"How we treat our warriors when the battle is over"

One of the films I really wanted to see at TIFF this year was The Last Gladiators (imdb | tiff), a documentary about hockey fighters. But it wasn’t high on Nellie’s list, and when you only see five films in the festival you pick ones that you’re both hot for. I wanted to see it because it was about hockey and because it was directed by Alex Gibney and because the main subject was Chris “Knuckles” Nilan. But mostly I wanted to see it I feel like it could be a document of a turning point that we can’t quite distinguish yet because we’re in the middle of it.

Just before the film festival began Wade Belak, until recently a Toronto Maple Leaf known mainly for his fighting, committed suicide. In August Rick Rypien, another fighter, also committed suicide. In May former New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogard died of an overdose of alcohol and painkillers. This was the backdrop for this documentary, most or all of which wouldn’t have been there when Gibney started filming.

But the fact that I would describe these guys as “fighter” or “enforcer” distinguishes them from the likes of Nilan. Nilan could play. Three times he scored 15+ goals in a season. In six of his seasons he was a plus player. Over his career he earned about a point every 3 games. Boogard and Belak, by comparison, earned a point every 17 games or so, though they were defensemen; Rypien, a forward, earned a point about every 7.5 games. Those three were the type of player commonly referred to as “goons”. So was Nilan, no mistake, but Nilan could play. Likewise, Bob Probert — probably the most feared fighter in the league during the late80s and early 90s — twice scored 20+ goals in a season and averaged a point every 2.4 games. Probert, by the way, struggled for years with drugs and alcohol and died at the age of 45. Even the talented among this contingent weren’t immune from whatever demons haunted them.

There are more stats and anecdotes pointing to the fact that fighters were, and are, a tormented bunch on the whole. That alone should be an emotional jolt sufficient to give the Don Cherrys of the world pause, and wonder whether the price fighters pay is justified. God knows, the logical line of reasoning hasn’t worked.

For the first few years after the NHL expanded from 21 teams to 30 it was fashionable to slag expansion for diluting the talent pool in the NHL. By and large it did at first, but as Europe opened up and talent development in the US accelerated, the talent filled the roster spots. But no talent pool exists to feed the requirement for goons, and so the makeup of teams changed. Before expansion, when the likes of Nilan and Probert played, it was much harder to be a “single-purpose” goon…that is, someone on the team solely to fight. Nilan’s job was to protect talented Montreal players; Probert’s job was to protect Steve Yzerman. Dave Semenko’s job in Edmonton was to protect Wayne Gretzky, just as Marty McSorley’s was in LA, but both men could play. The 21-team market was small enough to filter out the pure goons; you only made an NHL team as a fighter if you could also score or play defense. As so many new teams now felt they needed enforcers, they filled their rosters with what remained: pure fighters. It may seem a subtle difference, but it’s an important one:  if you were a player who happened to fight, like McSorley or Probert, and the game called for playing, you played. You skated, you shot, you backchecked, you cleared the front of your net, and you won. You played hockey. If a fight was needed — a concept that had been around for decades, but became glaringly apparent with the goonish tactics of the Flyers and Bruins in the 70s — then you fought. Today, there are several players — on each opposing team — whose sole purpose in the league is to fight. Their skills aren’t enough to call them up from the minors, or even draft them, if they didn’t fight. This, in the common pro-fighting parlance, is “knowing your role”. And this is what’s killing the game.

The result of what I describe above is staged fights. Everyone knows that the second enforcers from both teams are on the ice, they’ll fight. That’s what they’re there for. It’s all that they’re there for. They’re not sticking up for themselves, or retaliating* for a dirty play against their star teammate. They’re fighting because, if they don’t, they’re out of a job. This self-sustaining economy has infected the league, and it makes the game so goddamned boring and predictable. You see these set pieces coming ten minutes away, and they just don’t mean anything. The fighting doesn’t help the game — far from it, it generally slows down what is otherwise the fastest pro sport on the planet — and it’s usually anti-climactic. The fact that during the playoffs you almost never see fighting suggests it isn’t in any way necessary…it’s just a sideshow during the season, a bad habit that people can’t seem to shake. It’s junk food. It’s reality TV. It’s dutch elm disease, rotting away at something beautiful.

I could have probably spared you this bloody great rant and just pointed you to Jack Todd’s much better argument in the Montreal Gazette a few weeks ago, but it warrants repeating: ban fighting. As Todd says, it’s “cruel, backward and unnecessary.” It’s also really fucking boring.

