The 50 Greatest Hockey Enforcer Names of All Time

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I. Hockey rules, eh?

ARE YOU WATCHING THE hockey playoffs?

Don’t worry, no one else is either. Except for the relative handful of us who understand it’s the greatest, if least understand and unfairly maligned, major sport.

While I’m always happy to defend hockey, I feel, in the end, much like I do when people ask me why I listen to jazz music: because it’s amazing. That’s the easiest –and most truthful– answer. I have no interest in trying to convince or convert anyone; but I will say, if you are the least bit intrigued, check out hockey during the playoffs (what better time!). For my money, it’s by far the most intense and consistently exciting sports action you’ll see. Or, let me pull that back: certainly March Madness is tough to top; and (sigh) even NBA playoffs eventually elevate the game (where, for the duration of the regular season, most players seem to phone it in). I would say, respectfully and as a huge fan of soccer: as excited as I get for the World Cup, I’m disappointed by at least half the games (the overly cautious play, teams understandably clinging to one-goal leads). On the other hand, I’m never disappointed during any games during hockey playoffs, and I could care less which teams are playing — a sentiment that exposes me as a true fan, or a hopeless case (or really, when it comes to hockey, those are the same thing).

Even haters would have to concede that it’s the one sport where stoppages in play are minimal (one timeout per team!), there’s no diving, and no malingering (hello baseball!), and it’s a combination of soccer (the pace, the athleticism) and American football (the intensity, the toughness) ON SKATES.

ii. The Code or, Fighters Gonna Fight

For some, the fact that fighting not only occurs, but is sanctioned (if penalized) will always be a non-starter. And that’s understandable.

Think about what a clown does: he is the minor but essential character who shows up at a circus with the objective of instigating misconduct. Above all, his purpose is to entertain with a mixture of mischief and cheer. A superficial assessment might conclude that a clown is simply doing, in make-up, what any drunk idiot might do. But of course whether it is juggling, dancing or doing tricks, not just anyone could be (or would want to be) a clown. It’s a job.

(And lest anyone think it’s either random chaos or unthinking brutality, hockey pugilism has a long yet fairly straightforward history. To understand fighting one must understand what is meant by “The Code”.)

Think about what a hockey enforcer (what we used to call a goon just like we used to call escorts hookers or stockbrokers sociopaths) does: he is the minor but essential figure who shows up in an arena with the object of instigating misconduct (hopefully without receiving a game misconduct). Above all, his purpose is to settle scores and entertain a crowd while invigorating his teammates. A superficial assessment might conclude that an enforcer is simply doing, in a colorful costume, what any drunk idiot might do. But needless to say, trading bare-fisted blows (sober or especially drunk) in a bar is considerably different than standing on skates and going toe to toe with an opponent who is well-prepared (and in some cases, well-paid) to kick your ass in front of thousands of people. Many people without athletic ability are very capable goons; only an extremely select group of individuals are able (much less willing) to abide by “The Code”. It’s a job.

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iii. Apologia

It’s difficult to talk intelligently with anyone about hockey because so few people watch (or care) about it. That goes double when trying to articulate the science of sanctioned pugilism. How can one possibly rationalize or defend the spectacle of adults engaging in behavior that would get them arrested out in the streets? (Indeed, fans are arrested nightly at hockey rinks all over the continent for imitating, albeit often drunkenly and with far less flair, the very behavior occurring in real time below them.) The answer is at once easy and complicated, like all truths tend to be. The easy part: there is no need to explain it. If you’re not a hockey player, you can’t hope to comprehend it; unless you are a fan, you have no hope of understanding or appreciating it. It’s really that simple. Seriously. Just ask a hockey player. (And, as perspicacious commentators have pointed out for decades, one notices how nobody gets up to grab popcorn once a fight breaks out. While that may speak volumes about the distressing devolution of our species and our insatiable appetite for violence, there is something a bit more sophisticated going on.)

