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From deaths to monsters, a history of fighting in hockey

Adam Proteau
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(B Bennett/Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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From deaths to monsters, a history of fighting in hockey

Adam Proteau
By:

Even on-ice deaths and murder charges couldn’t halt fighting’s popularity in hockey’s early years. And that blood lust has kept fisticuffs – from the Broad Street Bullies to goons – part of the game ever since.

It’s fair to say that, for as long as the sport has existed, there’s been a connection between hockey and fighting. Indeed, the first indoor hockey game ever played – March 13, 1875, in Montreal – was followed by fisticuffs between players and spectators and others who wanted to use the arena for skating. And although there’s been no shortage of critics who decried it right from the start, fighting has, for better or worse, helped shape the destiny of the game from its earliest days. The first evidence hockey historians have of a fight in a game is from one of the first contests that took place in 1890 in Ontario. On Feb. 8, as part of a barnstorming tour of the province, the Rideau Hall Rebels (who played out of Ottawa) were taking on the Granite Hockey Club in Toronto when a major melee broke out. That fight was a prominent factor, if not the driving one, in the organization of hockey in Ontario. The next season, Arthur Stanley – the son of Stanley Cup founder Lord Stanley Preston, and a member of that Rideau team – convened with other prominent figures from Ottawa to form the Ontario Hockey Association. In that league-founding meeting, they made no bones about one of the reasons they required an organizing body. “Part of that meeting was to prevent the activities that happened in Toronto from happening again,” said Kevin Slater of the Society for International Hockey Research. “Specifically, they didn’t like getting their asses kicked.”
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The newly formed OHA started with teams in Kingston, Ottawa, Toronto and Lindsay, but in less than a decade it mushroomed into an intermediate senior and junior division with some 50 teams situated from Petrolia in the east to Kingston in the west and past Barrie and Orillia in the north. There were competing leagues, however, including Toronto’s Bank Hockey League (in which talented players were often transferred to their bank’s head office to play teams from other financial institutions) and the International Professional Hockey League, the first pro organization in the sport’s history. Aggressive play was common throughout the different leagues from their inception, but the OHA – and the Toronto sports media it had a large hand in controlling – were frequent critics of untoward behavior.

Why? In part, the reason was sociological. Toronto at the time was predominantly British, Protestant and proud of its “fair play at all times” credo. And those who played were often upper-class members of society who didn’t wish to be regarded as brutish. While it was uncouth, in theory, for players to lash out in games, it happened with frequency and was largely ignored. In other parts of the province (for instance, Kitchener, Ont., which was comprised largely of German immigrants) there was no similar mentality. A team in Ayr, Ont., in the early 1890s played on one of the smallest rinks (some 130 feet long by 50 feet wide) and built their team around large players and amped-up physicality. As a result, they never lost home games. But while the leagues that operated in other parts of Ontario embraced the baser nature of their players, the OHA steadfastly attempted to paint itself as above the fray when it came to fighting. Particularly vicious players such as Newsy Lalonde were publicly called on the carpet, and the Toronto media were used as megaphones to run down competing leagues as being barbaric. But according to Slater, whose book Trolley League: The Complete History of the Ontario Hockey League 1908-1911 is a look back at the pre-NHL days of hockey in the province, the criticism backfired on the OHA. “It was a big deal for a paper to say so-and-so play hockey in too rough a manner,” Slater said. “These papers would come out against the violence, but it didn’t do anything to clear up the violence, and the people came out in bigger numbers the bigger the hype got. The OHA was shooting itself in the foot a little bit, promoting the violence through their condemnation of it. It was like going to see the gladiators. Even though that’s not proper in society, that’s what people were going out to see.” In the time between the formation and flourishing of the OHA and the founding of the NHL in 1917, rules governing fights were intentionally vague, as were rules for every other game infraction. Referees held all the discretionary power in whom to punish, and as late as the 1919-20 season, the OHA didn’t have any rule specifically identifying fights as a problem to be dealt with. Instead, fights were covered under “unfair or rough play.” That doesn’t mean controversy didn’t abound. Toronto goalie Chuck Tyner was called into court for punching out a goal judge. Lalonde had a couple court dates of his own. Line brawls took place and on occasion police had to come on the ice to separate players. And there were deaths that scarred the game. In 1905, French-Canadian player Alcide Laurin died after being punched and hit in the head with a stick by Allan Loney in a game that took place in Eastern Ontario. Loney was charged with murder, but the charges were dropped. The most infamous on-ice death of that era took place in 1907 when Owen ‘Bud’ McCourt, a member of the Federal Amateur Hockey League’s Cornwall Royals, lost his life after being attacked by a number of Ottawa Victorias players. Ottawa forward Charles Masson was brought up on murder charges (later reduced to manslaughter) but was acquitted by an Ontario court. Nothing that took place before or after those court cases caused a fundamental shift away from fighting. So before the NHL played its first game, fighting and over-the-top violence was already entrenched in the sport. Slater believes that edge will remain in one shape or form. “When you have contact and manliness and aggression, there’s going to be a spillover, there are going to be fights,” Slater said. “It’s inevitable. As long as you’ve got guys swinging sticks and hitting someone else in the shins, you’re going to have people take exception to it.”  
