At the beginning of the 2006-07 season, the second in the so-called “new” NHL, The Hockey News proclaimed on a cover that goons were dying.
The game had changed. There was a crackdown on obstruction and an emphasis on wide-open play. One-dimensional fighters were having a difficult time cracking lineups. Some teams didn’t even carry fight-only thugs.
And the numbers bore out the perception. The previous campaign, there were 0.38 fights per game, down from 0.64 the year prior to the lockout and the lowest level since the late 1960s.
“I’ll be the first to admit fighters are a dying breed and to play in the NHL today, you have to play a regular shift,” Brian McGrattan told us at the time. “You have to bring more to the table than just fighting. The guys who play just two shifts a night and do nothing more than fight will fade away.”
Then a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum. And the Stadium. And the Garden. The Skating Dead came back to life. Fights per game inched upwards that season and continued to climb until 2010-11, when they leveled off at 0.52. They remained virtually steady the ensuing two years, until trending sharply downwards again last season.
Those of us at THN who think it’s always about us, wondered if the goons acted out of self preservation after glimpsing our story and hearing the chatter about their fate. Of course, they wouldn’t have seen the ice if not for their coaches.
Whatever the case, they returned with something between a burr and a vengeance.
Now, with health concerns and salary cap questions driving debate around the “staged” fight, the enforcer is back on the endangered species list. New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault made that observation in the most recent edition of The Hockey News (Dec. 8) following a bout directly off a faceoff between his Dylan McIlrath and St. Louis’ Ryan Reaves.
“That type of fighting, where both players were trying to get their teams going, I don’t know in today’s game how much of an impact it really has,” Vigneault said. “What Dylan and Reaves did is – it takes balls to do that – but I don’t know how much room is left in the game for that right now.”
It feels like there’s more substance to the dying of the goons this time around, due to potential financial implications, but who knows?
Colin Campbell, then the NHL vice-president in charge of hockey operations, said he thought fighting would always be part of the big league game.
“People in the non-hockey world might not like or understand fighting in hockey, but I’d rather be in a fight than have a 100 mile-an-hour fastball fired at my head,” he said in 2006. “Other sports have their forms of intimidation, too.”