I was not planning to post after the Saturday night game at the ACC, but watching the Orr/McLaren theatrics in the third period with the Leafs ahead 3-1 gave me pause. (The Leafs hung on to win, though the Sabres threw a scare into us in a sometimes sloppy third period...)
But after seeing the aforementioned display, I asked myself, as someone who has been watching hockey for 55 years, what do hockey/Leaf fans mean when we say things like, “Toronto needs players who will protect our skill guys”.
We’ve heard all-time great Bobby Orr saying we need fighting in hockey. Don Cherry has been trumpeting that cause for years. The fear, I guess, is that ‘rats’ will take over the game, as Cherry likes to call players who he feels are dirty but won’t fight.
But forget Orr and Cherry, as much as their views are supported by countless fans, young and old. I want to try to understand what people mean when they talk about a team needing enforcers, and being able to defend their skill guys.
I often talk here about what I call true “team toughness”. I’ve described here before exactly what I mean by that—players who are tough on the puck, and play hard in the corners and in front of both nets, who play a physical game and are difficult to play against. When you have enough of those types of players, you are, to me, a tough team.
In my view, if a team needs to retaliate, it need not always be with a fight (as we saw with Orr and McLaren Saturday night, though I’m not sure exactly what Phaneuf was so angry about when Scott tried to hit him- was that really a dirty play and I just missed seeing that it was?). My belief is that if a team feels the need to respond against a legitimate injustice, you can do that with tough, clean hockey. A response may mean the occasional fight, of course, but is that what hockey culture has come to—every check demands a fight in return?
Me, I want to see rock-hard plays—guys who will bowl over the opposition trying to get to the puck, who will knock guys ass-over-tea kettle and make good, clean hits, but hits that still leave an impression.
When I see our fourth line, it just seems like their solitary preoccupation is proving how tough they are by fighting. (I know they have not been fighting as much lately—whether that is by design or not I don’t know. But they still play so few minutes.) I know both Orr and McLaren can forecheck, but let’s be honest—there are hundreds of borderline, mediocre professional hockey players who can hustle and forecheck. There are all kinds of players who would work like mad if they got minutes on an NHL team’s fourth line.
But must those players always be fighters?
Those who visit VLM at all regularly know some of the names I keep trotting out who I have admired over the years, names of “tough” hockey players. Off the top of my head that list would include people like Bert Olmstead, Claude Provost, Bobby Pulford (right), Johnny McKenzie, Bob Gainey, Terry O’Reilly, Bob Nystrom and in more recent times, Gary Roberts and Brendan Shanahan. These were all stars, I realize, not fourth-line NHL’ers. But they were tough, fought for every inch of ice and were hard to play against. Sure they would fight, but that wasn’t their whole game.
Nowadays, it seems as though there are still players who are primarily there to fight, full stop. And it’s just so frustrating. (Yes, we had tough guys who fought a lot when I was a young fan back in the ‘60s, individuals like John Ferguson and Reggie Fleming. But I saw them in action, and they could also play the game. Check their records- they could score 15+ goals a season in the old six-team NHL.)
I guess I’m a lone voice on this one, or close to it. People seem to love fighting. No one leaves their seats during a fight, which is supposed to “prove” it’s what fans want. (No one leaves the building during a shoot-out, but I hate that, too.) And many fans seem to hang on Cherry’s point about “rats”.
Does anyone visiting remember when the mid-‘70s Sabres team had third/fourth-line guys like Rick Dudley and Brian Spencer? They were agitators, sure, but they were also tough as nails and while they could fight, they played hockey, too. They would forecheck like mad, bottle up the opposition in their own end, skate themselves to near exhaustion because they worked so hard on every shift. They could turn the momentum of a game around. If you felt your side was getting knocked around, a coach would feel comfortable sending them out to even the score through sheer determination.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that’s the kind of “bottom-six” hockey I, personally, would like to see. Real hockey players who can fight if that’s what the game—and the moment—calls for. But they are their because of their tenacity, grit and toughness in the best sense of that word in hockey terms. (And yes, skill, too.) The type of players I’m talking about are those who can play more than three minutes a night, and the coach is not reluctant to send them out there when the game is on the line. Maybe Ashton can be that kind of Leaf but he seems stuck on a low-minute fourth line when he is in the lineup.
Yes, I want Leafs on the roster who can defend skill players like the Kessels and Gardiner, etc., while still playing the game. Maybe David Clarkson will be precisely that kind of guy. “Pay back” can come in many forms—a goal, for example, after a borderline play against one of your teammates can sometimes be a bigger dagger than a meaningless fight, right? A shift where you hammer the opposition with good, clean checks can do the same.
Why must it always be a fight?
I will aim to post specifically about the Leafs at the 20-game mark in the next day or so. For now, I’ll post any comments that address your views on my topic today only. We can bat around how we feel the Leafs are doing to this point in the season next time.