Well, we may have come full circle on this topic, but I believe it is worth a discussion in today’s NHL. Is there a place for fighting in hockey? It is easy to answer “no” for a person who is not a fan of the game and does not understand the nuances compared to other major sports. Yes, there are rare instances in baseball, football and basketball when emotions get the best of players, but nothing like hockey. But, those people need to dig deeper into why it happens and what the consequences are.
There have been several films made about enforcers and how they are a “dying breed” and analytics played a big role in the evolution of today’s game. The idea is that if there is a player on the ice that is not contributing to the team winning the game, you are at a disadvantage. But, there was a reason these kinds of players have existed for so long in the game of hockey. With 12 forwards, six defensemen and a goalie, not everybody is going to be Wayne Gretzky.
Players have roles on a hockey team and one of those roles is an agitator. These types of players get under the skin of the opposing team to try to shift the momentum in their team’s direction. Those tactics include big hits, roughing after the whistle and chirping the other team’s players.
Just this week, agitator Tom Wilson hit Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo high, forcing his head to crash into the boards. Carlo left the ice on his own feet, but was later transported to the hospital. Wilson has a history of these kinds of plays, the ones the NHL has been trying to weed out the last few years. Back in the day, an enforcer would have fought Wilson or targeted one of the Capitals’ top players in exchange for hitting Carlo. Is an eye for an eye the answer? Probably not, but it makes you at least think twice about hitting another team’s top player.
Tom Wilson hits Brandon Carlo up high.
Carlo needs help getting off the ice. pic.twitter.com/RgACye1H7l
— Conor Ryan (@ConorRyan_93) March 6, 2021
So how does this relate to the Colorado Avalanche? Well, the last couple years, the Avs have been Stanley Cup contenders with a very bright future. Their young talent is through the roof with the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Bowen Byram, Mikko Rantanen and many others. Unfortunately, they have been plagued with injuries, forcing them to go weeks without key players in the lineup.
At one time, former Avalanche forward Cody McLeod was an alternate captain under then-Head Coach Patrick Roy. Now, Roy is probably as old school NHL as it gets, but he knew how important protecting the Avs’ young talent back then was when they had budding players such as Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, Ryan O’Reilly and then-rookie MacKinnon.
But today is a different story. The Avs are often left doing nothing after an opposing player takes liberties on a Colorado player, or you have top-six forwards taking matters into their own hands like when Nazem Kadri fought Ryan Lindgren after an ugly hit on Joonas Donskoi, who later missed several weeks due to concussion symptoms.
Fast forward to just a few days ago and we saw MacKinnon take a high hit from a Sharks player that looked really bad. These situations continue to happen and they definitely affect the psyche of top players.
With so much invested in your top players and in the future of your organization, it makes sense to me to want to protect those assets. Of course, we have all seen the studies on what head trauma does to players and it is something I do not wish upon anybody. But, there should be a difference between fighting to fight, and fighting to police. It is clear that in the 70s, it was out of control, and maybe today the pendulum has swung to the other extreme with no fighting and players are getting injured too often.
So what is the middle? How can teams like the Avalanche give their top players the confidence to play their game knowing that one or more of their teammates has their back? It is an issue that is intangible that will not show up on a stat sheet, but everybody knows it is there. The question is, who will be the first to bring the enforcer back?