So what is complicated about it? For starters, hockey fighting remains a diversion that people who genuinely deplore violence (like this writer) endorse and get excited about. What does that say about us? I’m not certain. But I do know that unlike the “real” world, it is exceedingly rare for two hockey combatants to enter the fray unwillingly. Yes but, doesn’t that make it a great deal worse, if they do it because they get paid? (Well, is boxing beautiful? Barbaric? Your opinion here will go a decent way toward explaining your ability, or willingness, to negotiate the enigmatic charm of the expression “five minutes for fighting”.) That gets to the not-so-easily explained sensibility of athletes (in general) and hockey players (in particular). Hockey players have traditionally been paid a great deal less than other athletes in more popular sports. It is, therefore, a bit ironic to consider that these players are more immune to pain and prone to play a regular season game like the world is on the line. It is, for hockey fans, refreshing that the players have an integrity that has been ingrained from generations and is remarkably resilient against the corrupting forces of salary, fame and product endorsements. Put in less exalted terms, people tend to get (understandably) cynical when, say, a baseball player with a multi-million dollar annual contract goes on the D.L. with a strained hamstring. That type of commonplace indifference is especially noticeable –and appalling– when one realizes that hockey players routinely return to the ice moments after receiving stitches, or losing teeth, or suffering bruised (and in some cases, broken) bones. Google it if you don’t believe me.

None of this is to say that one might enjoy the sport more if one learned more about it, but a casual viewer (or hater) might be genuinely surprised to learn a few things about the history of hockey fighting. For starters, the opposing players seldom hate each other and in it is not uncommon for them to be friends off the ice (particularly if they are old teammates). Also, the aforementioned code does have a rather elaborate –and universally endorsed– system for the rules of engagement. Finally, and perhaps most significantly: not only are enforcers generally the most popular players (amongst the fans; amongst the teams), they tend to be some of the more thoughtful and soft-spoken ones. (For two obvious examples, consider the ever-humble Craig Berube –”The Chief”– who toiled many seasons in the NHL including for my hometown Capitals and until recently was head coach for the Flyers; then there is George McPhee who became one of the more respected and successful GMs in the game.)

Of course, not all of them are model citizens, and for a variety of reasons (some understandable, some inscrutable), some of them have had very challenging and troubled lives.

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iv. Naming Names

There are great names in any organization, and sports of course is no exception. Hockey seems, to me, the gift that giveth much. Perhaps it’s because so many players hail from the Great White North, born in towns like Saskatoon, Medicine Hat, Fort Saskatchewan, Moose Jaw, Moose Factory, Thunder Bay, and Loon Lake.

But I’ve noted, for many years, how more than a reasonable percentage of hockey enforcers don’t just have names that are either interesting or amusing; many of them have names that are perfect: on both literal and even literary levels. And then there are the handful that are beyond perfect, the ones that would make writers like Shakespeare, Dickens and Nabokov wink and nod, and maybe even demur. No, they might understandably say, those are too good, too obvious; that’s too much of a good thing, no one would ever believe that.

Well, believe it. All of the names below are real, and aside from the Honorable Mention section (some names were too special to overlook) almost all the folks in the Top Fifty are primarily remembered for the work they did with the gloves off.

Honorable Mention

Toe Blake
Karl Dykhuis
Larry Goodenough
Don Grosso
Dale Hawerchuk
Shane Hnidy
Craig Coxe
Kris King
Keith Tkachuk
Jim Morrison
Bob Sauve
Jonathan Cheechoo
Darius Kasparaitis
Bill Kitchen
Uwe Krupp
Dickie Moore
Rory Fitzpatrick
Dino Ciccarelli
Joe Reekie
Roman Hamrlik
Colby Armstrong
Brandon Yip

And now, the 50 greatest Hockey Enforcer names:

50. Matthew Barnaby

Hockey’s Eddie Haskell is an ideal way to kick off this list. An innocuous enough name, Barnaby established himself as the premier pest in the game, and the clichéd guy you prayed to see get pummeled, unless he was on your team. A crowd favorite (to cheer at home, to heckle on the road) Barnaby knew his role and perfected it, an unparalleled trash talker who took all comers and smiled before, during and after most bouts. And seriously, for his average size, he had astonishing chutzpah, cheerfully tangling with some of the behemoths even other heavyweight enforcers typically avoided.

And, eternal praise to him for the time he took the piss out of himself and his opponent, providing a hilarious and enduring commentary on the entertainment aspect of this difficult business.

49. Dave “Tiger” Williams

Few people would remember the name Dave Williams, so Tiger was necessary. More, it was fitting: they didn’t call him Tiger, he was Tiger. And while he locked horns with anyone and everyone, like more than a handful of gentlemen on this list, he developed an actual game and could put the puck in the net. Bonus points for his sardonic –and convincing– opinion that stupid TV shows do more damage to “impressionable youth” than fighting in hockey.

