got a taste of what might be when there’s nothing left to play for but pride.
Until next time, see ya in the Sin Bin!
More of the season’s best bouts:
March 4 Toronto vs. Ottawa
How about a brawl at the bench to liven things up? Leaf Darcy Tucker attacks Sen slugger Chris Neil, who was seated on the pine when the first shot was fired. The ensuing mass of humanity involves all but the ‘tenders. Tucker gets into it with Neil and then with Ottawa blue-liner Shane Hnidy before order can be restored. You know Don Cherry was on his feet for this one!
March 8 Alex Henry (WAS) vs. P.J. Stock (BOS)
The Boston faithful love P.J. and his heart of a lion, but Mr. Henry has something to say to the Beantown fans as well. These combatants don’t waste any time, going at it as the puck drops and wading into the fray face first. P.J. is game as always, but Henry is just too big and blows rain down on the Stockman’s melon, leaving the belligerent Bruin with a scarlet mask and sore beak to boot.
March 10 Darcy Hordichuk (FLA) vs. Dale Purinton (NYR) Two of the game’s toughest young guns come out packed and ready for action. They chat, then shed the leather before coming together and getting the haymakers going overtime. Purinton lands a salvo of punishment from the port side, but is then overwhelmed by the rights and lefts of Hordichuk, who earns the decision.
March 17 Arron Asham (NYI) vs. Matthew Barnaby (NYR) While the Rangers and Islanders have seen the kinder, gentler side of things of late (one fight all year head-to-head), Asham and Barnaby break off a little bit of old school in this one at the Garden. It’s toe-to-toe along the benches at first, but then Asham gets the upper hand and rains some melon-mashers down on Barnaby, who smiles throughout the assault. Victory to Asham as he dents dome on Barnaby until the zebras work them apart.
March 17 St. Louis vs. Dallas
Puck hits ice, gloves hit ice, fist hits face—that’s what occurs in D-town. The feature bout is a tag team affair pitting the Blues’ Dallas Drake and Bryce Salvador against the Stars’ Steve Ott and Phillipe Boucher. While Drake and Ott swing wildly at center ice, Salvador drags Boucher off the pile and gives his man a whipping with the mallets. Bring back the Norris Division!
March 29 Stephen Peat (WAS) vs.Wade Belak (TOR) Two big boys really get it rolling. Belak shakes his right hand loose for some shots, until Peat ties him up and gets the left working overtime, followed by a stinging right hand that gains the Cap crusher a clear-cut win.