  By the time the NHL formed in 1917, fighting was well established in both professional and amateur leagues across the continent. Yet it took five full years of operation before the NHL instituted a specific penalty for a punch-up – a five-minute penalty – but that didn’t stop players from going after each other. At that stage in the league’s history, virtually every player had to be tough enough to look after himself. Certain stars were less physical than others, but the best of the best had the capability of going off. Hall of Famer Sprague Cleghorn was arrested in 1922 as a member of the Montreal Canadiens and charged with aggravated assault for attacking Ottawa Senators defenseman Lionel Hitchman with his stick, and the stick-swinging fight between Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard and Boston’s Hal Laycoe resulted in Richard’s suspension and the infamous Montreal riot of 1955. “They didn’t need the fighters on the Canadiens, because they were just tough,” said Hall of Fame journalist Stan Fischler. “The Rocket fought his own battles. There was no such thing as (Wayne) Gretzky having (Dave) Semenko to protect him.” From 1917 to 1967, there were never more than 10 teams in hockey’s best league, so the competition for jobs was ferocious. To climb the professional ladder and make the NHL was to guarantee yourself a thick skin and an ability to look after yourself. This is how Gordie Howe’s elbows were sharpened to a fearsome fine edge. This is the way Ted Lindsay acquired the nickname ‘Terrible’, despite standing just 5-foot-8. This is the system that developed a tough customer like John Ferguson Sr., who led all rookies in scoring in 1963-64 with 18 goals in 59 games, yet whose primary role with the Canadiens was to look after captain Jean Beliveau. Ferguson’s M.O. was clear: he could play, but he was mean – sometimes even to players wearing the same uniform. As a member of the American League’s Cleveland Barons in 1963, Ferguson shot the puck at a teammate who made the mistake of getting chummy with an opponent during warmup. Gordie Howe With players like that everywhere, the superfluous shenanigans were kept to a minimum. So were fights, according to the late Cal Gardner, who played for four Original Six teams from 1945 to ’57. “I wouldn’t say fighting was a big part of the game when I played,” Gardner said in 1999. “It would only happen if somebody got way out of line and most guys knew enough not to do that.” Fighting in that era was modest compared to what followed. Whereas scrap leaders in the 1980s and ’90s fought dozens of times in a single season, top pugilists in the 1950s and early ’60s only dropped the gloves four or five times a year. From 1953-54 (the first year the league began compiling fighting statistics) through 1966-67, a fight happened once every five games. In 1986-87 and 1987-88, the league averaged a fight every game. The turning point was expansion from six to 12 teams in 1967. “There were so few jobs, you were always fighting for one,” said Greg Oliver of SIHR. “The leagues below the NHL were even tougher. Those guys were all fighting to get to the NHL. When expansion came, the players who got those additional jobs were just as tough as those who were already there.” If there’s a misconception about the role the ’67 growth played in the evolution of fighting, it’s that the Philadelphia Flyers, one of the NHL’s initial six expansion teams, were the ones leading the way. The reality is the hyper-aggressive style that made them into the Broad St. Bullies was an answer to the franchise being knocked around by two teams in particular: the Boston Bruins and Philly’s expansion cousins, the St. Louis Blues. The ‘Big, Bad Bruins’ were led by the likes of Derek Sanderson and Johnny ‘Pie’ McKenzie, while the Blues employed the fearsome Plager Bros. and Noel Picard. The comparatively small Flyers were pummelled on a regular basis, and owner Ed Snider was thoroughly disgusted. “When I made Keith Allen GM, I said, ‘Look, Keith, we’re an expansion team, we may not be able to skate, we may not have great players, but we can go out and get the toughest son-of-a-bitches in the world…I don’t give a goddamn about having one policeman. Let’s have five or six.’ And that’s the beginning of the Broad St. Bullies. I didn’t invent fighting in hockey, and I don’t necessarily love it. I’m just saying I don’t want anybody to kick the s--- out of a Flyer ever again.” Expansion also diluted the amount of elite-level talent. Super-skilled players became more valuable and, in the minds of team executives and coaches, more in need of “protection” with every new round of expansion. By the time the 1980s arrived, the NHL was a 21-team league and although not every team had a Gretzky on its roster, the best two or three players on each club were in effect its Gretzkys. You’d never ask a player of that stature to engage in fights regularly. You asked tough and fearless players (usually at the bottom of the depth chart) to do those duties. If they proved proficient at it, that became their specialty, in the same way a former junior scoring sensation would become a defensive center if he couldn’t crack one of the top two lines. That’s what pushed the arms race forward, when the league began the