• The Hansons could score

    by Tyler Dellow • August 16, 2011 • Hockey • 46 Comments

    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.

    About Tyler Dellow

    46 Responses to The Hansons could score

    1. DSF
      August 16, 2011 at

      I’m an old fart and I resent your comments.

      But, for the life of me, I can’t remember why.

    2. David Staples
      August 16, 2011 at

      Good catch, Tyler. I was just watching a Classic Game, Flyers vs. Bruins from Stanley Cup finals in 1974,and I was struck by how skilled players like Dave Schultz and Andre Dupont were with the puck.

      Dupont, especially, could really skate and dish.

      It would seem the brutal nature of those Flyers is greatly over-rated.

      There’s no place in hockey for these can’t play goons, and the sooner the NHL eliminates this kind of player, through the proper and fierce punishment of fighting, the better.

      I’ve had it with thuggery and the NHL’s soft-on-crime stance.

    3. August 16, 2011 at

      Gabe Desjardins had something on his site a few months ago that showed the increasing “specialization” of goons over the years: from relatively normal sized players to the lumbering enforcers of the modern era. Clearly at some point in the past the guy who fought more often was just a regular player who also happened to be a tougher dude. Over the years, in the natural evolution of a the “goon arms race”, the guys got bigger and bigger and their skills became less about being hockey players and more about hurting hockey players.

      On the question of higher incidence on mental illness amongst fighters…it’s something that we can’t really know without a proper epidemiological study – after all, players are human and there is bound to be a certain amount of them that suffer from pathologies as a matter of probability.

      However, depression, anxiety and other co-morbid conditions (alcohol and drug abuse) are often maintained or exacerbated by high stress events. Depression and the like are notoriously difficult to untangle from various antecedents, but it’s entirely possible that fighting for a living, with it’s attendant pain and anxiety inducing qualities, can have deleterious effects on individuals who suffer from mood disorders or are prone to them.

      I plan to write something on this next week.

      • Schitzo
        August 17, 2011 at

        “but it’s entirely possible that fighting for a living, with it’s attendant pain and anxiety inducing qualities, can have deleterious effects on individuals who suffer from mood disorders or are prone to them.”

        Flip the correlation around, and it’s possible that individuals that are prone to mood disorders or self-abusive behaviour are the ones who are willing to make a living getting punched in the head.

        • August 17, 2011 at

          Very true. That said, some guys are “real” hockey players until they get to the big leagues where they have to fight to survive. Not all of them, granted.

    4. Joe
      August 17, 2011 at

      So what is your problem with eating bark off of trees?

    5. August 17, 2011 at

      really nice post. Last time I checked you don’t score goals with fists and I can’t believe that the purported momentum swings one gets from a fight could make up for the number of goals a more offensive, less fighting replacement player could have scored. Unless Gary Bettman replaces shootouts with fights (which might make the post-overtime conclusion remotely exciting, albeit equally ridiculous), I can’t see the point in having a dedicated puncher in the lineup.

      • Baines
        August 17, 2011 at

        I agree that having more goals scored is a good thing, and you need more skilled players to achieve this. However, with Betman’s boys sticking the whistle in their respective pockets the goal scoreers can’t do their jobs and the stickmen and goon tactics win the Stanley Cup. If the League were halfways consistent we would have a great game to watch game in and game out. Scoring would rise and the team with the most talent would be the champion. Alas that’s not how it works in the second season. Come on NHL get rid of the brawlers goons, gooofs, and hatchetmen; and let the game be played within the rules

        • Doogie2K
          August 17, 2011 at

          When have goon tactics won the Cup in recent years? Anaheim was a legit team that happened to like to fight a lot, and Boston won because they were able to lock down the Sedins (legitimately) and Vancouver’s secondary scoring was all injured. (And to show my biases, I’m a Habs supporter and dating a Canucks fan.)

    6. Schitzo
      August 17, 2011 at

      That’s interesting Tyler. It’s not like the NHL game can’t support 18 real skaters – you don’t see teams in international play rolling 3 lines because there’s not enough ice time to go around. Does that mean that the reason the 12th forward is a wasted roster spot simply because there’s no talent available that could be considered an improvement over a tired top-9 skater?

      I would have guessed that a switch to 18 skaters in the 1980s should have been sustainable without a loss in talent, simply because of the influx of European players.

