Fighters often fight for selfish reasons, not for the good of the team

Justin Bourne

I know, I know, the fighting “debate” sucks, so I’m sparing you that. Instead of engaging in that cesspool I just want to lay out a reality so you have more information: fighters often fight for selfish reasons, not for the good of the teamGASP. It may sound like common sense to those from within the game, but I don’t think your average fan believes that’s true. I think the majority believe the Selfless Warrior stuff – to serve, protect and defend and all that.

The common conception seems to be that heavies do it because it sparks a team, that it keeps stars safe, that the adrenaline overtook them, or that they do it to defend teammates. In many cases, those are legitimate reasons for fighting, and I’ve got no issue with them. In fact, I took them up whole-heartedly as a player (who was sh**ty at fighting).

One of my two fights that was on YouTube (apparently stricken to save people from losing their lunch while watching me dish out such savage beatings) shows one of our best defenseman getting kneed while cutting across the blueline, and I come from out of the shot with gloves already off, because damned if we were going to be a team that let people take liberties on us. That was our “identity” of sorts. You hope that by establishing the clear message that this group sticks together - mess with him and mess with us - that people are less inclined to take a passing shot at someone because they know it won’t end there. There’s something to this, no doubt about it, but even if the message isn’t sent to other teams it’s sent within your own locker room that I got your back, and your team gets (and stays) close and gets better together. Success comes easier when everyone is out for the team, like at any workplace. (By the way, slow motion replay revealed that, nope, guy didn’t even come close to kneeing our guy. My b.)

Gillies never eclipsed the 100 PIM mark.

And so, cut back to the “glory days” of fighting. I think a lot of the love for tough guys came from the era when players like Clark Gillies scored a crapload of points, but was also so feared that opposing players genuinely gave more room to his linemates, Bossy and Trottier. It’s such a clean, easy to understand picture. And around that time, the Boston Bruins were tough…but they could play too. Dave Semenko played with Wayne freaking’ Gretzky, which sent a pretty clear “Don’t f***ing touch that guy” message, but also meant he played a regular shift.

From those heroes of yore, things started to drift.

Junior hockey coaches watched that “protect the stars” model work, and started grooming tough guys in their teen years. Goals became secondary to punches. To go back to Clark Gillies, the dude had 112 points one year with the Regina Pats. He was hockey first. The guys who admired him and his ilk from their living rooms growing up didn’t have the same focus, nor were the coaches who were so enamored with the punchy-punchy part. Somewhere we came to believe that teams need an assigned protector, so some teams began wasting roster spots on them, and so the arms race began.

If the other team had the biggest, toughest guy around, your team was viewed as helpless. You’d get ran out of the building, or whatever. The tough guys themselves learned that being The Heavy got you jobs and got you paid, so they started training to fight, taking boxing lessons and building more muscle. Bob Probert might have been the transition heavy. He wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t exactly fit to play on your top line. But if you could beat Bob (or even hang with him), you’d have a job in the league. And so on, and so on, and so on.

And so here were are now, at the point where in this decade, the heavies can’t play hockey, but they’re literally too tough to fight your average hockey player. It’s insane. I remember playing in the ECHL against Jeremy Yablonski and being both simultaneously afraid and excited because “Hey, they’re basically short-handed and I sure as hell don’t have to fight this guy, but boy I hope he doesn’t cheap shot me, cause what could I do about it?”

So, the fraternity of tough guys was born. They can’t effectively play NHL-level hockey (while some of them are verygood at hockey, most just aren’t useful at the top level), so, they have to fight to keep their NHL paychecks. They have to perpetuate the myth of The Defender of Good at every turn. And, being that they get so few shifts and aren’t useful unless they’re doing the facepunch flamenco, they owe it to one another to oblige. Help me keep my job and I’ll help you keep yours. Most of these guys are best friends off the ice.

The problem here is, they aren’t bad guys for this. They have worked and trained as hard or harder than any other player in the league to get there, and they’re deserving of your respect for that. They did what they had to do to make it, which is something a lot of people taking potshots at them from the sidelines can’t say about their own careers. Do what you gotta do.

But when I was a player on the same team with respect for them, I with still aware with great clarity of what their motives often were. I’m sure it was the same for many people around me too. For those players who do a lot of thinking – your college players, says this biased guy – a lot of the fights are crazy out of context from not just the tone of the game, but the tone of the bench. But your coach is 50 years old and grew up when fighting was a big part of the game, the rest of your team was taught by someone just like him in junior, and it all just sort of seems oddly…natural. Good tilt, pat on the butt, back to the action. Sometimes it even kills the flow for your own team, which is why I use the word “selfish.”

If you look at the fighting majors leaders, the list of who the top enforcers have fought really highlights how irrelevant the sideshow is, and what makes what they do selfish. Tom Sestito is tied with Derek Dorsett at nine fights each, which is basically one tilt every three games. Sestito’s list of combatants: Derek Dorsett, Colton Orr, Ryan Reaves, Luke Gazdic…you get the point. Tom Sestito also makes $750,000 this year to do it, as he does next year, already booked. One way deal, son. So when he steps on the ice with one of those guys, and no one on the other team takes him seriously enough to take themselves off the ice by fighting him…the other heavy owes him. They owe each other.

These guys are not scoring near-700 points ala Gillies, nor are they taking a regular shift. They are surviving off the Myth of The Defender, and the game will likely – sadly in a way – weed them out over time. Everybody wants a Lucic or Chara, but smart teams don’t (or won’t in the future) bother chasing pure fighters because it has so little impact on the game. Real fear does have an impact, as with the two names I mentioned above, but not when it’s a sideshow on the bench (not to call those guys sideshows, just what they do). It has impact when it’s in the context of game action. Eff you for that, eff you for this, fine, let’s do this. 

There is zero correlation between fighting majors and the standings. It’s just…it’s own separate thing when it’s not between two guys who get at least double digit per game on the ice. I’m pro-fighting-ish, and see no reason to legislate it from the game. I’m of the mind that it’ll happen on its own as GMs (ala Ken Holland) come to find that they have more success without a hired gun eating up a roster spot. The free market corrects itself, or something like that.