progression from naturally tough customers such as 6-foot-1, 185-pound bruiser Dave ‘The Hammer’ Schultz to 6-foot-3, 240-pound enforcer Donald Brashear to 6-foot-8, 260-pound super-heavyweight John Scott. Over time, players expected to fight altered their off-season training focus from their all-around game to their striking skills alone. More importantly to NHL owners, fighters became more prominent in the marketing, as fisticuffs routinely led TV highlight reel packages. But as the century turned, there was a notable change in attitudes. Science was beginning to provide insight into the long-term damage done to the brains and bodies of players who served in the role, and an increasing number of fans began to question the need for fights that seemed more rote and self-serving than passionate, spur-of-the-moment altercations. The public’s appetite for blood was waning, and the ramifications on the enforcer role would be unmistakable.  
  Until the turn of the 21st century, the modern NHL fighter had evolved in one direction: he became bigger and stronger, his skills more specialized and specifically attuned to the job of intimidation and retribution. But a number of factors have altered that evolution and begun returning the league to its pre-expansion roots where players who could combine skill and toughness were highly valued. For one thing, the NHL’s salary cap restrictions have forced GMs to spend their money on those who play a multifaceted game. For another, the growing awareness and concern for brain injuries have tempered the excitement some fans have for watching punches thrown, particularly in “staged” fights between two enforcers who don’t play more than a handful of minutes a night. Small wonder, then, that seven in 10 games last season didn’t include a single scrap, or that fighting on the whole was down 17 percent from the previous campaign. The appetite for gratuitous fights is shrinking, but from the perspective of a trio of enforcers who played the role in the past two decades, the game is less safe now than it’s ever been. Troy Crowder had one of the most memorable single seasons of scraps in NHL history. With the New Jersey Devils in 1990-91, he had 16 fights, including showdowns with a who’s who of fellow heavyweights: Tie Domi, John Kordic, Mike Peluso, Jeff Chychrun, Craig Berube, Ken Baumgartner and Craig Coxe. He fought Bob Probert three times that season. Crowder was 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, but he never saw himself as a one-dimensional on-ice force and never aspired to be the king of all fighters. He was a great track athlete. He was offered golf scholarships. He was stronger and faster than most teammates. He had no qualms about protecting those around him and fully understood fighting was his ticket to remaining in the NHL, but he still wanted to play meaningful minutes. He hated the idea he’d be sent over the boards strictly to change the momentum of the game. He was an old-school throwback who wanted to be a better player and not necessarily a better fighter. “Not getting a lot of ice time weighed on me more than anything,” Crowder said. “I had a few coaches who wanted me to set the tone, change the way a game was being played or basically intimidate another team so we’d win. I figured that wasn’t my role. I thought to myself, ‘If that’s what I’m here for, I should probably be the most valuable player on the team and you’d better put two more zeros on the end of my salary.’ But showing up to take care of a teammate? That’s in my nature.” Crowder didn’t just talk the talk of his convictions. He had the courage of them. When the Devils sent him to work with American League coach Tom McVie – one of those coaches who wanted to use his physicality as a tactic – Crowder decided he would rather walk away from the game at age 24. And that’s what he did for two years after a seven-game stint for Detroit in 1991-92 before he was lured back by the Kings in 1994 for one final three-year run that ended with the Canucks. For as torn as Crowder was over his place in hockey, he doesn’t regret any of it. Now 45, he’s proud of what he did in the protection of teammates, and he’s since moved on to apply himself to the business world. In short, he’s nobody’s victim. “If someone asked me about fighting in hockey, I’d say, ‘Yeah, it was really hard,’ ” Crowder said. “But I wouldn’t change it. Hockey needs to be patrolled. If you were taking advantage of someone, my job was making sure you didn’t. In today’s hockey, a lot of that is lost. There are more concussions because guys run opponents’ heads into the boards, or elbow them as they skate by, than there ever were from fighting. Unless they change all the rules and make all the penalties extreme, the rats will take over.” Unlike Crowder, Kelly Chase never wrestled with aspects of being an enforcer. At six-foot and 200 pounds, he never had a size advantage over anyone. But what he did have was an immense pride in looking after his teammates. In parts of 11 NHL seasons, Chase racked up 2,017 penalty minutes and never thought twice about the ramifications. He also said even repeated meetings with then-NHL disciplinarian Brian Burke didn’t dissuade him from behaving in a way he believed honored the game. “If I hit Steve Yzerman