48. Rick Tocchet

Speaking of players who developed from free-swinging to goal-scoring, Tocchet may be the best one-two, er, punch, in hockey history: feared for what he could do with the stick, and approached with caution for what he could do with both fists. Tocchet is the first of many men on this list whose last names are like verbs, or else adjectives that define themselves.

47. Felix Potvin

The Cat. Goalies seldom drop the gloves anymore, but if your name is Felix, you better be able to account for yourself. In addition to being a capable goalie, Potvin secured his all-time status –and likely became a hero– when he took down the truculent bully (and excellently-named) Ron Hextall. As Barry Melrose famously said of this dust-up, it’s bad enough to get bloodied when you instigate a fight, but it has to hurt to be bloodied by a guy named Felix.

46. Gino Odjick

Gino is good enough. Odjick puts it over the top. Together, they fit like a wet, stinking glove, discarded at center ice. Interesting sidenote: some –if not many– of the fine fellows on this list, regardless of the bruising work they do, look like lawyers or models. Gino, bless his ugly mug, is not one of them. Odjick has a face made for the penalty box.

45. Basil McRae

How do you top Felix? Basil! And Basil McRae, no less. As mentioned above, McRae is one of the fellows who, if you saw him off the ice, would be utterly in his element making a presentation in the boardroom. In actuality, he never hesitated to get the gloves off, and he seemed to always genuinely enjoy being that guy.

44. Reed Low

Charles Dickens strokes his beard and nods, approvingly.

43. Mick Vukota

The last name would likely warrant consideration, but pairing it with Mick? It’s less two words than a definition: MickVukota (one word).

42. Joey Kocur

Another action verb. Ko-sir. Another bruiser with a baby face, Kocur punched as hard as anyone who has ever played the game, and was respected accordingly. You see his face and think, Yes, of course: Joey. You see him land a punch that will last a lifetime and you think: Kocur.

41. Tie Domi

Dough-me. Wanna know me? Gotta go me. Domi was diminutive but always game, and, according to his opponents, gifted with one of the hardest domes in the sport. He went with everyone, many more than once, and he had nine fights with Bob Probert.

He was also one of the great characters in the game. This epic incident in Philadelphia (naturally) is a script from central casting, written by the hockey gods: it epitomizes everything we love (and opponents and fans loathed) about the inimitable imp.

40. Jordin Tootoo

I’m not going to ruin this by belaboring the point. Tootoo!

39. P.J. Stock

Another choir boy who could turn into the Tasmanian Devil at the drop of a glove, there are too many associations with “stock” to list –and all of them would be worthy and appropriate. He also had possibly the single best pas de deux of the last decade with Stephen Peat.

38. Dale Purinton

Q: I’m trying to come up with a name for a marginal enforcer who labored for most of his career in the minors, and made the most of his opportunity when called up to play in the Big Apple. I’m looking for something that resonates with accuracy but also a tad of irony. Any suggestions?

A: Dale Purinton.

37. Kyle Chipchura

No comment necessary. Except this: Epic.

36. Zenon Konopka

A name like Zenon will get you on some type of list. Planet Zenon! If you are a hockey enforcer named Zenon, and your last name is Konopka and you hail from Niagara Falls, ON, you will be #36 on at least one list.

35. Enrico Ciccone

It wouldn’t take an author with exceptional ability to come up with a name like this for, say, an opera singer. Or perhaps a wealthy socialite who rocks top hats and capes. So the name is already amazing. Then consider Enrico is a 6’4 pugilist with the necessary edge to make a living in the NHL and you reach a whole other plateau of perfection.

34. Ken Baumgartner

The Bomber.

33. Bruce Shoebottom

Straight up Dickens. That’s all.

32. Rob Ray

Yes, the name is pretty great. But when you have an actual rule named after you, you’ve clearly taken things to another level. A crowd-pleaser for many years, Rayzor took all comers –including thirteen bouts with Tie Domi– and relished every second.

31. Adam Graves

I know, right (1.0)? After hearing Washington Capitals color commentator (and former player) Craig Laughlin call him “Gravy Train”, it was like having a prime rib and then being handed a baked-stuffed lobster. Too much, too good. And extra credit for actually fighting with Darren Rumble. Yes, Darren Rumble.

