Feel free to disagree, but I love star fights. In some cases, it’s a really good tilt heightened by the personalities involved (Jamie Benn vs. Joe Thornton, for example), in other cases it’s more the novelty of two important players shedding their primary roles because something had to be settled.
That’s what we got Wednesday night when Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin answered the bell against Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler. ‘Geno’ knew he’d be a target after he laid out Wheeler with a questionable hit in the previous meeting between the Penguins and Jets, and lo, it came to pass just 3:33 into the first period.
The scrap itself wasn’t too much to write home about – though I’m sure it was cathartic for Jets fans – and both combatants seemed on board with how things played out in their post-game scrums, talking about the respect they had for the other guy and what-not.
But it did give Malkin the first and, for him, most crucial stat en route to a Gordie Howe hat trick – which was accomplished by netting a goal and an assist later on in Pittsburgh’s 7-4 demolition of the Jets.
I love the Gordie Howe hat trick. It’s weird, it’s random and as some historians have pointed out, Mr. Hockey himself may have only done it twice.
But it’s emblematic of the dichotomy of hockey itself: beautiful skill and punishing physicality. And the legend himself was well aware of this. Never forget: Howe would delight fans by elbowing them right before their souvenir photo was taken; he didn’t mimic a shooting motion or a goal celebration.
According to hockeyfights.com, fighting is slightly up year over year, 0.30 tilts per game versus 0.28 in 2015-16. But that’s still half the amount of scraps that the NHL saw back in 2008-09 and only one-quarter of games this season feature fights. In the recent past, that number often got closer to 40 per cent.
And we all know that the goon is practically extinct. Heck, the Penguins made Ogie Oglethorpe-esque headlines when they called up Tom Sestito for the game against Winnipeg and he lived up (down?) to the hype by fighting Chris Thorburn and later hitting Tobias Enstrom from behind, getting himself booted from the game.
As much as I love fighting, I’ll admit that I haven’t paid as much attention to it this season. Like, Austin Watson has 11 fights in Nashville this season – who knew?
But I still like the drama that goes along with tilts, because they can bring storylines – albeit ones that are almost always “revenge.”
If you don’t like fighting, that’s cool: as the statistics clearly indicate, you could go to a bunch of NHL games and not see one now. But it’s still something I see intrinsically wrapped around hockey culture. Is it bizarre to see Malkin, a future Hall of Famer, talking post-game with an emerging bruise on his cheek, about fighting, instead of goal-scoring? I suppose so. But that’s the intangible part of hockey that lends it weight. No matter how corporate you try to make the sport, that visceral spirit has survived.
So here’s to the Gordie Howe hat trick. Perhaps one day it will be a relic and maybe some won’t find it fashionable, but it was named out of honor for one of the best to ever play the game and it’s still pretty cool to see it happen these days.