from behind, Brian Burke fining me was not what I concerned myself with,” said Chase, now the St. Louis Blues’ radio color commentator. “The suspension or the penalty was (fighting Bob) Probert and (Joey) Kocur, so I didn’t do that to Yzerman. A suspension or a fine wasn’t a deterrent. It didn’t deter me one time. I did what I did because I knew the difference between right and wrong.” Another respected tough guy, retired 14-year-veteran Stu Grimson, allowed that a tougher suspension policy – say, something like the Ontario League’s suspension policy that punishes repeat fighters on a sliding scale – would have given him pause as a player to drop the gloves as often as he did. “I would’ve probably had to be a little more conservative in what I did,” Grimson said. “I would’ve had to make sure I was mindful of those penalties as they accumulated.” Yet don’t take that admission to mean Grimson isn’t proud of the function he performed well enough to earn the ‘Grim Reaper’ nickname. Grimson, 49, became a lawyer and color commentator for the Nashville Predators after his playing career ended in 2002. He still believes fighting is an element of the game that needs to stay, and, like Chase, he feels a strong sense he made it easier for his more skilled teammates to play. If he does have one regret, Grimson said it was that he didn’t play in an era where players and management knew more about the specter of concussions and felt freer to self-report symptoms associated with head injuries. Grimson – whose career was ended by post-concussion syndrome – says the NHL can improve the culture so that players can be more open in discussing their health. “Fighting has evolved to a place where it’s not an arbitrary occurrence,” Grimson said. “It’s more controlled than it’s ever been, and medical treatment has evolved so that guys are treated in a far more attentive and healthier way.” Now 47, Chase comes by his old-school ways honestly. He’s proudest when he talks about former Blues teammate Pavol Demitra, who, prior to his death in the 2011 Lokomotiv plane crash, said his best NHL years came in St. Louis because Chase and fellow enforcer Tony Twist ensured nobody took advantage of him. Chase had more fear of being embarrassed in a fight than suffering a grievous injury. As a full-fledged member of the retired, no-regrets enforcers community, Chase agrees with Crowder that the present-day NHL is a more dangerous place because fewer tough guys are policing the ice. And he doesn’t for a second put any stock in a connection between fighting and the deaths of Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and Derek Boogaard within a four-month period in 2011. Because he focuses on the honor of the profession he chose, he resents when media and fans deride fighters as animalistic goons. Ultimately, he thinks hockey is better than that, and fighting is better than that. “The bulls--- about, ‘It’s caused guys to go drink,’ or, ‘It’s caused guys to get into substance abuse’ is a bunch of crap,” Chase said. “Everybody’s got anxiety. I thought it was an honorable way to play, and I would never give it back, the days I had in the NHL. I would never change the way I played.”  
  Brendan Shanahan (Getty Images) Brendan Shanahan never used fighting as a tactic, on the ice or off it. There was nothing strategic or calculating about it. From the time he was seven, he knew what it was to defend himself or someone close to him. His father, Donal, was a big strong man who preached pacifism. As a kid, however, Shanahan could often be found rolling around on sidewalks and lawns in suburban Toronto, taking on challenges the way kids often have to do to prove their mettle. It was simple, really: he did the beating up or was the beaten up. So as Shanahan, now the president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, got older and his two sporting loves – hockey and lacrosse – came calling, he was naturally prepared for what came next. But like everyone who goes from playing for fun to playing for keeps, he still needed an education. His experiences in major junior and the NHL created arguably the archetypal modern-day power forward: a player who gave as good as he got, who had among players a universal respect for his fairness and who never asked anyone else to settle his scores. Those experiences and that evolution still guide him today. Shanahan showed up in London, Ont., in 1985 to play for the Ontario League’s Knights as a high first-round pick, tall and lanky and just 16 years old. As such, he was a target for opponents right off the hop. Then-coach Don Boyd and management were surprised when they saw him more than hold his own in his first OHL fight, and Shanahan quickly realized how a no-guff-taken attitude carved out a bigger place for him on the ice. “It got me respect and room and space to score goals and be a better player,” Shanahan said. “There was no advantage growing up to being a decent fighter, but I found that during my first trip through each team I got treated one way, and my second trip through each team, I got treated differently.” That correlation between a willingness to mix things up and a grudging respect from opponents was never lost on Shanahan again. But he still had painful lessons to absorb about fighting. As