30. Adam Foote

I know, right (2.0)? Another one Dickens would enjoy, Foote established himself as a man unafraid to shed the mitts, but he became one of more consistent, reliable and tenacious defenseman in the league.

29. Darcy Tucker

Environment or instinct? Is it a coincidence that a guy named Darcy –a name that is going to present issues anywhere, but especially in sports and most especially in hockey– ended up being one of the surliest and indefatigable scrappers in the modern era? Tucker was an entertainer, and it was more than a little appropriate that he often wore Maple Leafs blue, because he is the ultimate blue-collar specimen. Many fighters insist it’s just a business, but Tucker always took every second on the ice, especially when knuckles flew, very personally.

28. Louie DeBrusk

This is more Nabokov territory. An enforcer named Louie is fantastic, but DeBrusk is like the lime squeezed into the gin and tonic. Naturally, during his fights the arena would play his theme song. (Bonus: his fights typically went on for so long, a good chunk of the song could be played.)

27. Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre

Over-the-top for any self-respecting novelist. But the actual name of a hockey tough guy? Just wow.

26. Zdeno Chara

See, Nabokov would scoff at some of these names as too obvious, too much. But Chara? That’s just what the doctor ordered. Zdeno? Seriously? And Zdeno (Zuh-dane-oh) Chara? A specimen from Slovakia who stands over seven feet in skates? Who devastates players as a matter of principle. And the foolhardy ones who invite him to go? See below.

25. Paul Laus

Louse? No Laus, as in laws. Paul laid down the Laus. Laus Rocket. This name could only work in hockey.

24. Brendan Shanahan

Fighting Irish. Alongside Rick Tocchet, with whom he tangled, Shanny made his name early on locking horns with the entire catalog of NHL bad boys, and gradually emerged as the most complete player this side of Cam Neely. A natural leader who protected teammates and himself, and was willing, even eager to drop the gloves long after he became a superstar, Shanahan remains a man amongst men. That he later became an executive, enforcing discipline instead of being a disciplined enforcer, is only as it should be.

23. Ed Hospodar

Hot spur. Hot skate?

Shakespeare sues and settles out of court.

22. Gerard Gallant

This was, obviously, part of the Shakespeare settlement.

21. Donald Brashear

Brash. The Donald. Has as many notches on his belt as any other scrapper from the last quarter-century. Involved in one of the most notorious on-ice incidents in hockey history (in 2000), Brashear played another decade punching the clock, and other players.

20. Derian Hatcher

The Bard and Dickens high-five at center ice. This could easily be big brother Kevin Hatcher, but Derian gets the nod for two reasons: D-E-R-I-A-N, and while Kevin was a complete package and handled his business (in the crease, in a dust-up) as well or better than any big man in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Derian was like a meaner and nastier version (in a good way, of course). Derian wore the captain’s C and led by example, Bobby Orr style. Like Orr, he had teammates who would gladly step in and protect him; like Orr he was just fine taking care of himself. Even better, he took it upon himself to take care of business for others when he deemed it necessary. Playing with a snarl and an edge, Hatcher gave fans their money’s worth every second on the ice, and he was a pleasure to watch.

19. Sergio Momesso

Far be it from me to mess with sublimity.

18. Travis Turnbull

You needn’t have seen a single second of any hockey game to appreciate the glory of this name. For a boxer, a bit much; for a hockey player: just right.

17. Mark Fistric

“Mr. and Mrs. Fistric, you realize that by Canadian decree, your son will have to be a hockey player who, um, uses his fists?”

“Um, okay.”

16. Glen Featherstone

Shakespeare with a oatmeal stout hangover eating blood pudding phoned this one in.

15. Ben Blood

Seriously? And as if to live up to the high hopes his name demands, Mr. Blood broke not only “The Code” but sacred tradition by disrupting the handshake line to throw haymakers. Shame and props, in equal measure.

14. Adam Deadmarsh

The ultimate gamer. When Deadmarsh (I know, right?) dropped ’em, all you saw was flying fists and flying hair. A whirling dervish on ice, Deadmarsh made a name squaring off with players much bigger and stronger; what he lacked in size he had in guts. It also, unfortunately, led to some serious concussion issues.

13. Lou Franceschetti

Louis Carlo Franceschetti. That is all.