* I don’t endorse this bullshit either. Part of the reason why league discipline has been such a joke over the years is because it’s assumed that any dirty play will result in the victim’s teammate “straightening the guy out”. I’m hopeful that recent clear and substantial discipline meted out by Brendan Shanahan will improve things.

"Someone's ear is in danger of having hair brushed over it…"

I learned something this weekend: that there are three indispensable ingredients of a great weekend. These are, in no particular order: beautiful weather, ample time and people with which to share it.

On Friday I did have to go to the office, but it was nice enough outside that I could walk there, and I didn’t stay long. By noon I was home, fed and ready to enjoy the unseasonably warm day. Nellie and I strolled down to the Bier Markt patio for sunshine and beer (me: Erdinger weiss, Weihenstephan weiss, Spaten lager and Delirium Tremens; she: KLB Raspberry Wheat, Big Rock Grasshopper, Okanagan Spring pale and Koningshoeven Tripel) on a lazy Friday afternoon. Nellie had an urge for an Urthel Hop-It so we wandered up to the Beerbistro in search of one; alas, they had none. So we availed ourselves of the rest of their collection (me: Maudite and Trois Pistoles; she: Durham Hop Addict and Koningshoeven Quadrupel) while making dinner reservations at nearby Harlem. We’d been there once last year and liked it and it felt like the right fit on a lazy Good Friday. One ill-advised cocktail later and were into the starter (catfish Lafayette…yum!) and then our mains. My pork hocks were okay, but Nellie wisely got the fried chicken. I didn’t mind that I missed on some of the flavour. The relaxation was tasting delicious enough.

Saturday was the first day in about two months that I haven’t had to go to work, so I celebrated by sleeping in. Despite it being another beautiful day we didn’t really get out and about that much as we were prepping for dinner with T-Bone and The Sof. Well…Nellie did the prepping, I just cleaned up and provided moral support. Anyway, after a great meal (baguette w/ honey, balsamic and goat cheese; sausage-stuffed pasta with pancetta and sage; steak from Cumbrae’s and three kinds of cheese) this is what our table looked like:

Just for the record, that’s:

  • Marie Stuart champagne (which we brought back from France last fall)
  • Nino Franco prosecco
  • Stratus Icewine
  • Z52 Zinfandel
  • Hidden Bench Fume Blanc
  • L’Acadie Alchemy
  • Noval 2001 Port
  • Blanche de Chambly
  • Christofel Nobel
  • Doppel-Hirsch Doppelbock

And yes, in case you’re wondering, Nellie does like to drink her beer from a wine glass toward the end of the evening.

Sunday was, blessedly, another lazy day. A good lie-in, brunch at the Jason George, a nice long talk with my mom who turned 60 (!) today and Zombieland (imdb | rotten tomatoes), which was excellent. Tomorrow it’s back to work, in spite of my best efforts to take a day off, but for the first time this year I feel like I really got my money’s worth out of a weekend.

Oh, and the other ingredient for a perfect weekend? Consecutive shutouts.


Tonight my beloved Montreal Canadiens will hit the ice for their first exhibition game of the fall. I’ll miss nearly the entire pre-season, as well as their season opener against the Leafs (blurg!) while we’re in France, but I’m intensely curious about how the team will look.

I’ve held off talking about all the off-season changes Bob Gainey’s made as I wanted to see the final product take shape before commenting. This was the most change I’ve seen my Habs, or maybe any team, go through in one summer. After the disastrous 08-09 season, the centennial celebration in which the Canadiens were supposed to contend for the cup, Gainey knew he had to do something. And what he did was blow up his team’s leadership core and start over.

Saku Koivu, the heart of the team and one of the club’s longest-serving captains, wasn’t signed. Likewise Alex Kovalev, their most talented player and assistant captain. Mike Komisarek and Chris Higgins, both of whom have worn the A and have been projected to eventually don the C, are gone. Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang, Mathieu Schneider, Patrice Brisebois, Tom Kostopulous, Mathieu Dandenault, Francis Bouillon…all gone.

