A large market of fans still believe a fighter is warranted on every team. Players past and present, known for their grit and anger, checked their way into NHL contracts. With the current state of the National Hockey League moving to a much faster pace, demanding more scoring, our beloved energetic tough guys have been found at the bottom of their respective teams lineup. Some times they’re found in the AHL, known for its brutality, or worse, they’re out of a contract. We can all agree fighters are needed in lower levels, such as juniors and even the AHL, to protect the young developing stars. The OHL itself is widely known for producing big hit highlights on a nightly basis. Is their place in the much faster, more skill dominant, NHL needed? While the role of grinder has changed dramatically since the formation of the term in the early days of hockey, what does it take to bring the intensity of Tanner Glass and the scoring ability of Claude Giroux?
In a game built around pleasing the fans, we find ourselves constantly adapting to trend. For any successful business, adaptation is a necessity. That’s exactly what professional sports are, a business. We, as fans, find it hard to view our favorite players as what they are, employees. Watching your all-star caliber center get traded to a struggling team desperate to rebuild their roster to former glory is never an easy pill to swallow. The same goes for the style of play we created by popular demand. The National Hockey League, as an intelligent business conglomerate, adapted to the fans calling for more scoring. The adaptation to more scoring pushed out the need for hard working gritty players to make room for the smooth hands of the scoring talents like Patrick Kane. Teams now worried much less about hitting the other team if they could skate around them. Players in the like of John Scott never stood a chance, to no fault of his own, when the amount of stars on a roster changed from a few per team to the entire roster. Being traded several times to teams feeling a change was needed in the form of intense physicality, makes for a difficult off ice lifestyle. The unimaginable impact your family faces when you’re enjoying life on the west coast then suddenly find yourself on the raw end of a trade that lands you in east of Canada. What do you tell your daughter, barely old enough to understand what you do for work, when you have to pack up and leave?
How do you explain to that same little girl, who looks up to you as her hero, that daddy’s job is to let himself get hurt so others on his team don’t have to. In a role originally made out of noble intentions, tough guys sustain serious injuries. Concussions are a constant reminder of the nasty nature of hockey. Often those same injuries end careers, be it their own career or the career of the player they’re put on the ice to hurt. Let’s be honest, targeting happens. It’s an unfortunate part of the game, but there’s no denying that it exists. However, in recent years, the NHL has made attempts to change the behaviors around injuries. New rules added, from league reviews of hits deemed dirty to fines and suspensions to those players and teams that are repeat offenders. In hopes to lower injury risk to high valued players, enforcers became obsolete.
Every fan wants to watch their leading scorer do his damage and break records, but that can’t happen if they’re getting hurt. Natural born stars are an investment. Companies and brands surrounding the NHL, like say CCM, give endorsements to talented players. They’re investing in that player for years to come in hopes of bringing in new business. By flashing the goal lamp every game in their brand’s best gear creates its own advertisement. Every kid wants to skate like McDavid, so why not go out and buy the very same skates he wears? Buying his skates will make me faster, won’t it?
As a fact, sports are a business, and having your star get hurt by a known enforcer is bad for business. All the new protocols surrounding injuries in the NHL legally eliminated the tough guy position as well. Fines and suspensions falling so often create an anti hitting atmosphere. Most young players arriving in the league during the past five years or so have little to no fighting experience. Young guns, like Eichel, coming from college are arriving from leagues where fighting isn’t permitted. The hard hitting culture the sport thrived on is systematically being phased out.
The question remains, are tough guys still welcome in the NHL? We can all argue against them, but what can be said for them? Perhaps the biggest reason to keep a guy like Tanner Glass skating for your club would be the playoffs. Arguably one of the best spectical in sports is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Unlike any other time of the season, the playoffs call for grit justifiably as much as talent. The intensity that follows momentum to win four games against the same team is contagious. The fire within starts by watching other teammates lay it all on the line for his brothers. You need the strong presence to clear the net, to win the battles in the corner, to drive the hunger through all four lines of players. Some times talent just isn’t enough to carry it all. You can be the most skilled player and steal a game during the regular season, but it takes a team to do win four times against one team in a series of seven.
On a team filled with first round draft picks, the Edmonton Oilers found themselves lacking the ability to stay in games against hard hitting teams. Hitting will always be part of the game, as limited as it may be. Young teams like Toronto and Edmonton need to bring the physicality of old style hockey to protect young stars and create space. Pressure on the forecheck is amplified by physical play, thus creating open spaces and inaccurate passes. Each coaches style of play is different, of course. When coaching the Detroit Red Wings, Mike Babcock always had big hitters like Nick Krownwall to fall back on when a momentum swing was needed. Kronwall’s staple was his ability to put fear in the eyes of forwards leaving the defensive zone. But the difference between a hard hitter and a tough guy is a hard hitter can still generate offense and score goals, tough guys are there to agitate. Fighters are seldom considered a threat on offense, aside from getting hit while trying to create a breakout. A successful agitator can take an opposing player off their game with frustration while still propelling his own teammates. Case in point, Chris Neal or Tanner Glass. Both players can chirp with the best and still have the heavy hands to back it up.
When the cards are down, your back’s against the wall, who can you count on to get the blood flowing? It’s no secret a fight isn’t the only way to spark your team. It’s not a requirement of a successful team to have a player antagonize the opposition. The changing focus of the game is no longer based around who can hit the hardest. Few players can change the pace of a game better than a man willing to give body and mind for a win. The style of play the fans call for may change, but you can’t take he grit out of hockey. After all, the H in hockey stands for hitting, right? One could argue tough guys have no place in the NHL and one could argue they do. The fights and hits maybe be few and far between but we all slide to the edge of our seats when they occur. Nothing says stay away from the stars on my team better than answering the call of a man with hands of stone. So, where do you stand?