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Why Good Teams FIGHT
October 13, 2008
With hockey's dark art making a comeback, star players have to be protected. Call it insurance or self-defense, but clubs are muscling up with a new breed of tough guy
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October 13, 2008

Why Good Teams Fight

With hockey's dark art making a comeback, star players have to be protected. Call it insurance or self-defense, but clubs are muscling up with a new breed of tough guy

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THE MONTREAL CANADIENS' new bodyguard stands 6'3" and weighs 255 pounds. He enjoys moonlighting as a radio deejay, fostering humanitarian causes and, when professionally advantageous, punching people in the head. � This would be an eye-catcher in the personals, but Georges Laraque never has to advertise. Now on his fourth team in 2 1/2 years Laraque, seventh among active players with 118 career fights, signed a three-year, $4.5 million contract at 31, an advanced age for a hockey player who earns his living primarily with clenched fists. The surprise was not the generous terms for a gregarious fellow who had been entrusted to score the occasional goal and keep the flies off Sidney Crosby for the past year-plus in Pittsburgh but that it was Montreal ponying up for a player who averages less than eight minutes a game and who did not even dress for the last five matches of the Stanley Cup finals.

Considering that the Canadiens had the best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference last season without employing an enforcer, and that Laraque turned into an outsized hood ornament deep into the playoffs, why were they smitten with Big Georges? Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau is still dubious about fighting's role—"There were lots of times last year when I came into the [dressing] room between periods and told them I didn't want them to fight," says Carbonneau, whose team ranks next to last in the league in fighting majors over the past three seasons with 72—but he categorizes Laraque as a "good insurance policy." (Slogan: Grab a piece of Laraque!) As general manager Bob Gainey said of his new windup toy, "He helps us check off an area where we don't want to be vulnerable. We're not a big team. We have new, formative offensive players. Many are Europeans. It's nice to have a big brother in the schoolyard."

Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire, whose team retains 6'7", 258-pound brawler Derek Boogaard, understands completely. "We all say, 'No, no, it's not necessary [to have a fighting presence]' before we go out and do exactly what they did," Lemaire says. "They needed [Laraque]. Otherwise they wouldn't have gotten him. It's that simple."

As the 2008--09 NHL season begins, fighting—for the first time in the postlockout era—is back with, well, a vengeance. Although the league does nothing to market fighting (new Tampa Bay Lightning coach Barry Melrose thinks the league is embarrassed by its resurgence), and skill and speed are at an alltime premium, players pairing off and pounding away is trending upward. There were nearly 1.1 fighting majors per game last season, up about 57% from 0.7 in 2005--06, the first season after the lockout. (If you have never seen 0.7 of a fight, you missed the powder puff between Montreal defenseman Andrei Markov and Ottawa center Jason Spezza in April.) Fighting won't ever return to the donnybrook days of the 1970s, but after a period of restraint much of the league has remembered that a player with thunder in his fists can still change a game—or in the case of the Carolina Hurricanes, perhaps a season.

CAROLINA HADN'T had an intimidator for nearly two years when, in a game last Dec. 26, New York Rangers ruffian Colton Orr wallpapered Hurricanes center Matt Cullen coming across the blue line. The fallout from the hit was a broken nose and a concussion for Cullen, and a promotion from the minors for 6'4", 225-pound tough guy Wade Brookbank. Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour speculates that if Brookbank had been on the roster for the New York game, Orr might not have laid out Cullen with such force. Brind'Amour credits the arrival of Brookbank and, later, Tim Conboy, another enforcer from the AHL, for a 16-6-2 record over the final two months of last season. "Teams weren't so willing to run our guys," Brind'Amour says. "If you have [an enforcer] on the bench, other teams know there's going to be some retribution."

Coach Peter Laviolette had a no-fighting policy during the Hurricanes' 2006 Stanley Cup run, but this year the question among NHL coaches and front-office thinkers is not whether to fight—moral ambivalence, incidentally, is practically impossible to find—but simply how often to do it and who to entrust with the responsibility. In the traditional model a team carries a full-time head-bopper like the Philadelphia Flyers' Riley Cote. "Cote doesn't even realize there's a puck on the ice," an Atlantic Division center says of the up-by-his-bootstraps player who averaged a little more than four minutes of ice time per game last season. But with the salary cap inhibiting investment in such one-dimensional players, more clubs are entrusting fisticuffs to players who can also help in other ways. Consider the NHL's reigning fight leader, Columbus forward Jared Boll, a 6'2", 206-pound stripling who also chipped in five goals last year. "Boll is part of a new generation of fighter because he can play [a good amount of] minutes and fight, too," star Rick Nash says of his 22-year-old Blue Jackets teammate, who averaged eight minutes and engaged 27 times last year. "He's a good player."

The Chicago Blackhawks, who dispensed with pugilist David Koci (now with the rock 'em--sock 'em Lightning), will try fighting by committee this season, relying on tough guys with some skill such as Adam Burish, Ben Eager and James Wisniewski. The Boston Bruins, second in the East to the Flyers in fighting majors last season, don't have an old-style tough because of players such as rampaging sophomore Milan Lucic, an impressive winger who battles as well as he plays. ("Lucic played his role to perfection in the playoffs, trying to get into [rough-and-tumble defenseman Mike] Komisarek's head and abusing him a little," Carbonneau says. "I'm sure with a guy like Georges around, Lucic will stay a little quieter.") The dukes-up Vancouver Canucks, third in the league in fighting majors last season, are trying it both ways: Just as having Laraque in Montreal means Komisarek can sidestep some fights, signing one-dimensional Darcy Hordichuk to a three-year, $2.3 million deal relieves the fighting burden on core defensemen such as Willie Mitchell and Kevin Bieksa, who'll still get their swings in.

Anyway, enough with the prelims. On to the main event. Since the lockout two teams have appeared in a league-best eight playoff series. Each has won a Stanley Cup. In the black-and-blue corner, the Anaheim Ducks, who have lapped the rest of the league in fights with 178 since the lockout. And in the Greenpeace corner, the Detroit Red Wings, a one-off who are tougher than shoe leather but who also have been last in fighting majors in each of the past three seasons, totaling an astounding 141 fewer than Anaheim has.

To borrow from ring announcer Michael Buffer, let's get ready to ruminate.

WHEN THE Red Wings broke training camp in 2005, new coach Mike Babcock was concerned about the team's level of grit. Babcock, who had most recently coached Anaheim, believed intimidation was one of hockey's cornerstones. One of his favorite teams had been in Spokane, where his junior players would "make you so scared, you couldn't play. Even when they were ahead, they would fight so you couldn't get back into the game." He was uncertain this Detroit team had sufficient gumption. On the eve of a season in which Babcock's Red Wings would finish the regular season with a Gandhi-like six fighting majors, then get shocked by Edmonton in the first round of the playoffs, the coach asked G.M. Ken Holland, "Where's the toughness?"

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