Jody Shelley had never been in a hockey fight before attending training camp with the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads in the 1990s. He figured fighting the biggest guy would get him noticed.
“Then I didn’t fight for four days and the assistant coach came up to me and said: ‘Hey, great job the other day. But if you don’t continue playing big, we’ve got a guy that’s five-eleven from Northern Quebec who we’d take over you,'” Shelley said in a recent interview. “And that was a subtle way of saying, ‘Get going, do what you did Monday night or you’re not going to be here Friday night.'”
The six-foot-three Shelley eventually became the Mooseheads’ captain, racking up 933 penalty minutes in 181 games along the way. If fighting didn’t exist, it’s unlikely he would’ve made the NHL, let alone play 627 games over the span of more than a decade.
“I wouldn’t have even been on a roster. I wouldn’t have made my major junior team,” he said. “Not a chance. My career would’ve ended my first training camp with the Halifax Mooseheads in Campbellton, New Brunswick. Thanks for coming.”
With fighting on the decline in the NHL and the lower ranks of hockey, Shelley could be part of a dying breed of enforcers. He retired over the summer and became a broadcast analyst for the Columbus Blue Jackets but not before enjoying a respectable professional career.
Shelley’s NHL stint took him from Columbus to San Jose to New York to Philadelphia, and along the way he gained an appreciation for his role as more than just a guy who gave and received punches.
“You can’t see what I’ve felt in a room with 20 guys knowing where I fit and knowing my value,” the 37-year-old said. “You don’t go into it hoping to hurt anyone. You’re just sticking up for your teammates and your organization and being proud of what you do and hopefully making everyone around you proud.”
Shelley would have a hard time breaking into the NHL today. Forget even about the handicap of having to wear a visor and fight wearing a helmet—fighting itself isn’t as much of a priority in the sport anymore.
A thoughtful speaker during his playing days, Shelley gets paid to offer his analysis now. But he isn’t sure if fighting is heading toward extinction.
“It’s tough to say,” Shelley said after a long pause. “I would hope not. I would really hope not, but who knows?”
Incidents like Montreal Canadiens enforcer George Parros suffering a concussion when his head hit the ice after a fight with Colton Orr and Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ray Emery beating up an unwilling Braden Holtby have some wondering if it should go the way of head shots.
Many current tough guys consider illegal hits more dangerous than fighting.
“If you take away fighting, you might as well take away hitting because there’s more injuries from hitting,” Ottawa Senators forward Chris Neil said. “I think if you went over all the injuries around the league, fighting’s probably the least amount of all of them.”
If fighting was gone, Neil and others would have to adjust their games and mindsets. Rule changes on head shots and other hits have given them a blue print.
“Guys are aware of what they can and cannot do,” Neil said. “A guy’s in a vulnerable position, you don’t finish your check. Simple as that.”
Fighting, at least right now, is governed almost as much by the so-called “code” of unwritten rules as the official rule book. But Shelley doesn’t think that makes it wrong.
“Of course the game has evolved, but fighting has evolved too,” Shelley said. “It’s not as barbaric, I think, as some guys try to make it. Not even close, not even a percentage of what people try to make it. It’s not barbaric at all.”
The act of fighting itself may seem barbaric, but enforcers are among some of the most intelligent players in the NHL. Parros and Kevin Westgarth of the Carolina Hurricanes went to Princeton University, while John Scott of the Buffalo Sabres was an mechanical engineering major at Michigan Tech.
“Get every fighter in the league and tough guy in the league or guy that isn’t afraid to do it, put them in a room and you can put them in a room with a group of lawyers and journeymen all over the country and try to pick them out, and you’re not going to be able to,” Shelley said. “Maybe by a scar or two. It’s not guys that dreamt at 12 years old to be fighters. You’ve got guys who found a crack in the door and they went at it head-first and this is where they ended up with their role being.”
“It’s not MMA, it’s not boxing. It’s guys that their reward is being a part of a team and knowing it.”