Plenty of players came back in return, and on a talent-by-talent basis they’re as good or better as what went out the door. The interesting part of the great reset of 2009 was the fact that Gainey looked at his core of veteran players and decided he simply wasn’t going to win with that group. Loathe as I am to admit it, he was completely right. There’s been something lacking on the Canadiens team for a long time, something intangible…usually teams use words like chemistry or cohesiveness to describe it. Maybe it was heart. Short of Koivu, who would probably run through walls or kill a hobo if that’s what it took to win, there were a lot of guys on the team who would disappear when their backs were against the wall. But even Koivu, with all the heart in the world, often couldn’t get his name into another gear in crunch time. The effort was there but the execution wouldn’t come.

So, Gainey brought in Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Jaro Spacek, Hall Gill (!), Travis Moen and Paul Mara to reform the bulk of the team. Whether they can produce the chemistry Gainey’s looking for, or whether the departure of the old guard allows others to finally step up, remains to be seen. There are already early whispers of better chemistry in the room, so we’ll see if that sticks. Interestingly, those comments about chemistry came from Carey Price, upon whom success this season hinges more than anyone. If Price doesn’t bounce back from a bad year, all of Gainey’s machinations may be for naught.

However, the time for introspection is passed. The time for hockey is…uh, tonight. I can’t wait to hear the sweet sounds of blades carving ice and boards being rattled.

Go Habs go.

Make it seven…but not how you think

If you live in Canada you’re likely tired of hearing about Jim Balsillie’s attempts to buy the Phoenix Coyotes, a team which recently declared bankruptcy, and move them to Hamilton. The league is fighting it, obviously. Technically the Coyotes are their franchise, and I’m pretty sure that if I walked into a struggling McDonald’s in downtown Phoenix and announced my intention to buy it and move it to Toronto, the McDonald’s head office would have something to say about it.

Predictably Canadian hockey fans have turned this into a proletarian struggle against the hockey politburo, and Labatt has played the faux-patriotism card. It doesn’t make that much difference to me what happens; in my view there’s one team I love (the Montreal Canadiens), one team I view as a hated rival (the Boston Bruins), one team I view with a mix of loathing and bemusement (the Toronto Maple Leafs) and 27 other teams I don’t really care about all that much.

From a tactics standpoint, though, I think Balsillie’s going about this wrong. The pressure on Bettman’s not going to work in its current form. Here’s why:

  1. Bettman doesn’t care about the whirlwind of patriotic fervor north of the border. He’s not Canadian and feels no call of the hockey motherland, and knows that not a single Canadian will stop watching hockey just because of this, so his market is intact.
  2. Perhaps most importantly, Bettman knows that moving a team out of an American market and into a Canadian market will net him positively zero new fans. None. Rien. Zip. Putting a team in Copps Coliseum won’t suddenly create a whole new batch of hockey fans to put up TV ratings and merchandise revenues. The market’s pretty much at saturation already; Hamiltonians (?) willing to see a game try to get Leaf tickets or Sabres tickets, since Buffalo is nearby, and the rest watch on TV. Now, there aren’t a ton of fans in Phoenix that he’d be giving up, but every one gained there (however long that takes) is new. Also keep in mind that Phoenix has roughly six times the market population and a lot more disposable wealth than Hamilton, recession of no. Even counting any better TV deal the league could get for another southern Ontario team, Bettman would see a move like this as a net loss of fans, and as giving up one of the top ten markets in the US.
  3. There are serious logistical problems with this move. Let’s say for a second that Balsillie’s move goes ahead. Phoenix is in the western conference of the NHL; Hamilton would almost certainly be in the east. The league would now be unbalanced; 14 teams in the west, 16 in the east. To rebalance sensibly, the league would have to move one of the two most westerly teams to the western conference. Those two teams would be Hamilton and Pittsburgh, the latter’s arena being about 4 miles further west than Copps. Bettman would either be faced with the ridiculous situation of having Hamilton in a difference conference than either Toronto or Buffalo (despite them being only a few miles apart) or of throwing Pittsburgh, home of the league’s great white hope, out of the east coast TV market and into the worst travel schedule in the league.
  4. Bettman, ultimately, doesn’t want to be bullied, and Balsillie’s moves have certainly felt very aggressive thus far. Right or wrong, it’s a bad way to deal with a guy who’s probably developed a Napoleon complex over the years.

Bettman’s not going to be won over on ideological grounds. If Balsillie really wants a team in Hamilton he’ll have to appeal to Bettman’s interests: money. If he wants a team he’s going to have to pay for it. Bettman knows he’s protecting a dying franchise, but he’s trying to save face, so how do you let him do both?

You offer to buy the Buffalo Sabres and move them to Hamilton.

