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What is real toughness in hockey?

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.


  1. Hi Michael.
    The leafs have improved team toughness but I think we have enforcers on the Leafs because the organization believes they don't have enough of the big, tough, skilled players. So, while the Leafs were much tougher last year and considerably harder to play against (and showed more of that in preseason), they are not there yet.
    The addition of Clarkson and Bolland helped to add toughness with some skill. Young Ashton certainly has it though he doesn't play many minutes. While Randy will insist on more toughness from his players, and we're seeing more from Gardiner for example, he will never be the sort of "tough" you describe. Neither will Kessel or Bozak and not for lack of trying but because they can't give something they don't have. They are tougher now than before but they will never ever be "tough". And that's okay, we need skilled players.
    Until the Leafs can come up with a Roberts or two I think we won't see much of a change in the fourth line. To have a line sitting on the bench for most of a game seems an awful waste but that's what they have for now. C.N.

    1. I agree with your sentiments, C.N.- I would not expect Bozak, Kessel or Gardiner to be "tough" in the way I describe, though they can certainly fight for the puck, finish their checks, eliminate their man, etc., which they often do. (In his day, longtime Leaf forward Dave Keon was not a "tough" player in the conventional sense, but he was a determined individual who played hard constantly and led the team in take-outs every season...)

      I just think that for all this talk of depth on the roster, a lot of fans would like to see a different kind of depth on the fourth line. Thanks C.N.

  2. Hi Michael,

    You and I are lock step in agreement on tough hockey players. I don't hate fighting in hockey. I hate the players who are capable of doing nothing but fighting. Insert Orr and McLaren here, add John Scott to the mix. This is where I actually have respect for Scott. He knows he can't play, so he gets the other team off its game, he agitates, he provokes, he antagonized the Leafs last night. What exactly do our goons bring to the table? David Clarkson is a tough hockey player, and he has fought more times this year than Orr. If Colton Orr was scoring for Clarkson, I would shut up, but we all know that it is tough to score getting four minutes a game.

    My definition of a tough hockey player is this. Someone who will always take a hit to make a play, hit a player to make a play. A guy who is first on the forecheck, first on the backcheck. This player will block shots, as well as sometimes fighting for himself. He might even fight on his team-mates behalf, doesn't have to in my book, but he might. You might even describe a tough player as someone who is reckless with his body, plays on the edge a fair percentage of the time. This is fine with me as long as you are willing to face the music. Whenever you take a run at a team-mate there should be a response, either by the player who was run, if he wants, or by someone else who steps up and says, not while I'm around you don't.

    There have always been rats in the NHL, guys who would use their stick, and try to hurt others without payback. There are still those guys today, not much has changed. Immediate retribution would stop a lot of that in my book. I don't know if removing the instigator penalty would help or not. It might encourage players on both teams to mind their pints and quarts, it might not. If Kaleta or whomever, faced an immediate fight with someone not of his choosing after running around, he might be less willing to run around. And I am not suggesting we have a we'll get him next time approach. I mean immediately, someone on the ice when it happens, attempts to rearrange his appearance in a permanent way. Swift, cold and brutal.

    The other way I see that you can protect your star players, is the same way Gretzky was protected for the first half of his career or so. If someone got out of line with him, Semenko would be over to explain why that isn't a good idea, on your next shift. No waiting, no chirping, just punishment for your transgression. The fact that no one on Toronto made sure that Scott faced retribution is what I found appalling. I mean really, why bother with goons, if they aren't going to be goons. On my team, if Scott can challenge Kessel and try to kill him. After McLaren is done fighting John Scott, I would send Colton Orr over the boards to pound the crap out of Drew Stafford or Erhoff. Solely because if that is the way Buffalo chooses to conduct business then that is what their players should expect to get back. How excited would the stars on Buffalo be to see John Scott on the ice if they know that if he gets out of line, someone on the other team might pick them to exact retribution upon? I assume that internally all teams would play a more respectful game this way.

    Wendel Clark, Gary Roberts, Brendan Shanahan, David Clarkson if he would score more. Are all tough hockey players. I guess that is kind of where we are going with this, they are hockey players first and tough guys, second. But, if you are going to have goons, don't try to pretend they aren't goons. Goon it up, old time hockey, that would be fine with me too.

  3. Lots to consider in your comment today, Jim. I especially appreciate your second paragraph, as it does a better job than I have in explaining in clear terms what a truly "tough" hockey player is. Thanks Jim.

  4. I think Jim nails it on the head. To me the ultimate example of tough skilled hockey was, believe it or not was Jean Beliveau. A guy who plays less than 5 minutes a night but fights is pretty much a wasted roster spot. Eventually, only playing your fourth line a couple of minutes a night will catch up to the Leafs. We're talking about an 82 game schedule and trying to play it with three lines is a recipe for disaster.

    I hate to say this but over the last two nights Ott was a pretty good example of tough hockey. A couple of points and when Clarkson took a pretty good run at a rookie Ott went after him. On a team that is going to challenge for last place and has four teenagers in the lineup that was the kind of fighting I have no problem with.

    1. I get your thoughts on Beliveau- I know exactly what you mean, Willbur. (Though a much smaller player, that's why I mentioned Keon above in chatting with C.N.)

      The fourth line issue is a serious one and maybe it will be solved when the roster is healthy. We'll see.

      Thanks for mentioning Ott- I meant to reference him in one of those last two posts. He is a real catalyst and as annoying as he is as an opponent, he is the kind of guy Jim describes- and that you'd like to have on your team. Thanks Willbur.

    2. Thank you for the acknowledgement Wiiibur. Nice of you to say, a lot of us appreciate the blog a little more when you have time to post your thoughts.