In the mid-70’s, when the Philadelphia Flyers were introducing goons and intimidation to the league (see my post - How Did We Get Here), teams started to add their own goons. Opponents who were scheduled to play at the Spectrum came down with the “Philly Flu”, meaning they were too sick to face being slashed and pummeled by the Broad Street Bullies. Teams soon brought in their own tough guys because they didn’t want their stars dropping their gloves against the other team’s goons. It’s a subtle distinction but “protection” by this method would mean they were “protected” from taking a punch to the head. But the fights continued to happen and cheap shots remained a growing part of the game and soon every team would add enforcers who would take on the heavy lifting.
When I read blogs and articles that cover the hockey fighting debate I have come across a couple of incidents that are cited as prime examples of “protection”. One involves Paul Kariya who was concussed in the 97-98 season because he was not “protected” but returned to elite player status once Stu Grimson was added to his team the next season. And of course the most popular argument has to be Gretzky and his full-time enforcers Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley. So let’s look closely at those examples and see if the myth can stand some scrutiny.
A few months ago a fight fan left a comment on an anti-fighting opinion piece that pointed to an article called “Why Drop The Gloves?”. He used this article as proof that enforcers like Stu Grimson were necessary to “protect” players like Paul Kariya. Here’s an excerpt from the article:
Kariya missed most of the 1997-98 season after suffering a concussion, thanks to a vicious cross-check to the face following a goal. Teammate and fellow star Teemu Selanne also missed time that season due to injury, and the team missed the playoffs.
To prevent this from happening again, Anaheim bulked up by signing long-time and well-respected fighter Stu Grimson, a.k.a "The Grim Reaper." In 1998-99, Selanne and Kariya ranked No. 2 and 3 in the scoring race, Grimson was in the top 25 in penalty minutes, and their team finished above .500 and earned a playoff berth.
- Selanne only missed 7 games in 97-98 and ended up scoring 86 points in 73 games. The writer makes it sound like it was a disaster.
- Kariya missed the first 32 games of the season in question because of a contract dispute. Once his agreement was settled he returned, played 22 games and was injured on February 1, 1998, by a cross check to the face by Gary Suter.
- During the 97-98 season the Mighty Ducks as team had 73 fights, ranking 8th in the NHL. There was lots of “protection” on the Anaheim roster as their line-up included 7 players with more than 100 minutes in penalties and included the enforcers noted below.
- Stu Grimson joined Anaheim for the 98-99 season and fought 20 times, down slightly from his fight total the year before when he dropped the gloves 22 times. Grimson was 33 at the time and nearing the end of his career. He would appear in 73 games and score a total of 3 points.
- The Mighty Ducks fought significantly less in the 98-99 season, only 43 times which ranked them 16th in the league. In fact fisticuffs were down quite a bit across the entire NHL with approximately 350 fewer total fights.
A more sensible conclusion, based on the facts above, would be that the Mighty Ducks fought less and concentrated on playing hockey, resulting in career years for Selanne and Kariya. In 97-98 Anaheim had more “protection” on their roster and yet somehow the concussion prone Kariya was injured. But the Grim Reaper magically kept him healthy in 98-99. Grimson obviously wasn’t on the ice very much with the top 2 stars (for “protection” purposes) or his point totals would have reflected that. You could argue that Grimson’s presence was enough to keep things under control but his fight totals were almost identical to the year before and fights were down across the league. Sorry but it’s clear that Anaheim reduced their penalty minutes, played hockey and their two stars enjoyed more success.
In the 1980s the Gretzky Era hit its stride, and so did fisticuffs. We all know "The Great One" was immensely talented, but at 6'0" and 185 pounds, was also an easy target for bigger, stronger players. His gaudy numbers with Edmonton in the 1980s would have been unlikely if not for the protection of less-heralded tough guys like Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley.
Let’s take the same approach and apply some facts to Gretzky’s most productive years, those from 1981 to 1986.
- Below I’ve listed key stats for Gretzky and Semenko. Note Semenko’s fight totals for those five years.
- Let’s also understand who Semenko was fighting and how the Oilers’ fight totals stacked up against league ranks and averages.
- Semenko was not afraid to drop the gloves but he rarely led the team in fights. Most of his fights, 25 out of 30 over the five year period, were against other team enforcers or NHL players who fought 4 times or more in a season.
- The Oilers had lots of other enforcers who offered “protection”. During these years the fighting duties were handled by the likes of Fogolin, Hughes, Lumley, Hunter, Boschman, McClelland, Jackson and McSorley (who joined in 85-86). Strange how none of these players, other than McSorley, are given credit for Gretzky’s point totals. And by the time McSorley joined the Oilers Gretzky was already well on his way to a Hall of Fame career.
- Other NHL players were regularly quoted as saying they were not afraid of hitting Gretzky but that it was almost impossible because of his skill. That and the fact that if you make a mistake and were penalized, you had to face an impressive Edmonton power play unit. Harry Sinden said players were afraid to commit to a body check because Gretzky could see the whole ice and picks you apart if you were caught out of position. Glen Sather said trying to hit him “was like trying to hit confetti”. Bill Torrey said he was, “like an eel who you can’t pin to the boards because he’s usually in open ice”. Denis Potvin compared attempting to hit Gretzky to "wrapping your arms around fog. You saw him but when you reached out to grab him your hands felt nothing, maybe just a chill.” So much for being, “an easy target”.
There’s no enforcement by NHL tough guys. Enforcement implies that the patrolling of the ice by these so called “policemen” is enough to eradicate testosterone and put players on their best behaviour. Nothing could be further from the truth. NHL players don’t suddenly refrain from cheap shots or dropping their gloves when an enforcer is added to the roster. In fact history and stats show that when fights per game increase, non-fighting PIMs also increase. The late 70’s and 80’s was full of goons and enforcers and subsequently penalty minutes and cheap shots were at all-time highs. Those are the facts. This whole argument about enforcers making the game safer is a myth that pro-fighting advocates spout without any evidence to back it up.
However there is lots of revenge and retribution. Anytime you lay a legal and hard hit on one of the other team’s stars it’s likely that someone is going to go after you with an elbow or a fist. If your team is up by 2 or 3 points with only a few minutes left in the game then you should expect a late shift by the other team’s enforcer. Perhaps there was some perceived slight from the last match, from last week or last month, and there needs to be some payback. Or maybe the coach needs to send a message so he sends out 2 or 3 goons to drop their gloves as soon as the puck is dropped at the opening faceoff. Those activities are far more common in today’s game as enforcers need to prove themselves every time they’re given a rare shift. But none of that is “protection”.