      Although I suppose expansion would dilute the talent pool rather severely a few years later…

      • Tyler Dellow
        August 17, 2011 at

        Schitzo –

        I suspect that there isn’t a lot of competitive gain from an 18th skater who can play. If he’s the 18th skater, he can’t play THAT much.

        • Schitzo
          August 17, 2011 at

          Well, as an extreme example, Canada’s “4th” line for the 2010 Olympics averaged about 10-12 minutes per game. (Bergeron got 3-4 minutes as the 13th forward, Seabrook averaged 4-5 as the 7th D).

          But I take your point about whether there’s any marginal gain. Even at the Olympic level, I don’t know if there’s an advantage to stealing three minutes each from Crosby, Toews and Getzlaf to play Joe Thorton for ten minutes per game.

      • August 17, 2011 at

        Well, the Europeans didn’t really start coming in large amounts until the late 80′s. And even then, a lot of that was in relatively small numbers, amongst some pioneering teams. Mostly, the Europeans started coming in large numbers in the early 90′s, when teams started seeing the success of those pioneering teams. When the league expanded rosters in 1982, those spots opened before Europeans were necessarily available to fill them. And minor league hockey operations do have fighting as a significantly more important draw than the NHL, so if such guys were available, they had a chance to come up before the Europeans got those spots. Inertia can be a mother fucker, sometimes.

    7. August 17, 2011 at

      There’s a difference between “goons don’t help teams win hockey games” (I agree, 100%) and “fighting should be banned” (which isn’t the point you’re trying to make, but we should be very careful to keep those two arguments distinct).

    8. Tyler Dellow
      August 17, 2011 at

      Right Ben, although I guess I’m saying if the former is true, I’m not too bothered about the latter. I’ve heard lots of great sports treat fighting harshly and are popular nonetheless.

    9. Frank
      August 17, 2011 at

      as an unrepentant Islander Fan, Trevor Gillies did have 2 goals last year…

      • art v
        September 3, 2011 at

        That makes 3 goals in 17 years of organized hockey.
        Bravo.

    10. Dan
      August 17, 2011 at

      What do people think of this as a way to curb pure enforcers. After a certain number of fights on a year (lets say 5), for every fight after that the player faces an automatic 1 game suspension. If the player gets a suspension from this, the coach gets a small fine. So if Colton Orr has 8 fights in a season, he would receive 3 1 game suspensions that year. Player should be able to stand up for themselves, and even Iginla drops them once in awhile. This doesnt discourage fighting, but discourages dressing goons.

    11. Saj
      August 17, 2011 at

      Interesting find.

      New site design is nice, but colour of text is a little light for a white background…tough on the eyes to read a long article.

    12. Peacecountry
      August 17, 2011 at

      I think that its important to remember that TV timeouts have played a large role in having specialized players in the lineup. The two minute break that players get during the timeout is effectively taking one or two shifts each timeout from the guys on the bottom end of the roster.

    13. poploser
      August 17, 2011 at

      Nice work, as usual. In my view, the elimination of the “goon” will be a way the NHL to try to address the (seemingly increasing) concerns about a link between fighting and long-term head injuries. In my view, that will be a fruitless effort and will just delay the inevitable elimination of fighting from the game. I’m not sure if I’ll be alive to see that happen, but I do believe its inevitable.

      Once people start poking holes in the Fighting Myth, with articles like this, they will be faced with the fact that removing fighting from the game completely will have no impact on the game itself.

    14. August 17, 2011 at

      I did a mini-study on this a while back – basically if you give Semenko and Schultz the shooting percentages of Brashear and Laraque (two of the more hockey-skilled enforcers of the last decade and a half), they turn out to be basically the same player. Probert’s 62 point season was on the back of a 23% shooting percentage – it was 9th in the league at the time, but it would be 2nd in 2011, and 3rd place would be 3 full percentage points lower. All of this is another way of saying that the skill level in the NHL has exploded over the last 30 years, and especially at the position of goaltender. I also imagine that the skill level of fighters has increased as the specialization of the position has filtered even down to the minor leagues – Derek Boogaard had 3 goals in his WHL career.

      Still, this is a situation where inertia reigns – fans love fighting, the players approve of it, the fighters certainly approve of it – I can’t see it going anywhere any time soon.