Half of the attendance at a Sabres game is people from southern Ontario anyway. To placate the rest maybe you offer Sabres ticketholders first crack at Hamilton season tickets, or discounts. Maybe you even call them the Hamilton Sabres.

For the right to do this, you pay the league a special franchise relocation fee (call it whatever the hell you want) which they’ll quietly use to prop up the Coyotes and boost their marketing. Bettman gets to keep his big US market, he doesn’t lose any fans, his TV revenues will likely go up (Hamilton’s in CBC territory, Buffalo is not), he doesn’t have to realign the league and it looks like he stood up to Balsillie.

Buffalo has struggled financially in the past, declaring backruptcy in 2003 (just three years after making the cup final), so this wouldn’t be a stretch. Moving a team into Hamilton would almost certainly spell the end for the Sabres anyway. If Balsillie’s willing to pony up the cash, the leauge ends up with more viable franchises overall than before.

Thoughts? Is that crazy? Or does some/all of it make sense? Is it a moot point because the Leafs will nix any team infringing on their market.


A week and a half ago 21-year-old Don Sanderson died in a Hamilton hospital.

Sanderson, a defenceman with the Whitby Dunlops, died early yesterday in Hamilton General Hospital. He had been in a coma and on life support since his head struck the ice during a fight in a AAA senior league game Dec. 12 in Brantford.

I’d held back on posting until the shock of the death had passed and the debate turned, as it naturally would, to whether fighting would be banned. I’ve been waiting, but the debate has not come. The lone discussion I’ve heard so far is whether the rules governing the tightness of helmet chin straps (which might have held Sanderson’s helmet on when he fell to the ice) should be more strictly enforced. This seems akin to enforcing seat belt laws for street racers, rather than trying to stop street racing itself.

Anyone calling for an end to fighting in hockey is met with ridicule (even Serge Savard), even deemed unpatriotic or lacking understanding of the game. Horseshit. Fighting proponents quote some circular argument about ‘the unwritten code’ of hockey, that fighters are there to ‘take care’ of a guy who breaks the rules, and respect each other, presumably as they punch one another in the face. Meanwhile referees, old hockey guys themselves, give out penalties for some infractions but look the other way for others if they think a team’s fighter will take care of things, thus perpetuating this myth of fighters being necessary for the game. This mutually supportive argument spins itself in a spiral, but in the face of logic eventually defaults to the tired plea that “it’s always been this way”, surely the silliest rule for why anything should continue.

The other argument, say fight fans, is that without fighting hockey won’t be entertaining. This is an easy one to dispel, as anyone who’s watched even a few minutes of a World Junior game, or any international tournament, can see.

It’s a difficult position to justify that hockey alone is the one league that requires fighting, or at the very least does not punish it (beyond a meaningless 5-minute penalty). In every other major sport, fighting is strongly discouraged (not tacitly allowed) and results in automatic suspensions. The only other sport where fighting is part of some kind of protective ‘code’ is baseball, surely the pussiest of the major sports. Football, on the other hand — which by any measure is as tough, smash-mouth and brutal as hockey, and almost certainly more so — does not allow fighting.

Staying with the NFL for a moment, imagine the absurdity of a scene where an offensive linesman, unhappy at the fact that his quarterback was tackled (clean though it might have been) grabs the opposing player by the jersey, rips off his helmet and starts punching him in the face. The other player starts punching back. No teammates try to break them up, and linesman (understandably) wait until they tire themselves out before interfering. The referee, knowing a teammate would come to the defense of the downed quarterback because of the unwritten code of football, doesn’t bother throwing the penalty flag. He knows these guys just need to let off a little steam. He also knows that if he doesn’t let these guys duke it out at midfield like this, that the other nasty penalties like clipping or face-masking will just happen more often. So goes the common wisdom, without much evidence to back it up.

Back to reality, and to hockey: there’s simply no logical argument for allowing fighting in the NHL, but as long as troglodytes like Don Cherry advocate for it, it’ll be around. If Gary Bettman wants to leave a legacy of actually improving the game, he should ban fighting and watch the rest of the world take his sport more seriously. So long as players in the world’s premier hockey league are allowed to beat each other bloody in the middle of the ice, and then do it again the following night (or even minutes later!), precious few outside of Canada will associate the game with skill, grit or speed. They’ll associate it with thuggish brutality.

Finally, I submit that fighting should be banned if only to prevent pathetic displays like this from ever again occurring: