The NHL playoffs always feature plenty of post-whistle action. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Playoffs have brought to light a revolutionary new breed of tough guy in the NHL: The Post-Whistle Phony.
Let me preface my thoughts with a disclaimer. I myself do not claim to be a tough guy on the ice. I periodically get angry. I occasionally chirp at chumps. But my most common rebuttal holds somewhere along the line of "Yes, I realize you could kick my ass - does your coach know you're out here?"
And I know my type exists in the NHL today. There are guys like Jonathan Toews, players who play the game to win, without the slightest interest in a high-schoolesque testosterone-off.
But, there are certain requirements to be a hockey player. You need to stick up for your teammates. You may have to fight someone tougher than you (read: wrestle) because they did something stupid and you’re the first one on the scene of the crime – even though you are acutely aware this could end badly (read: my nose is now crooked). You have to demonstrate your team’s unity.
I wasn't a fighter; I simply played the game. No cheap shots, no snow-spray on the goalie, no picking on the little guys. You know why?
Because if you do those things you have to fight. Rather, you should have to; you used to have to.
There has been an increase in the irritating breed of "the pest." The fans love the pest – blindly loving the “competitiveness” of their own fireball, while cursing his twin brother on the other team. If the pest is smart and disciplined in his antagonism, coaches love him, too. They’re fun to have on your team, provided he's not the type that leaves you shorthanded all game like the media-magnificent Sean Avery.
But I don't like this recent evolution; a new breed of rat that can smell a linesman coming like a piece of gouda and then suddenly grows a foot taller.
Old-time players sit at home watching these guys and want to jump through the TV. In this, the year of the face wash, how many glove-to-face interactions can fans see before they go "hmm...I'm not so sure those guys actually wanted to fight…”
The fact is, for the most part, if you want to get to an opposing player, you can. These men are big, strong and skate like a gazelle runs. If players don't want to fight, that’s OK – just play the damn game.
As much as anybody, I enjoy a game played at fever pitch, laced with animosity, hard hits and palpable tension. But the face wash? That's a snowball-fight move.
I'm not saying I don't like a little action between the whistles, but the game has changed. In the Broad Street Bully days, hockey nonsense ruled. The frequent bench-clearing brawls were stupid, awful, dangerous and entertaining. In describing those melees, my Dad (Bob Bourne) admits it was a scary time - if you started losing your fight, you could be losing for a looonnngg time before help arrived.
Scary sounds like an understatement.
In no way is that type of violence better, but there needs to be a middle ground for agitators in the NHL. If you want to fight, fight. If you want to play, play.
But every successful playoff team needs some grit and that’s just a fact. This year has been no exception.
For the Boston Bruins, a guy like Milan Lucic has been no phony. He mows guys over, jaws at them and if they'd like to fight, he punches them in their face for free. I can't think of someone I'd rather play against less.
Toughness is a valued quality. Players feel obligated to represent themselves as having that trait to fans, teammates and coaches. And just playing hockey does make you tougher and quicker on the trigger. I assure you, nothing decreases the length of your fuse like getting cross-checked in the back, having your jersey held or your ankles slashed.
So we need to reward the guys who carry themselves the same way after the whistle as they do before. We need to discern toughness from the post-whistle fakers who need to be “restrained” until the puck is dropped. These are the same guys who aren’t there to actually answer the bell when their opponent has rung it.
The good news is, as the playoffs go on, phony-laden teams disappear. We start to learn who’s been faking it and who’s actually got the cards. Good luck trying to bluff Lucic.
So for all the "tough guys" who need their gloves re-palmed every other week, the NHL has some bad news about the rest of the games in the playoffs:
They're only getting tougher.
Justin Bourne plays for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four cups with the Islanders. He will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com.
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