Leafs GM Brian Burke is one of the most outspoken faces in the game. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Only someone of Brian Burke’s ilk would see the possible extinction of one-dimensional enforcers like Colton Orr from the NHL as “a dangerous time in our game,” and one that, “makes me sick to my stomach.”
What should have Burke’s stomach churning even more is that he so badly misread where the game was going that by the end of next season he will have paid $4 million to a player who has been, for all intents and purposes, utterly useless as an NHL player. In his 133-game career with the Maple Leafs, Orr has averaged just 6.1 minutes per game in ice time. This season he played just five games and a total of 22 minutes and 24 seconds, roughly what teammates Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson play in one game.
But instead of acknowledging his mistake, Burke instead unleashed his venom on the direction of the game and the insidious “rats” he claims are ruining the sport. If only players such as Orr, who cleared waivers and will likely never play in the NHL again, were permitted to plod around the ice, all would be well in the world.
It’s a typical response from the pro-fighting contingent, one for whom Burke is only too happy to carry the flag. Anytime these guys see their way of life under threat, they come out swinging with the same vigor as Dave Schultz circa 1973. Several years ago when The Hockey News ran a cover story predicting the end of the enforcer, fighting went up dramatically. Look for a ton of bellyaching from the old-time hockey guys now that fighting has become more irrelevant than ever.
Burke’s problem with the lack of fighting is that he thinks it allows gutless pukes to run around the ice elbowing opponents and smashing them from behind without retribution, going so far as saying, “anyone who has watched the last week and is not a little alarmed has not been paying attention.”
Huh? Like that never happened before Brendan Shanahan and the league started to bring the hammer down on these guys? Really? There are a ton of infractions the league has made a suspendable offense this season that would have in the past basically been considered finishing the check or the ubiquitous good hockey play. Now that they’re being punished more frequently and are garnering more attention doesn’t mean they’re happening with any greater regularity than before.
But don’t try to convince Burke of that. I do not for one minute doubt the sincerity of Burke and others when it comes to their beliefs on fighting’s place in the game. The only problem I have is that no rational train of thought supports the need for fighting in the NHL, but these guys continue to cling to their philosophy. Just because they’re power brokers and have a pulpit and carry a lot of influence, it doesn’t mean we have to believe what they’re saying.
Out of one side of his mouth, Burke says the game is better than it has ever been since the NHL has opened its doors, that he thinks it’s “wonderful,” and that he loves the game and thinks the fans love it too. What Burke conveniently forgets is that part of what has made the game so good is players, for the most part, no longer have to worry about having to deal with some one-dimensional knuckle dragger taking their heads off every time they try to carry the puck through the neutral zone, or that players who are too slow, not skilled enough and don’t have enough hockey sense to keep up at the NHL level are on the ice less than ever.
Let’s inject a little more reality into the debate, shall we? Since the pre-season schedule, Shanahan has brought down a total of 28 suspensions for the following offenses: hitting from behind, checks to the head, highsticking, boarding, charging, kneeing and elbowing. Of those suspensions, 11 of them have come against players such as Andy Sutton, Dan Carcillo, Jody Shelley and Patrick Kaleta - you know, those guys who are supposed to keep their teammates safe out there. You could argue only five suspensions have been imposed on the rats of which Burke speaks, assuming that you put Carcillo and Kaleta in both the fighting and rat camps and define Raffi Torres and Max Pacioretty as rats.
Perhaps the most preposterous statement Burke made was that players are now afraid to hit because they’re concerned about being suspended, a development he basically contends will result in the league going to 4-on-4 ringette. What he conveniently forgets, again, is that in the vast majority of cases, players in this day and age cannot apply a clean, hard, open-ice hit to an opponent without having to answer the bell by fighting one of the aggrieved player’s teammates. Using Burke’s logic when it comes to fighting, wouldn’t that mean nobody would hit anybody because they have to fight every time they do?
Of course, the ability to use logic has never been one of the strong suits of the pro-fighting crowd. Much like the radical right, they prefer to be loud and stick to a narrow message. Look for that message to get a lot of exposure over the next little while.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.