Pittsburgh Penguins tough guy Paul Bissonnette is ready to go with anyone in the NHL, and his four fights in three pre-season games helps prove the point.
He happily chucked them twice with Tampa Bay’s David Koci on the same night, and later handily took care of Maple Leafs enforcers Jamal Mayers and Ryan Hollweg during a home and home set, never hesitating for an instant when it was time to put them up.
There’s no one in the league the rookie isn’t eager to get a piece of, he insists, with one notable exception.
“I’m not really afraid of anyone, but if I were to fight him, I’d probably be shaking going in,” says the 23-year-old from Welland, Ont. “That’s just the respect you have for him and what you’ve seen him do in the past. If I want to play in this league, that’s going to be my job and obviously I’d have to do it, that’s life.
“Big deal, he breaks your face. Get it fixed.”
Bissonnette isn’t the only player who takes note when the Montreal Canadiens’ intimidator is on the ice. Several NHLers consider Laraque the league’s top heavyweight and make sure to give the six-foot-three, 245-pounder ample space.
“He’s probably the toughest in the league,” says Ottawa Senators enforcer Chris Neil. “He’s strong, he’s powerful. It’s one of those things where you watch his fights, meanwhile, when he’s out there on the ice, he’s coming after you, so you’ve got to be aware.”
Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla, no stranger to the rough stuff, agrees.
“I wouldn’t want to get caught in a line brawl with him,” he says with a smile.
Having an intimidating presence on the bench seems to be of growing importance in the NHL once again, as fighting numbers moved closer to pre-lockout levels last season.
In 2003-04 there were 789 fights, a number that dropped to 466 the first season back after the lockout, according to www.hockeyfights.com. That figure climbed to 497 in 2006-07 before jumping to 664 last season, when 324 different players dropped the gloves.
Jared Boll of the Columbus Blue Jackets led the league with 27 fighting majors, three up on Philadelphia’s Riley Cote. Anaheim’s George Parros and Edmonton’s Zack Stortini followed with 23 apiece, New Jersey’s David Clarkson had 21 while Colorado’s Ian Laperriere was next at 20.
Laraque fought just 13 times, “because,” as Bissonnette says, “who’s going to fight him?”
Laraque himself has no opinion of the matter.
“I’m not one of those fighters that studies other guys and watches clips and stuff,” he says. “I fight because it’s my job, not because I like it. I figure if you’re going to do something you may as well be the best at it.”
Yet being the league’s toughest player doesn’t necessarily make someone its most entertaining fighter. Opinions vary widely on who is most fun to watch scrapping and whose fights players are most likely to look up on YouTube.
Edmonton Oilers sniper Sam Gagner says watching Cote’s fights is a must.
“He throws bombs and it seems like he doesn’t have any regard for his face,” says Gagner. “He throws and throws. Those guys who like to go toe-to-toe are in the fights that are exciting to see. I like to see those fights.”
Iginla became a big fan of Eric Godard, another Penguins tough guy, when they were teammates last season.
“To see how tough he is and to see his physique, he’s a chiselled 215, was very impressive,” says Iginla. “He’ll go in there with anybody and do well.”
Bissonnette’s favourite fighter is Colton Orr of the Rangers.
“He’s just a gamer, when he fights, he fights, he goes in hard, he doesn’t hold you out, and I like the way he plays,” says Bissonnette. “He’s not dirty, he just goes out there and plays hard and he answers the bell when needed.
“I like guys who play the game hard and play the game honest.”
Ottawa Senators star Jason Spezza, meanwhile, is fan of vintage brawling.
“I’m good buddies with Brian McGrattan so he’d come over to watch football and we’d watch on the Internet and check out all the fights,” he says. “I like watching Tie Domi, Joey Kocur and some of the old-school guys. Those are real fights. Those guys are guys that just go and throw, and now fights seem a little more technical. I think that stuff is fun and good for the game.”
Spezza makes a good point on the technical nature of fighting these days.
Bissonnette says he scouts his upcoming opponents online before every game to know what to expect once they’re on the ice together.
So does Iginla.
“Some bad ones, you have to watch some of the ones that don’t go your way to learn,” he says laughing. “Then you watch some better ones to get some confidence back.”
Not Laraque, though. Once he’s done on the ice, fighting is the last thing on his mind.
“I’m not the type of guy that gets excited and drools about fighting,” he says. “It’s my job, it’s what got me in the NHL, it’s what got me drafted and it’s what kept me in the NHL. If I don’t do it, I won’t be here and I know that. So that’s why I do it.”
– With files from Donna Spencer in Calgary, Arpon Basu in Montreal, Chris Yzerman in Ottawa and Robin Brownlee in Edmonton.