      • dawgbone
        August 17, 2011 at

        Personally speaking, fighting in hockey doesn’t bother me. I’m not a fan of the 2 designated fighters just fighting each other as both teams launch their nukes at each other.

        That being said, I’ve always kind of liked the fights between 2 good players. One that springs to mind is Iginla and Lecavalier in the 04 finals.

        Here’s the thing about fighting though… no one misses it in the World Championships, WJC or Olympics where fights almost never happen.

        No one misses them in the playoffs where they occur a fraction of the time compared to the regular season.

        I think the fans and the players could easily make the transition to a league where 230 lbs boxers don’t take up a roster spot.

        • August 17, 2011 at

          “Here’s the thing about fighting though… no one misses it in the World Championships, WJC or Olympics where fights almost never happen.

          No one misses them in the playoffs where they occur a fraction of the time compared to the regular season.”

          The stakes are much higher during these situations. The regular season is very low stakes. You’ve got 8 teams who are near locks to make the playoffs and 8 teams who are near locks to miss it. Playoff position doesn’t really confer a benefit. Many of the games in the first half of the season have little meaning.

          I don’t think I would miss staged fighting, but there is definitely an element of the hockey audience that loves it. It’s tough to get people to buy regular season tickets in mid to small markets, a serious reduction in fighting could make it even tougher.

          • Vic Ferrari
            August 18, 2011 at

            For the most part I find hockey fights boring, especially when watching on TV.

            Others don’t feel the same, though. On the rare occasions that I listen to Edmonton sports talk radio, hockey fighting talk monopolizes the conversation. I don’t know whether the talk show hosts actually believe it or are just playing along, but they talk as if having a terrific fighter or two on the roster an make for a 20 point swing in the standings. Seems flat out bonkers to me, but Edmonton Oiler fans who call talk radio shows would seem to agree, by and large.

            • August 20, 2011 at

              ” but they talk as if having a terrific fighter or two on the roster an make for a 20 point swing in the standings.”

              I can’t tell if these are sales pitches, but more likely it’s just passed down from the ‘old guard’ – I don’t think there’s a color commentator who won’t say after a scrap that this might energize the good guys, give them some energy, etc. Fans believe it because, by and large, they like fighting, and now there’s this ex-player telling them that it really gets the boys’ blood moving.

              But yeah, I wonder when the staged fights really began in earnest – I feel like they’ve exploded in the last 5 years, but these are also the years I’ve paid the most attention to hockey.

    15. August 17, 2011 at

      Great observation here… I think you already see an indicator that roster sizes are too big in the number of teams that run under 23 due to salary cap or budget concerns, and comfortably do so for extended periods of time. I’ll have to go back and check, for example, but Nashville didn’t carry any press box scratches after the trade deadline, accepting the risk of playing a man short in case of emergency.

      Oh, and this?

      “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.”

      Stu Grimson appears not to be a disaster, as he’s practicing law here in Nashville, along with the occasional spot doing radio commentary at a Preds game.

      • Hawerchuk
        August 18, 2011 at

        Stu found religion though. Probably proves Tyler’s point.

    16. Jeremy
      August 17, 2011 at

      Great post Tyler. I seem to remember reading somewhere last year that Boudreau, would often leave Ovie out for extended shifts (1:30) because he was capable of being out there longer than 45 seconds. Would there not be be some competetive advantage to a team effectively dressing 3 quality lines (let the fourth line sit there in case of emergency – teams already do this in the 3rd period of games regularly) and just waiting til the opposing team sent their 4th line over the boards to exploit the mismatch. I don’t know if the conditioning of these players would stand up to this, but I don’t know why a top notch forward line couldn’t be counted on for 23-24mins a game. I realize this probably increases the chances of injury, but don’t these players want to be on the ice.

    17. Brian
      August 17, 2011 at

      Pardon my ignorance, but where is the list. Don’t mock me if I’m too dumb to see it, but I can’t.

      Thanks.

    18. August 20, 2011 at

      I was looking into the same phenomenon last month in writing this, and it hit me that the prototypical goon-protecting-player arrangement people reach back to, even before Semenko-Gretzky, was Ferguson-Beliveau.

      Ferguson had 303 points in 500 games.

      I concluded that piece by saying, “it’s time to change our attitudes and move forward without the old-fashioned goon.” After reading this and some other recent work on the subject, maybe we need to bring back the old-fashioned goon and get rid of the newfangled kind instead.

