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THN.com Blog: Removing physicality would kill the game

Sean Avery has 1045 career penalty minutes in 367 games. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Sean Avery has 1045 career penalty minutes in 367 games. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

A showcase of finesse, speed, emotion, athleticism and raw strength all combine to make hockey a beautiful game of blood, sweat and tears.

Take any ingredient out and suddenly you’ve lost some of the mystique and originality that makes the sport so unique and attractive.

The most controversial aspect is also the best. Grit, toughness, a fearless attitude, whatever you want to call it; rough-and-tumble pest players are exciting and crucial to not only the game itself, but for attracting people to it.

And in more ways than just what you see on the ice.

The agitator, the annoyance, the grinder; the guy you love to have on your team, but hate to have to face. He’s the worker bee, the proletariat, the supporting cast, and quite often, he’s a fan favorite.

Not only that, but he is usually also the guy with the most in-your-face personality, great for the media, and great for exposure. These players are almost never afraid to show their excitement or frustration to the public.

They stir up emotion in the game. When they fight, they bring people to their feet. When they spur an after-the-whistle scrum, they cause an excited rise in the crowd. And when they lay a big hit, it always leaves the arena humming with an “oooooh.”

Bob Probert, Claude Lemieux, Wendel Clark, Dino Ciccarelli, Tie Domi, Cam Neely, and modern-classic Jeremy Roenick. Not all produced the same amount of points, obviously, but all had the ability to put the puck in the net and create offensive chances. They also had the ability to stir things up, motivate their teams and get people talking.

To curb fighting or rough stuff would be to endanger everything these types of players bring to a team, and the game as a whole. In a league that desperately needs to attract media coverage and new fans, with athletes who are sometimes criticized for being bland and introverted, the sandpaper character guys aren’t the faces, but are more accurately, the backbone and vocal chords of the league.

Now, being a worker and being a goon are two separate things. There is no room in the game for stomping on someone with a skate blade, belting someone in the back of the head with a two-hander, or charging into someone from behind; but without reckless abandon, the level of hockey is taken down a notch.

House and recreation leagues are for dipsy-doodling and weaving in and out of traffic with your head down, but the game of hockey is meant to have that “heads-up” component.

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Not that there’s anything wrong with a pretty goal. I love seeing a tic-tac-toe or an end-to-end rush, or spin-o-rama tally as much as the next fan, but part of appreciating that skill is knowing and understanding how it’s done in the face of aggression and trying to beat the other guy who wants to mush you into the boards.

I love seeing this type of hockey thriving today, and budding for the future. Milan Lucic (whose blog you can read HERE) and Daniel Carcillo are two youngsters already making names for themselves as guys you don’t want your team playing against, while players such as Chris Neil and Sean Avery love to be hated by opposing fans.

Earlier this week Mike Brophy wrote a blog on how Avery is setting up for a big payday on the UFA market. The piece attracted a lot of comments, both positive and negative. As one reader so accurately stated, “Look at how worked up you’re getting over Avery – that’s why he makes his money, because he gets people worked up.”

There’s nothing wrong with getting fans worked up. That’s part of the game. You want your fans to be emotional and get caught up in the moments. You want them to love some players and hate others.

Hockey is a challenging conflict. Hockey is a physical battle. Hockey is a wonderfully engaging sport.

To take out any of the toughness would ultimately diminish all the other points of the game. From the use of raw strength, to the level of emotion, all the way to even how much skill is demanded.

Because who cares if you can skate around a guy who can’t touch you? That’s what pylons and public skating are for.

Rory Boylen is THN.com's web content specialist. His blog appears Thursdays.

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