The best attributes of exceptional players are celebrated with an award to the most deserving winner at the end of the season. But showing fighting spirit and being combative is not. So why does cycling have it right, while the NHL continues to miss the boat?
I’ve been watching the Tour de France nightly the past couple of weeks and am taken by one of the awards they give out after each stage. It’s the Combativity Award and it goes to the cyclist that day who shows the most fighting spirit.
This isn’t about tossing an elbow out when a competitor tries to zoom by or sticking a leadpipe in the spokes of an unsuspecting rival. The combative award goes to the individual who attacks on the road. That is to say, the cyclist who makes the most attempts to break away from the peloton or chase down leading groups. It’s also called the most aggressive rider prize, or as TDF analyst Paul Sherwen calls it, the rider who most often “throws the cat among the pigeons.”
The winner each stage gets called to the podium, is handed a bouquet of flowers and a stuffed animal, gets kisses from a pair of pretty ladies, then shakes the hands of dignitaries. During the next day’s stage, he wears a special red-backgrounded race number that denotes his distinction.
So why is they don’t have a most combative award in the NHL? They have awards for being skilled in a multitude of ways, for being gentlemanly, for being defensive, for being dedicated, for being a humanitarian, a leader. But nothing for showing the most fighting spirit. And that’s really too bad.
For a game that prides itself on the top players and teams having to be physically and mentally tough to withstand the rigors of 100-plus games in order to lift the Stanley Cup, the league could stand to have an award celebrating a player’s fighting spirit.
If fighting is allowed – and celebrated in some circles – why not fighting spirit?
The award should go to the NHL player who meets all of these requirements:
• Plays a regular shift (this eliminates the one-dimensional fighters).
• Drives possession. The “combativity” comes from taking the play to the opposition. When the other team has the puck, you excel at getting it back, moving it in the other direction and getting it to the net.
• Plays an attacking style. Not in the literal physical sense, but rather the manner in which the player regularly plays with a sense of urgency.
• Plays a physical game. He should be among team leaders in hits and be willing to battle in corners and in front of the net.
• Be a bit of an antagonistic, shift disturber by nature.
Getting in fights isn’t a requirement, but if it happens, that doesn’t hurt.
Here are some players who would challenge for the award this season.
• Brad Marchand, Boston
• Dustin Brown, Los Angeles
• Drew Doughty, Los Angeles
• Andrew Shaw, Chicago
• Zdeno Chara, Boston
• Brandon Dubinsky, Columbus
• Ryan Callahan, Tampa Bay
My winner this year would be David Backes of the St. Louis Blues. He was third in the league in hits, a top 10 player in driving possession, he’s not afraid to get in the face of the opposition and he’s a brute to play against.
Antagonistic energy players such as Matt Martin (No. 1 in the league in hits), Steve Ott and Matt Cooke didn’t drive possession well enough to qualify. Strong possession players such as Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar don’t hit enough or antagonize enough to be truly combative – though they excel in other areas of the game.
It’s not a surprise to see the list of finalists for this award play for top contending teams. Being combative or assertive on the ice and showing fighting spirit is an admirable trait and teams are made better because of it. And that’s worthy of an NHL award.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior editor and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Brian Costello on Twitter at @BCostelloTHN