      • August 20, 2011 at

        ” maybe we need to bring back the old-fashioned goon and get rid of the newfangled kind instead.”

        i don’t think coaches want their best players risking injury, fatiguing themselves with fights, and taking themselves out of the game for 5 minutes. the pat verbeek type is dead, imo – the skill level of the NHL is just too high.

        • August 21, 2011 at

          That coaches see fighting as too dangerous to be of value to be performed by anyone in the top nine/four, yet too valuable to eschew altogether, says a lot about the culture and the inherent disposability of fourth-liners.

    19. FastOil
      August 21, 2011 at

      A legitimate fight in hockey can be an exciting thing, competing narratives of hero and villain, justice, vengeance, directly in step with the flow and emotion of the game. A staged fight is boring, and disturbing if someone gets really hurt over nothing, like Ivanans.

      The arms race likely coincides with the increase in money in the game. Given that the owners direct the league there is nothing to stop them from a destructive game of one up.

      For mouth breathers with limited career outlooks, the option of becoming a millionaire by beating and hacking people must be appealing. Sort of like a mercenary. Back when the money wasn’t as great for most players, I think the tough guys still really had to want to be hockey players first to take on the risks and pains.

      Crosby’s largest contribution to the game may ending being a season ending concussion. That the game’s best player’s career has a cloud over it may be enough to get the owners to smarten up and restore the game back to an era where players had some respect for each other.

      • August 22, 2011 at

        I think you’re making a huge mistake in assuming that today’s goons are boxers who someone strapped a pair of skates on, or some dude who only got to this point because he has an undying love for getting punched in the face.

        Many of these players were pretty good players on their way up to the NHL. Jody Shelley could probably skate circles around anyone posting here. For a lot of them, the issue is that they’d already invested so much in hockey, that when they couldn’t quite make it in the NHL, they took whatever avenue they could to get there and get the paycheck and be within the game, even if it means getting punched in the face. You can’t assume that today’s goons don’t love to be a hockey player – they had to, to get that far, and in fact, given that they’re willing to put their brain on the line in order to finally make it as a hockey player, they quite demonstrably want to be hockey players.

        • Tyler Dellow
          August 22, 2011 at

          Shelley might be able to but he’s not on my list. Steve MacIntyre had 5 points in 127 games in the WHL. I think I might have been able to do that.

    20. August 22, 2011 at

      Hah, changed your mind again, huh? I thought the last one looked really good, actually.

      • Tyler Dellow
        August 22, 2011 at

        If I can tweak a few things, I like this one. I hate the script that does the shading and want the headlines to show though.

        • dawgbone
          August 22, 2011 at

          New layout looks like the Toronto Sun website.

          • Tyler Dellow
            August 22, 2011 at

            Christ. I’ll have to get Tencer to give me pictures to put up.

            twitpic.com/69tjwi

            • August 23, 2011 at

              The limited nature of this comment nesting kind of defeats the point, especially with the long arguments had frequently in these comments. :-/

              Having looked through those Elegant Themes’ templates, I almost feel like nothing that they do is going to work properly/easily for what is a slow-moving, no-picture, big-text environment like this. This margin business is ridiculous, I’m gonna go grab my tape measure, cause I’m pretty sure the margins on my screen are bigger than the text field.

              Yup. I’m on 1280×1024 on a 19″, and I’ve got 3″, ~6.75″, ~4.5″. So 7.5″ of grey margin, and 6.75″ of actual content. That’s crazy.

            • August 23, 2011 at

              Also, this front page doesn’t show # of comments on a news post, that was one of the things I liked about the previous one. Easy to see if there’s been new comment activity, if the number went up.

              Of course, now you have to search for the new activity within the multiple short threads, whereas before you just jumped to the bottom. :-/

            • August 23, 2011 at

              Oh shit, you fixed the left margin!

              I toast my water bottle to you, sir!

    21. DSF
      August 23, 2011 at

      Sorry Tyler…but the new site design looks like a Windows Phone or whatever Microsoft is calling it this week.

      The realtor’s den was wanting but superior.

    22. August 22, 2011 at

      “Figment” is supposed to point here. Can’t edit to fix, sorry. But the point is made.

    23. August 23, 2011 at

      Hm. Weird that this one’s still awaiting moderation.

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