The decline of the tough guy
One-dimensional brawlers are finding it almost impossible to get work in the NHL
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/10/2014 (2862 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Unemployed NHL tough guy Krys Barch fondly recalls a few seasons ago when he was considered essential to the Dallas Stars, especially against a fighting team like the Boston Bruins.
“We had Sean Avery and we had a bunch of line brawls,” he said. “I’ve probably fought Shawn Thornton 10 or 12 times.”
He recalls one time the Dallas-Boston starting lineups were posted on the white board and then-teammate Mike Ribeiro was projecting aloud whom would pair off with whom if everyone on the ice started fighting.
“Ribeiro was laughing, and saying, ‘Geez Barchie, you are going to take on Zdeno Chara and if we get in a line brawl, I’m going to have to fight Milan Lucic,’ ” Barch said. “But I know guys would haven’t have been joking about it if it wasn’t a huge thing on their mind.”
Barch, 34, who had 13 fights last season with the Florida Panthers and more than 100 in his career, is proud to be a nine-season NHL veteran with a history of protecting teammates. He is also stunned to find himself out of work as part of what appears to be more downsizing in the significance of fighting.
The Toronto Maple Leafs recently put tough guys Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren on waivers and sent both to the minors.
“This appears to be an Eastern Conference trend and I will be interested to see how this blueprint works when they play Boston,” said Calgary Flames executive Brian Burke, a noted supporter of fighting.
Popular tough guy Paul Bissonnette has 580,000 Twitter followers, but no NHL contract. George Parros, Kevin Westgarth, Jay Rosehill and Matt Kassian also didn’t make NHL rosters.
“I remember when George Parros played in Anaheim, they had a whole section for him in the souvenir stand,” said player agent Scott Norton.
Norton, who represents Vancouver Canucks tough guy Tom Sestito (league-best 19 fights last season), said the marketplace for fighters is limited.
“No matter how many Brian Burkes there are in the league, there are more Stan Bowmans and Kenny Hollands who want to play the four-line skill game and try to put the pressure on from the offensive standpoint,” he said.
According to hockeyfights.com, the number of fighting majors is down 36 per cent from six seasons ago.
Barch would argue you need an enforcer to help you against a big-bodied team such as the champion Los Angeles Kings.
“As much as they say they don’t have an enforcer, if you go look at Jordan Nolan’s fights, he gives it to a lot of guys,” Barch said. “They have a lot of guys on that team that are willing to fight.”
A safety-first rule preventing players from taking off their helmets to fight plays a role in the continued decrease in fighting. Also, the NHL is now facing concussion lawsuits from former players.
“You wonder if there is influence from behind the scenes from the league side of things,” Barch said.
In 2008-09, the Anaheim Ducks led the NHL with 82 fighting majors. Last season, Toronto led with 48.
Barch said he wonders if the successful Detroit Red Wings would be even more popular if they had a tough guy on their roster.
“Why not protect your investment (in stars) by paying $750,000 for a guy to play on the fourth line to take care of that for you,” Barch said. “How many man-games have the Red Wings lost (to injury)?
“I know going into Detroit and sitting in the dressing room… a couple of defencemen are saying, ‘Geez it’s going to be a tough night because they have speed and they have (Pavel) Datsyuk.’ But you know, it’s not going to be a tough night… You might get beat 5-2. But you love to play them in a seven-game series. You’d love to play them 20 times because you know you aren’t going to pay the price.”
No one is predicting tough guys are becoming extinct. After blowing a 3-0 playoff series lead to Los Angeles, San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson signed 6-8 tough guy John Scott during the summer.
“I think intimidation is always going to be part of our game,” said former NHL player Ed Olczyk, an NBC analyst. “I think there is something to be said to having that guy there, not for the message he sends to the other side, but what it means inside your locker-room.”
Nashville Predators GM David Poile said “there is a time and place” where it becomes necessary for players to defend each other.
“But with the game becoming faster and faster and more teams using four lines on a regular basis, (fighters) who used to be one-dimensional really have to be able to play,” he said. “That has changed it more than anything.”
Norton predicts fighting might make a bit of a comeback if the NHL expands. Expansion teams have historically brought in some tough guys to grab fans’ attention while the team tries to become competitive.
“If they expand to four more teams, you won’t find 90 guys who can play,” Norton said. “What’s the common thread on tough guys? They tend to be inexpensive.”
Barch still hopes to land a job, but he is prepared if this is the end of the line.
“I’ve played a long time in the NHL and I’m appreciative of that,” he said. “No matter what role you are in, it’s an honour to play.”
— USA Today