12. Dale Hunter

1,000 points. Over 3,000 penalty minutes (3,565 to be exact). True story: Hunter spent so much time in the box, when the Washington Capitals retired his number, he was gifted  with the old penalty box from the Capital Centre.

The NHL’s own honey badger, Huntsy was sui generis: he contained multitudes (the ultimate leader, Captain Clutch and occasional cheap-shot artist) and he was at once a throwback and a link to the modern era: he was too good to be a goon and too naughty to be a gentleman.

11. Tony Twist

Come on baby, let’s do the twist.

Twister went from being merely one of the scarier knuckle merchants in the NHL to, arguably, the scariest. Where guys like Joey Kocur wanted to hurt you, Twist often looked like he wanted to kill you. And he had concrete slabs instead of fists, so when he hit you, you stayed hit.

Ask Rob Ray.

10. Lindy Ruff

Ruff = good enough.

Lindy + Ruff? Top ten material, for sure.

(Lindy also earns his place in the enforcer hall of fame by becoming head coach of the Buffalo Sabres for 17 years.)

9. Jim Playfair

Playfair did his name proud, mostly in the minor leagues, but arguably is the one enforcer who’s best “don’t call me a goon” moment came while he was coaching.

8. Derek Boogaard

The Boogeyman.

Impeccably named, Boogaard also represents just about every aspect of the modern enforcer: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Fighting has been so entrenched, for so long, in the game of hockey, it’s unlikely there will ever be a reckoning where its role is reassessed or eliminated. But if there is momentum toward that possibility, Boogaard’s tragic rise and fall will be considered a tipping point.

7. Murray Craven

Like a relative handful of folks on this list, not strictly speaking an actual enforcer but…come on. (An aside: if his first name was John or Bob, he’d still make this list; but there is something more than slightly poetic about Murray Craven.)

6. Shane Churla

Okay. If Churla were one of the more handsome or beloved characters in the game, his name would simply be ideal, if ironically so. But his rugged looks and proclivity for, well, churlish behavior, result in one of the most appropriate –and Perfect-with-a-capital-P names in all hockey. Bonus points for the moniker “Chain Saw” Churla.

5. Darren Van Impe

Another name that would do Dickens proud. Unimprovable.

4. Marty McSorley

If you looked at Wayne Gretzky the wrong way, Marty would come after you. If you looked at him the wrong way, Marty would come after you. Even if you didn’t look at him the wrong way, Marty might come after you. From 1983 to 2000, brawling wasn’t personal to Mr. McSorley, it was strictly business. And business was very good. Until it wasn’t.

As a bonus, he was involved in what might be the all-time best hockey bout with arguably the all-time greatest hockey enforcer, Bob Probert, on 2/4/94. (Double bonus: this one is called by the best tag-team duo in hockey announcing history, Bill Clement and Gary Thorne.)

3. Garth Butcher

You are kidding, right? No, we are not kidding. Another unimprovable name; John or Joe Butcher would be, probably, Top 5 material. But Garth Butcher? End the discussion.

He lost more than he won, but he was always game, and remains one of the most beloved Vancouver Canucks alumni.

2. Jeff Beukeboom

Boo. KA BOOM.

Jeff.

Boo.

KA.

BOOM.

1. Stu Grimson

So many of these other selections could have topped this list, but I trust we’ll all agree that Stu Grimson, or The Grim Reaper, simply must be number one.

You read it and it works. You say it aloud and it sings. But you see it on the back of a jersey, and it’s art.

SGSo sure, it’s the best name. But to complete the perfection, Grimson remains as appropriate an ambassador for the grim art of goonery as any that came before or after him: well-traveled, well-loved, well-feared and, by all accounts, a true pussycat off the ice, even becoming a licensed attorney (no, really).

We’ll let The Grim Reaper have the last word.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 5/27/2015.

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Back To The Future With Old Time Hockey?

I’m not sure what is going on here, but I like it.

The biggest beating that has occurred in hockey the last two decades has involved its popularity. Always the neglected stepchild in the American sports scene (a distant fourth behind the holy trinity of football, baseball and basketball), hockey almost did not recover from an ill-advised lockout during the 2004-2005 season. Until then the sport received coveted prime time coverage on ESPN (and ESPN 2); once the NHL imploded as a result of myopia and greed –two things all pro sports do not suffer from a shortage of, but have sufficient funds and popularity to lure fans back– ESPN came to realize that replays of poker games and women’s basketball got higher ratings. Seriously.

