Earlier today, our own Ellen Etchingham wrote a terrific piece titled “On Goons, Stars, and Misplaced Priorities.” In it, she focused on Cam Janssen, and how illogical it is that we idolize our game’s thugs, placing them on a pedestal for being “protectors and defenders,” when they’re generally just looking to hurt people, and are semi-useless when doing otherwise.

She’s certainly right that it’s bizarre that they automatically get the “fan favourite” tag, but I thought the portrayal of the utter uselessness of the “goon” a bit much, a bit harsh. Not too much mind you – the most one-dimensional among them can certainly be on their way, but there’s a reason so many of them are still employed by pro hockey teams.

Cam Janssen is, by all quantifiable measures and beyond, a bad hockey player. Like, if it’s between myself and him in your no-contact rec league, do not be blinded by the logos on his helmet. He’s limited.

This fact combined with his recent comments and Ellen’s post brought the untethered abuse of Cam Janssen today – he’s a criminal, useless, he’s a borderline waste of skin, definitely a waste of an NHL jersey. (This is mostly irrelevant, but I feel the need to mention he’s rather notorious for giving his time to sick kids. That’s not to redeem him for trying to injure humans on the ice or saying nasty things, I’m just saying: the name-calling was mighty harsh.)

Fans who don’t love fighting (who are in the minority, by the way) can’t figure it out: why have a guy on your team that’s either a healthy scratch or a grocery stick on the bench take up a roster spot? Why not fill that spot with talent?

And from the outside, from the purely statistical point of view, it’s a really, really good question. But there’s an answer.

Have you even played against someone who’s 220 pounds, skates far better than you can imagine (the context of NHL skaters doesn’t help) and cares not for where the puck is? Yes, you might be able to get out of his way 4 out of 5 times because he’s comparably “bad,” but have you felt the misery that comes with the 1 out of 5?

I’m a bigger dude now that I’m a blogger (read: fatter), but when I played, I was slight. I’m pushing 6’2″ (listed as!), but I played at 185. That means a high center of gravity and not a lot of muscle – I got crunched a lot. I once had my shoulders touch in front of my body courtesy Matt Sefanishion, and separated my sterno-clavicular joint. It still hurts at times.

I can’t fathom having to pull my jersey over my head and walk down the tunnel to go play the Boston Bruins. I would never touch the puck, even if it was available to be touched. You just can’t believe they grow humans as big as they do. Brian Boyle is the size of your fridge, but taller.

What Janssen references in his interview is that he hits guys so hard, they’re watching for him in the future, and they turn over the puck. Well, that’s a concrete exaggeration of what really happens when you play with fear – take it from someone who knows.

What it triggers is hesitation, it triggers second guessing, and it forces a guy who, in a non-contact game can be Wayne Gretzky, to play like Brent Gretzky. You usually don’t notice it when there is a tough guy out there (and by the way, I’m not just referring to goons here, I’m referring to all big, tough guys) – it just looks like normal play. But you see it when there isn’t tough guys, and the smaller players are free to run rampant, get their confidence up, and play without hesitation. In a reactionary game, if you can play without fear and save yourself half a second, you’re laughing.

(That’s a good reason to get rid of all the tough guys entirely, but that’s a silly thing that’ll never happen. “Sorry, you’re too big and scary, not allowed in the NHL.“)

I didn’t want to be on the ice when Jeremy Yablonski was when we played each other in the ECHL, because, have you seen that guy? He cage fights, for crying out loud. So when we line up on the draw, normally I’ll lean on my opponent, battle for position, and try to help my centerman on the draw. To hell with that. They can have the puck.

These “tough guys” are kept on the roster because it makes us slighter guys bring our B game because we’re constantly on the lookout for the next bone-crusher from the huge, moronic thugs. Coaches and GMs don’t give a shit if you’d rather see Chris Conner on the team, they know having at least a couple big guys is guaranteed to have some impact. (For what it’s worth, the six teams with the most PIMS this year: Philadelphia, Ottawa, Boston, St. Louis, New York Rangers, Vancouver – as in, both #1 and #2 seeds from each conference.)

Then there’s the other reason: what was the most embarrassing thing that happened to a team during last year’s NHL season? I’ll give you a second. Actually think here.

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It was Milan Lucic running over the Sabres’ star goalie, then skating to the bench with a smile. Did you guess right?

It’s not that you necessary need these guys for revenge, but you just need to have that nuclear weapon to let people know that “look, we don’t want to put this guy on the ice either, but if you hit our goalie again, we’ll be forced to.” Paul Gaustad getting beaten up by Lucic the next game was noble, but come on.

And, when the game gets out of hand – think Pittsburgh and New York most recently – what happens if the Penguins don’t have Eric Goddard to jump off the bench? Micheal Haley beats up their goalie, then licks his chops while turning towards the next guy who wants it? (Yes, Brent Johnson is tough – Haley’s not only a savage, he’s technical as hell.)

The reputation of the goon isn’t good. As we move on, we’ll see more hybrids (with Lucic being the Grand-daddy of them all), and less one-note assassins.

But for a lot of these guys, they’ve been like Michael Vick’s dogs their whole lives. Their cage was their desire to play in the NHL, and they’ve been poked with enough sticks to shape their behaviour – if you want to play, it’s the only way. This is what they’ve become, and they do it to be where they’re at.

I’m anti-goon. I hated playing the useless bastards. But I can’t say I don’t get it.

Janssen was wrong – they don’t put “the fear of god” into opponents, they put “the fear of winning this footrace to that puck along the boards” into them. Nobody wants their collarbone turned into powder.