But the veteran NHL tough guy is worried about his craft. “I know that within two years there won’t be any fighters in the league anymore,” Laraque said from Phoenix this week. “Within two years, I’m serious, because this is how it’s going. More and more teams don’t have fighters.”
Fewer traditional enforcers seem to be surviving in the NHL. A rough count by CP lists only 11 NHL clubs who regularly dress tough guys, seven other teams who occasionally do, and 12 more who really haven’t at all this season.
“I’m depressed about it because I sympathize with the guys who do my job,” said Laraque. “Those are my brothers. I was lucky that it wasn’t this way when I started nine years ago. If I lost my job tomorrow I could say I played a decade in the NHL. I’ve been fortunate. But the younger guys like (Ottawa’s Brian) McGrattan, I feel bad for them. They may not have a job soon.”
There’s no denying the facts. The post-lockout NHL has seen fighting decrease. There were 267 fighting majors this season through Monday night (303 games), up slightly from last year’s pace at 250, but down big time from the 429 through the same number of games in 2003-04.
There were 329 fighting majors through the same period in 2002-03 and 426 in 2001-02.
“Since Day 1 when hockey started there’s been fighting,” said San Jose Sharks tough guy Scott Parker. “It’s the aggression and competitiveness that’s always been part of the game. It’s part of the reason people enjoy the sport.”
Parker has dressed in only three games this season despite being healthy. He, too, shares Laraque’s concern that fighting is leaving the game.
“They may start with fighting and then say no hitting, and then no touching at all,” Parker said from San Jose. “Where will it end? We can’t back down and let them take our jobs away from us.”
The NHL came back from the lockout with drastic changes that made the game more wide-open and much faster – too fast, perhaps, for some of the tough guys.
“If you can’t skate and play, you just stopped your team from having four lines,” Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said Tuesday.
The Wings, as a result, don’t have a traditional enforcer.
“The league’s flying out there,” Babcock said from Detroit. “And if you think you can play three lines, I think you’re wrong. I myself could be wrong, but I don’t think you can. I think your players all should be able to contribute.”
Are the Wings worried when they face a opposing team with an enforcer? Not really.
Just ask Laraque, the NHL’s most feared fighter.
“Teams are discovering that if you don’t have a fighter, it doesn’t matter,” said Laraque. “If you play a team with a fighter, even though your team doesn’t have one, does it matter? What’s he going to do? Who’s he going to fight?
“There’s so many teams that don’t have one, and next year there’ll be even less.”
Fellow tough guy Derek Boogaard of the Minnesota Wild agreed with Laraque that it’s getting tougher but said tough guys simply need to keep up with the game.
“You might not have a job if you don’t work on your skill,” Boogaard said Tuesday from Minneapolis. “As long as you can keep up with the game with your skating then you’ll be fine. . . .
“Guys are smarter now, they have to work on their skill level rather than just sit there and fight. As long as the guys have that in their heads, that they have to play and have the confidence that they can play, no, I don’t think that’ll be an issue at all.”
Still, Laraque for pines for the good-old days.
“Look at the old days when (Bob) Probert and (Tie) Domi would fight,” he said. “People would line up three hours before the game. They were so excited and would talk about it for days. It was crazy. Now we talk about revenue sharing and things like that. We’re turning hockey into a ballet league.”
Added Laraque: “That’s what the league wants, they want to make this into a European league. They don’t want any fighting. It will happen.”
Dallas Stars head coach Dave Tippett says there’s still fighting, it’s just in a different form.
His team doesn’t dress a traditional enforcer but has guys like Matthew Barnaby, Steve Ott, Trevor Daley, Eric Lindros and captain Brenden Morrow that can all drop the gloves if need be.
“I think we were tied for the most fighting majors in the league last year and we didn’t really have a traditional tough guy,” Tippett said from Dallas. “But we have a lot of players that play hard for each other and stick up for their teammates. . . .
“We have players that play with grit and are willing to do it,” he added. “But any fight that’s around our team I class as a hockey fight, not a heavyweight versus heavyweight.”
And that seems to be the trend.
New Jersey’s Cam Janssen is only six foot tall and 210 pounds but he leads the NHL with eight fighting majors. A better example of the perfect prototype for the new NHL is Ottawa Senators rugged winger Chris Neil, who can drop the gloves with the best of them but also has seven goals and six assists in 21 games.
“Right now, with the momentum changes in the game, with the way game flows, you get stretches of three to four minutes of continuous play . . . you can’t afford to have somebody that cannot play within the flow of the game,” said Tippett.
Laraque has always prided himself on becoming a better hockey player. He had a career-best 13 goals and 29 points with the Edmonton Oilers in 2000-01 and already has 10 points (4-6) in 19 games with the Coyotes this season.
“I’ve never focused on being a better fighter as much as being a better player,” said Laraque. “I’ve always tried to work my ass off so that when I’m on the ice, even though I’m not fighting I can be a factor five on five and not a liability defensively.
“I take pride in the fact the coach can put me out there against any line and he doesn’t have to worry.”
Being called the NHL’s most feared fighter does little for him, Laraque insisted.
“Frankly, when people talk about my reputation as being the toughest guy in the league, I always say that I don’t care about that. I don’t want that reputation. They can give it to whoever. Because the only place they give belts to is in wrestling or boxing.
“In the NHL, you can be the toughest guy in the league but if you can’t put points on the board it doesn’t matter, you’ll be out of a job. It’s not an honoured distinction being looked at as the toughest guy in the NHL.”
The bottom line, says veteran Chris Simon, is that fighting will always be in the NHL but in a different form.
“The difference is that it’s not guys fighting for no reason anymore,” said the rugged New York Islanders winger. “If you need to give your team a boost or there’s physical play in front of the net and guys get angry, that’s basically how the fights are happening now.
“I think all the guys now can play a regular shift. They can play hockey and fight as well.”