Since then hockey has struggled, most of its games being shown on the Versus network. Fortunately, perhaps miraculously the league still gets occasional bones thrown its way via NBC games of the week and the Stanely Cup finals do get big-time coverage. What this means is that there are fewer games shown each week (at least for those without a full cable buffet of sports offerings), and hockey has receded even further in the national consciousness.

So what? For me, I still get to see games on Versus and, of course, we get all the Caps games. Still, it’s kind of sad to consider that the late ’90s are golden years by comparison. I still lament the dissolution of the Gary Thorne/Bill Clement partnership, for my money the best hockey annoucing tandem in modern history. I don’t just miss them in a nostalgic sense; I really miss Bill Clement calling games and his absence makes the already-grating Mike “Doc” Emrick and the ever-insufferable Pierre McGuire that much more difficult to stomach. (Not one to look askance at good fortune, I still count my blessings that Caps fans have the indispensable Joe Beninati and local treasure –and ex-Cap– Craig Laughlin calling each game. It is also a source of considerable good fortune that Caps hockey is quite relevant and, thanks to the impeccable stewardship of Ted Leonsis –the anti-Dan Snyder– should remain viable for the foreseeable future.)

 

One reason (arguably) that hockey has stumbled in the last ten-to-twenty years is because of the very controversial oversight of commissioner Gary Bettman. In case you were wondering, there is in fact a site called firebettman.com; you can see some widely-held opinions here. One issue that has been a constant topic during his tenure has been the efforts to eliminate fighting from the game. Interestingly, and tellingly, it’s invariably former players who disdain this approach, pointing out that “back in the day” enforcers had a role, and their ability to police the ice kept a lot of the cheap shots out, and kept accountability in. What has happened, in the ostensible effort to “clean up” the game and make it more appealing to the casual fan (Bettman apparently not understanding that when it comes to pro hockey there is no such thing) is that we’ve had more injuries, more dirty play and a general carte blanche for teams to rough it up without having to pay a price. Ignorant ranters who know nothing about the game (and there are many of them employed by major American media outlets) claim that getting rid of the “goonery” has made hockey a better game. Veterans, real fans and ratings say otherwise.

All of which brings us to the past two weeks, a period of intensity, bad blood and old-school frontier justice not seen much, if at all, since the late ’80s. The Bruins have, seemingly overnight, gone from being a fairly soft team to the reincarnation of the Broad Street Bullies. Avenging some unfinished business from a game several years ago (!), Boston engaged in an epic throwdown the other week with Dallas. Then, the other night, they rekindled a half-century old grudge with Montreal. The videos below show the highlights. Appropriately, it begins with the end of the Penguins/Islanders game the other week where the cocky superstar goalie Rick DePietro brought nothing but a smirk into a pas de deux he instigated with (ex Cap) Brent Johnson. It was quick, ugly and wonderful. The frequently injured (soft?) DePietro, humiliatingly, is out for several weeks as a result of the fight he never should have picked. As it happens, there was a dirty hit (shocker) by a Penguin that night so between that, the DePietro smackdown and the merriment on the Pittsburgh bench afterward, a reckoning was all but preordained for the rematch on Long Island.

Brent Johnson TKOs Rick DePietro:

The Bruins and The Stars: some unfinished business prompts three fights in four seconds. As you can see, the fans are appalled by this, and to quote the great Barry Melrose, you never see a spectator leave to grab popcorn during a hockey fight. This team toughness may turn around Boston’s season.

Old school? This is ancient school when it comes to the love lost between Montreal and Boston. The fact that Boston is obviously a scrappier, bigger and tougher time would almost leave a less-than-savory taste in a knowledgeable fan’s mouth, but it turns out that Montreal is perhaps the team in the league most overdue for some old-fashioned comeuppance. Eager to cheap-shot, talk smack and skate away, Montreal is an excellent example of the type of hockey that has been tolerated (encouraged?) on Bettman’s watch: lots of chirping, stick-work and less-than-clean nonsense, the instigator rules and general crackdowns prohibit other teams from squashing it. What went down the other night could be considered a decade and change of pent-up frustration spilling out, and I guarantee few, if any, players in the league shed any tears for The Habs. (For my money the Penguins are the dirtiest team by far, but they at least have players that, for the most part, answer the bell and stand up for one another when necessary. More on that in a moment.)

