I can’t help but think back to the night Milan Lucic of the Boston Bruins took a run at Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller early in the 2011-12 NHL season. Goalies are typically off limits, as in, most players in the NHL pursue the puck when a net minder leaves his safe area to make a play. On that night, Lucic played the man, and the Sabres didn’t have an answer for the Bruins giant.
Only months after the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, the message was pretty clear to the rest of their rivals. If you want to compete for Cups with the B’s, being able to stand up to them is a good start.
The Bruins tough design was not the only catalyst behind a tougher division philosophy. Former Leafs GM Brian Burke was very open about his desire to build a rugged team in Toronto, modelling the identity of his former club, the 2007 Stanley Cup winning Anaheim Ducks.
In 2006-07 the Ducks led the NHL in fighting majors en route to a Stanley Cup championship. Being tough isn’t the only way to win Cups. For example, last season’s champs the Chicago Blackhawks finished the short schedule with the 3rd least total major penalties for fighting.
Back to Lucic and Miller. The summer after the Lucic incident, the Sabres acquired Stars’ agitator and scrapper Steve Ott, hoping to add toughness to a small skilled lineup. Only a few days before, the Sabres added 6’8″ enforcer John Scott ensuring their ability to ice a big man capable of challenging other tough guys around the league. The Sabres weren’t going to be pushed around anymore, at least, not without fighting back.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, who had become accustomed to losing on most nights against the Bruins, also upped their toughness with the acquisitions of fighters Frazer Mclaren and Mark Fraser within the last year. The two heavyweights joined a lineup already boasting one of the league’s most notorious enforcers, Colton Orr.
The Leafs led the NHL in fighting majors last season, playing a violent brand of drop-em-with-anyone type hockey.
This offseason, the Leafs paid big money for scoring winger with an edge, David Clarkson. The addition ensured the Buds add a top 6 forward with some bite, as opposed to just running with enforcer types, deemed almost un-playable in the playoffs.
The Atlantic Division features all 5 former members of last season’s Northeast. The Northeast was the NHL’s most violent division in 2012-13, by far. In fact, all 5 member teams of the old Northeast finished top 10 in team fighting majors. 5 teams from one division occupied the top 10 spots, while 5 of the NHL’s remaining 25 clubs filled out the list of leaders.
Fighting stats courtesy of ESPN.com
Last season, the Leafs were involved in a few melees with the Montreal Canadiens. In one specific brawl, Leafs heavyweight Frazer Mclaren beat up the significantly smaller Josh Gorges of the Habs (credit to Gorges for standing up for a teammate and holding his own). The brawl started in reaction to Leafs tough guy Colton Orr taking a run at Habs centre Tomas Plekanec.
Getting beat up by the Leafs is not in the plans for the Montreal Canadiens this year. They made that very clear by acquiring notorious puncher George Parros this offseason.
Parros and Orr are no strangers to pounding on each other. In January of 2011, a Parros-Orr fight concluded with the Leafs #28 having his head smashed into the ice, resulting in a concussion. Parros was a member of the Anaheim Ducks at the time.
The Habs/Leafs season opener last evening was a fight filled event. What better way to start the year than declaring to your divisional rivals that you will not back down. The Canadiens and Maple Leafs both wanted to send that message, and both succeeded, however, not without casualties.
In the 2nd period of the opening night game, George Parros of the Montreal Canadiens awkwardly fell on his face while tangled up with Leafs fighter Colton Orr. The Habs new tough guy landed on his chin, and appeared to be out cold for a moment.
Orr of the Leafs immediately knew something was wrong and called for medical attention. After ten minutes of precautionary measures, Parros was helped off the ice by medical staff and trainers from both teams.
According to ESPN, the Leafs and Habs combined for 10 fighting majors last night. That’s nearly two scraps a period.
As mentioned earlier, the Leafs led the NHL in fighting majors in 2012-13. The Habs were 10th. Both made the playoffs, partly because they were tough teams to play against. Let’s face it, to win games in the NHL a team has to be tough to play against in some regard. For the Chicago Blackhawks they burn opponents with speed, skill and puck possession. For some teams in the Atlantic, hitting and fighting play a prominent role, intimidating opponents.
If you look back to 2011-12, the Leafs and Habs failed to finish top 10 in fighting majors and both missed the playoffs.
The truth is, hockey games are partly influenced by intimidation, so it’s logical to believe the added toughness the Leafs and Habs can boast helps them intimidate opponents and win more hockey games. However, intimidation is not the only factor at work contributing to the recent success of Canada’s two most historic hockey clubs.
The Leafs and Habs have also improved their skill level, depth, as well as, infusion of contributing youth.
Only two weeks ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres were involved in a brawl that led to a 10 game suspension for newly acquired Leaf, David Clarkson. Chalk it up to another Atlantic Division fight fest.
In the preseason, Milan Lucic of the Atlantic’s Boston Bruins was involved in an instant YouTube classic when he took on Joel Rechlicz of the Washington Capitals. The fight has over 600,000 YouTube views in less than a month. It’s been the topic of conversation amongst hockey fans all around North America because it was a highly entertaining clash.
To put the popularity of fighting in perspective. David Bolland’s Cup winning goal from last June has only been viewed 97,226 times on YouTube – nowhere near half the views of a preseason fight in a meaningless game.
The Fighting Debate Rages On
Here’s the thing about fighting in the NHL – fans love it, but no one wants to see a guy lying motionless on the ice the way George Parros did at the Bell Centre in Montreal last night. As loud as the crowd is when a fight breaks out, it’s eerily silent when a player lies unconscious on the ice.
If Parros doesn’t get injured on that play, very few mention the violence in last evening’s Leafs/Habs season opener. And on most nights, fighting doesn’t lead to major injuries. NHL enforcers are pretty good at relenting when a combatant falls or becomes disadvantaged in some other way. These guys are trying to make a living playing hockey, and fighting is their bread and butter. NHL enforcers earn a tough pay cheque, and they appear to have respect for each other because of it.
While fighting remains a controversial part of the NHL’s brand of hockey the Atlantic Division is defining itself as the league’s most violent, and it’s hard to blame the teams involved. They’re just doing what they need to do in order to survive against their major competitors, and as of right now, they are building teams within the confines of what is accepted. Not every NHL club can mimic the puck possession dominance the Hawks and Wings have done well for so long – most don’t have the personnel. P Kanes and Duncan Keiths don’t grow on trees, neither do Datsyuks, Zetterbergs and Lidstroms.
While the Northeast additions to the Atlantic take heat for their propensity to embrace violence, remember that their other option is to spend several years trying to build a tamer skill team, all the while, losing to intimidating, tougher opponents.
The Hockey Daily sends its best wishes to George Parros of the Montreal Canadiens.