a kid, he learned his opponents wouldn’t always play fairly, after a kid sucker-punched him when Shanahan granted his request for a time out in a fight. And during his OHL career, he discovered the price of being cocky. When Shanahan began to take after players who’d drop their gloves in a stylized fashion, he encountered an opponent who took advantage of his posing and punched him so hard in the face that his neck muscles were strained. After that he realized it wasn’t a good idea to put his chin out, invite someone to fight and then fling his hands down. When he entered the NHL after two years of junior, Shanahan was well established as a brand and continued playing a robust physical game. And he never shied away from fighting the toughest men hockey had to offer: Bob Probert, Marty McSorley, Willi Plett, Donald Brashear. His last fight, before he retired in 2009, was against Eric Boulton. But he never concocted any fight out of thin air and flimsy rationales. He had more respect than that, because he never fooled himself when it came to the cost incurred by teammates who had to fight more regularly. He roomed with many of them – including heavyweights Troy Crowder in New Jersey and Kelly Chase in St. Louis – and was acutely aware of the physical and mental toll the task took on them. “Most of my fights were spontaneous,” Shanahan said. “No matter how many times I fought, I knew it two seconds before it started, so I only had two seconds of nervous nausea. I wondered how a guy like Kelly Chase handled it. I’m thinking about a big rematch against Chicago, how I’ve got to play well and we need this win. And he’s thinking about (Mike) Peluso and (Stu) Grimson. I thought, ‘How do you eat tonight? How do you sleep tonight?’ ” As the years went on, Shanahan noticed a change in the habits of some enforcers. Whereas players such as Bob Probert, Tie Domi and Chris Nilan worked to become better players in all elements of the game and move from, say, the fourth line to the third line, a new breed of enforcers began training solely to become better fighters. They didn’t want to expand their role. They aimed to perfect the one they already had. But Shanahan still admired them for what he calls “the protective gene” he recognized in himself. He respected that most of them were great athletes who’d been pushed into a role they may not have enjoyed. And he wasn’t going to embarrass them, even if it meant taking lumps and even if he disagreed with the reasoning behind the fight. Look at a fight Shanahan had with Colorado enforcer Jim Cummins in 2004. There’s about 90 seconds left in the third period of a game in which Shanahan’s Red Wings had just scored an empty-net goal. Shanahan lines up on the wing for the center ice faceoff. He’s playing with Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov. The Avalanche send out Joe Sakic, Chris Drury and, right beside Shanahan, Cummins. Shanahan can sense Cummins doesn’t feel good about what he’s been sent on the ice to do. However, when Cummins says, ‘Shanny, we’ve got to go’, he obliges and they fight. It lasts about 40 seconds. Cummins gets in a handful of punches at the beginning, but Shanahan breaks his nose. There’s no real joy in it for either player. “I felt bad for him,” Shanahan said. “I didn’t want him to get in trouble, so we fought.” In his post-playing career days as the NHL’s senior vice-president of player safety, Shanahan tried to keep players out of trouble. Where once he doled out justice with his fists, he was punishing through fines and suspensions. But he took the job because he’s genuinely interested in making the game safer. He wanted a high standard of care and expectations for players, including the enforcers he knew so well and empathized with so easily. He thinks the pendulum in regard to fighting is switching back to it was in the ’50s and ’60s, when all players on a roster had to contribute in more ways than one. That’s why, while he’s not ashamed of his past or the role of an organic fight in the sport, he’d never suggest to a kid playing junior that he work on being a better fighter to succeed at hockey’s top levels. The education and evolution of Brendan Shanahan – and his own protective gene – inspire him to push the next generation to play the right way. “I would do everything I could to encourage a young player, if it’s his dream to make the NHL, to work on his skills,” he said. “There will always be intimidation in the game of hockey. There’s intimidation in baseball. But the answer is no, I would not want to give anyone advice on how to be a fighter. I don’t think it’s a life I’d hope for my children. The idea of teaching a young person how to develop that skill as a tactic is not something I would ever do in good conscience. For me, that’s not a condemnation of these men who have the protective gene. It’s me displaying my protective gene for them, if I could go back and grab them when they were 14 or 15 years old. For the people who spent a career and a lifetime protecting us, this is the responsible thing to say as far as protecting them.” This feature appeared in the Dec. 8 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.
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From deaths to monsters, a history of fighting in hockey