The much-anticipated rematch last night. Even Gordie Howe would have been surprised, and delighted, by the extent of the carnage. Pens fans are up in arms about how the Islanders went after their smaller players. I suspect this will be revisited in April when the teams meet up again, back in Pittsburgh. (It’s a shame the gutless punk Matt Cooke was not on the ice; as it happened he was serving a suspension for one of his myriad cheap hits. Boston’s Shawn Thornton gained some measure of revenge last season, but it will be a happy day when someone is able to give Cooke a fair and final taste of his own medicine.)

Last night’s festivities between The Penguins and The Islanders:

To be continued, hopefully.

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A Mixture of Mischief and Cheer: Remembering Bob Probert

This hurts.

R.I.P. Probie.

Quick tally: #24, over 3,000 penalty minutes. Member, along with Joe Kocur, of the legendary “Bruise Brothers” tandem back in the days when the Detroit Red Wings were more feared for what they could do after the whistle stopped play. Participant in a handful of the all-time classic fights in hockey history. Man who inspired t-shirts that read “Give Blood. Fight Probert.” Simply put, if one were to try and create the ideal enforcer (especially for an era that may not have been the toughest or most iconic era but was one of the most enjoyable), one could hardly imagine a more suitable cartoon character than Bob Probert.

As The Kinks once sang, Let’s All Drink To The Death Of A Clown.

And lest anyone think I’m using the word clown carelessly or disrespectfully, it is in fact chosen with the aim of being both accurate and approbatory. (A Probie-tory, if you like.)

Think about what a clown does: he is the minor but essential character who shows up at a circus with the objective of instigating misconduct. Above all, his purpose is to entertain with a mixture of mischief and cheer. A superficial assessment might conclude that a clown is simply doing, in make-up, what any drunk idiot might do. But of course whether it is juggling, dancing or doing tricks, not just anyone could be (or would want to be) a clown. It’s a job.

Think about what a hockey enforcer (what we used to call a goon just like we used to call escorts hookers or stockbrokers sociopaths) does: he is the minor but essential figure who shows up in an arena with the object of instigating misconduct (hopefully without receiving a game misconduct). Above all, his purpose is to settle scores and entertain a crowd while enervating his teammates. A superficial assessment might conclude that an enforcer is simply doing, in a colorful costume, what any drunk idiot might do. But needless to say, trading bare-fisted blows (sober or especially drunk) in a bar is considerably different than standing on skates and going toe to toe with an opponent who is well-prepared (and in some cases, well-paid) to kick your ass in front of thousands of people. Many people without athletic ability are very capable goons; only an extremely select group of individuals are able (much less willing) to abide by “The Code”. It’s a job.

It’s difficult to talk intelligently with anyone about hockey because so few people watch (or care) about it. That goes double when trying to articulate the science of sanctioned pugilism. How can one possibly rationalize or defend the spectacle of adults engaging in behavior that would get them arrested out in the streets? (Indeed, fans are arrested nightly at hockey rinks all over the continent for imitating, albeit often drunkenly and with far less flair, the very behavior occurring in real time below them.) The answer is at once easy and complicated, like all truths tend to be. The easy part: there is no need to explain it. If you’re not a hockey player, you can’t hope to comprehend it; unless you are a fan, you have no hope of understanding or appreciating it. It’s really that simple. Seriously. Just ask a hockey player. (And, as perspicacious commentators have pointed out for decades, one notices how nobody gets up to grab popcorn once a fight breaks out. While that may speak volumes about the distressing devolution of our species and our insatiable appetite for violence, there is something a bit more sophisticated going on.)

