Like many people, I was saddened to read about Rick Rypien’s death and noted that it was the third involving seemingly healthy guys who were noteworthy for having made a living fighting on skates in a relatively short period of time. I’m reasonably convinced that there’s probably nothing to it but coincidence although, anecdotally, hockey fighters seem to be a spectacularly screwed up set of individuals. I find it sort of noteworthy that the most prominent ex-fighter whose life isn’t notorious for being a disaster seems to be Georges Laraque, a guy who was famously ambivalent about fighting in the first place.
In any event, although I was inspired to look at some numbers by Rypien’s death, what follows isn’t connected to it. I haven’t marshalled any evidence that there’s any sort of a connection between fighting and dying young or having a disastrous off-ice life (and I should even be careful noting the connection as it’s the sort of thing that narrative pushers love). I was, however, intrigued when I looked into the numbers a bit. If you know the mythology of the game, you know that the 1970′s are reputedly the bloodiest part of the game’s history, when men were men. If you’re an Edmonton fan, the story goes that the Oilers saved hockey from itself; for everyone else, I suppose you probably just think that fighting petered out due to rule changes to impose accountability on coaches for brawls.
Looking through the numbers though, I came across something interesting. The pure goon, a player like Steve MacIntyre, didn’t really exist prior to 1980. I defined a pure goon season as being one in which a player produces no more than one point per twenty games, plays at least twenty games and averages at least two PIM per game. I limited my analysis to forwards, for obvious reasons. This produced a list of 101 players, with names like you’d expect: MacIntyre, Colton Orr, Cam Janssen, Andrew Peters, Darcy Hordichuk (a guy I was criticized for not mentioning as a reason for optimism for the Oilers…get over it…get over it), Riley Cote…real cementheads,
Amazingly to me, of the 101 player-seasons on my list (guys like Janssen and Peters show up repeatedly), exactly none of them occurred before 1980-81 and only ten of them prior to 1990-91. This baffled me, so I went back and ran the search again, changing the parameters to include forwards with at least a point every ten games, twenty games played and two PIM per game during the 1970s. This produced one more name, a fellow by the name of Dave Hoyda, who scored 1-3-4 for (of course) Philadelphia in 41 games in 1977-78 while accumulating 119 PIM. It seems that, prior to 1980, if you wanted to be an NHL hockey player, you couldn’t be one just because you could fight. Guys like Dave Schultz and Tiger Williams could put a few points on the board as well.
NHL rosters expanded to 18 skaters for 1982-83, which probably played a role in driving some of this. There’s an important point here, I think. First of all, full disclosure: although I don’t think that the evidence conclusively establishes that there’s a connection between fighting and all of the awful stuff that happens to some fighters, I put very little value on fighting as a hockey skill or an integral part of a hockey game. As such, were I the guy making decisions, the evidentiary burden on those who’d like to see it banned would be pretty low. It’s like if there was a study that suggested that eating bark off trees was bad for you, but it wasn’t a great study – eating bark off trees isn’t a particularly high value activity so the sensible thing would be to refrain.
The important point though is that when the old farts go on about fighting being an integral part of the game, guys like Steve MacIntyre actually aren’t in the tradition of hockey up until 1980 and even then only barely. They’ve only really become a part of the game in the 1990s and 2000s. You cannot support an argument for their continued existence in the game on the basis of history.
I’ve mused before that rosters are too big in the NHL. We see coaches trying to kill games with fourth lines, sending them out to ensure that nothing happens for 40 seconds before scooting back to the bench. The existence of the pure goon is, I think, another piece of evidence in support of that view. Coaches have determined that the 18th roster spot is of such little value that you can safely fill it with a guy who can’t skate. Coaches didn’t used to think that. The expansion in rosters is the obvious reason that they do now.
If you remember that famous scene in Slapshot, you know that, amidst the mayhem, the Hansons pot a goal and still had a teammate refer to them as a “fucking disgrace.” If they re-made Slapshot with the Hansons portraying the goons of today, they’d spend the entire scene penned in their own of the ice before one of them ritualistically paired off with someone else. (If I was Chris Jones, I’d add “…concussed him and then downed a bottle of pills with the aid of some hard liquor.” But I’m not.) That doesn’t strike me as a particularly good evolution of the sport.