So what is complicated about it? For starters, hockey fighting remains a diversion that people who genuinely deplore violence (like this writer) endorse and get excited about. What does that say about us? I’m not certain. But I do know that unlike the “real” world, it is exceedingly rare for two hockey combatants to enter the fray unwillingly. Yes but, doesn’t that make it a great deal worse, if they do it because they get paid? (Well, is boxing beatiful? Brutal? Your opinion here will go a decent way toward explaining your ability, or willingness, to negotiate the enigmatic charm of the expression “five minutes for fighting”.) That gets to the not-so-easily explained sensibility of athletes (in general) and hockey players (in particular). Hockey players have traditionally been paid a great deal less than other athletes in more popular sports. It is, therefore, a bit ironic to consider that these players are more immune to pain and prone to play a regular season game like the world is on the line. It is, for hockey fans, refreshing that the players have an integrity that has been ingrained from generations and is remarkably resilient against the corrupting forces of salary, fame and product endorsements. Put in less exalted terms, people tend to get (understandably) cynical when, say, a baseball player with a multi-million dollar annual contract goes on the D.L. with a strained hamstring. That type of commonplace indifference is especially noticeable –and appalling– when one realizes that hockey players routinely return to the ice moments after receiving stitches, or losing teeth, or suffering bruised (and in some cases, broken) bones. Google it if you don’t believe me.

None of this is to say that one might enjoy the sport more if one learned more about it, but a casual viewer (or hater) might be genuinely surprised to learn a few things about the history of hockey fighting. For starters, the opposing players seldom hate each other and in it is not uncommon for them to be friends off the ice (particularly if they are old teammates). Also, the aforementioned code does have a rather elaborate –and universally endorsed– system for the rules of engagement. Finally, and perhaps most significantly: not only are enforcers generally the most popular players (amongst the fans; amongst the teams), they tend to be some of the more thoughtful and soft-spoken ones. (For two obvious examples, consider the ever-humble Craig Berube –“The Chief”– who toiled many seasons in the NHL including for my hometown Capitals and now is an assistant coach for the Flyers; then there is George McPhee who happens to be one of the more respected and successful GMs in the game.)

Of course, not all of them are model citizens, and for a variety of reasons (some understandable, some inscrutable), some of them have had very challenging and troubled lives.

Enter Bob Probert. Though it is debatable whether or not he (or any particular player) was “the best” enforcer in the history of organized hockey, not many people would argue with any credibility that he is not at least in the Top 10. For my money, pound for pound and in terms of longevity, respect, quality of opponents and success, Probert is the preeminent knuckle artist of the modern era.

Let the cliched encomiums unfurl: he feared nobody. He fought everyone. Ultimate warrior. Ideal teammate. Crowd pleaser. Accomplished actor? Well, see below:

 

As Detroit (and Chicago) residents know, and as fans of the game remember, Probert battled the proverbial demons off the ice as well. His struggles with alcohol and substance abuse is amply documented. His occasional escapades drew the attention of law enforcement officials. He was, in short, a troubled man in certain ways, but he was always resilient, and never let his addictions keep him down (or out). 

(The actual history of his difficulties is sufficiently reported that folks interested in more can easily find out with the click of a mouse. I also acknowledge that his livelihood may have done as much to exacerbate his issues as it did to ameliorate them. In other words, he quite possibly may have gone down certain roads whether or not he played hockey or threw a single punch. But I readily concede that there is an ugly side to sports, just like there is a sinister side to life, and all of us are constantly pushed and pulled by the momentum of necessity and choice, and the inexorable reality that we have to pay bills and obey laws. A more sustained –and serious– discussion of sports, hockey, hockey fighting and some of the casualties of this game (think John “Rambo” Kordic’s tragic story) should occur at another time.)

For now, in addition to wishing him a fond adieu and sincerely sending out support and goodwill to his family and friends, I’d like to celebrate some of the most memorable instances of him doing what he did better than just about anyone who ever laced up the skates.

1. Bob Probert vs. Craig Coxe (Round One):

2. Bob Probert vs. Craig Coxe (Round Two):

3. Bob Probert vs. Dave Semenko:

4. Bob Probert vs. Troy Crowder:

5. Bob Probert vs. Tie Domi (The Epic Saga):

**Bonus: It might make sense to go ahead and include, just for the heck of it, THE BEST HOCKEY FIGHT OF ALL TIME**

Bob Probert vs. Marty McSorley (Two of the best of their generation in a game called by the best hockey announcers of their generation, Gary Thorne and the immortal and inimitable Bill Clement):

If he had kept his act together a little better, he would have retired a Red Wing, possibly kissed the Cup, and pretty much owned the Motor City. Somebody could make a movie like that. Of course, somebody already did: his name was Bob Probert and the movie was his life. Not all movies have happy endings, alas. And like anyone who will be missed once they are gone, he gave us far more than we ever gave him.

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