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.

….

….

….

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.

Comments (19)

  1. Excellent stuff on the blog today ladies and gents.
    I always appreciate things like this explained from the perspective of someone who played at a high level. As fans and rec leauge players it’s tough to fully appreciate just how big and how fast some of these guys are.

  2. I get what you’re saying Justin, but I figured that a large portion of Ellen’s point is that, even if a guy like Janssen does make a guy cough the puck up now and then, he’s only intimidating players for roughly 4 minutes in a 60 minute game. It’s also pretty rare that most of those 4 minutes occur against skilled guys.

    I’m not trying to knock you at all when I say that your career path probably lead to you seeing these dudes for more minutes a game than is really the case in the NHL. I think most people get the theory behind what enforcers do, but the reality doesn’t usually sync up at the highest levels under observation.

    Bringing up a guy like Lucic is a little disingenuous too, as Ellen takes care to point out guys like Torres/Thornton, and by extension him, as being different cases and not what she’s railing against. That guy can play the game.

    • Lucic can play, but he’s still a goon and someone on Buffalo should probably have stepped up to take him out (or, if not him, take out someone like Bergeron or Thomas – teams may not be able to match up against Boston in fights, but they can do an eye for an eye when it comes to star player injuries. Then Boston is forced to protect their stars by not being a bunch of hatchet men. Seriously, my biggest complaint against Gomez is the fact that he didn’t two-hand Chara at the back of the knees right after the Pacioretty incident).

      • Played hockey for years, through college, never at a high level but enjoyed the heck out of it. I met Marty McSorley at an airport and I was stunned, almost shaken, at the size of the guy. It’s a different gene pool. If I played against him and all I had to do to not earn his attention was stay away from Gretzky I would have told him before warm ups that I’d be sure to keep away. Or considered changing teams out of his conference. Or changed professions. Opened a hot dog stand or something. He’s that scary big. With Lucic he’s not just there to protect so there’s nothing you can do to stay out of his way. When I hear guys saying someone on the Sabres should have stepped up, I agree, but who, you? I get that they didn’t after standing next to McSorley. Huge difference going against a guy that could possibly hurt you and one that would likey injure you. Much harder to volunteer for that one.

      • The problem with the “eye for an eye” thing is that not many players will take that run at Bergeron (Ill refrain from the Thomas issue as he probably wont be in Boston this year) BECAUSE of the fighters. If Thornton or Lucic doesnt drop the gloves you can go right down the line. Campbell, Horton (sans concussion), McQuaid, Chara…..

  3. Great post, with you 100% here.

  4. Justin,
    I understand that you didn’t necessarily enjoy playing against guys who could injure you, but isn’t that part of the thrill and pride of being a hockey player? Even if you feel it retroactively?

    As someone who was a handsy skill guy at a level well below yours, I never “blew anybody up” with a hit or did more than hang on in a fight, but I was proud of taking hits, or making a skill play in a dangerous environment. I’m proud of having done that, and when the playoffs come on and I get fired up, it’s the memory of nervous excitement of facing physical danger for a purpose that gets me going.

  5. I appreciate your viewpoint Justin. Although I’ve played hockey for almost 50 years, none of it was anywhere near your level. I’m also against fighting but mostly because it has a negative impact on the game, as I’ve posted on my blog – http://itsnotpartofthegame.blogspot.ca/. No argument made by the pro-fighting fan stands up to any scrutiny. Study the facts and data and you find those arguments o be perception and myth.

    But I don’t want to see intimidation hits taken out of the sport. I’m talking about separating the player from the puck but not with an intent to injure. That is part of the game and I wouldn’t want to lose that intensity. Players should be skating with their head up and afraid to play the puck when attacking a team that can hit, and counter-attack. I get what Cam Janssen is talking about but unfortunately he shows no respect for his fellow NHLPA brothers, and lacks any other meaningful hockey skills.

    • Since when do NHL players respect opponents? I’m quite sure, if you’ve watched 24/7, you’d see that NHL players tend to say not so nice things about other players’ mothers, etc.

      And, before I hear the “This is a new thing in the game, back in my day players didn’t do this crap”, tell me that the Broad Street Bullies respected their opponents, or that Bobby Orr respected their opponents.

      I can sympathize with your romantic view about what hockey should be, and how hockey is at the lower levels, but this is the NHL. These guys are super competitive and will do anything it takes to help their team win.

    • Define intent to injure.

      No one can really argue with you unless you do, because some people think that trying to hit someone as hard as possible is dirty, and I suspect you are one of them.

      Also, re: separating someone from the puck, it seems pretty obvious that knocking someone back/down/off-balance/whatever does a better job of separating them from the puck than a firm bump, and I think we can all agree that hitting someone as hard as possible is the most effective way to do that.

  6. I didn’t know who Matt Stephanision was so I looked him up on hockeydb.com. Did you know he played last season for the South Alberta Institute of Technology. He was 2nd on the team in scoring with 14 goals and 18 assists in 19 games as a 27 year old. It looks like he was a bit of a ringer though because he got his 32 points in only 19 games and the team leader (a guy named Clinton Pettapiece) took 28 games to get his team leading 39 points. He also amassed 135 PIM so it doesn’t seem like he’s taking it easy on his younger opponents. He would not be allowed to play in the NCAA because he has played professionally. I’m not sure about the ACHA.

  7. MikeK, the days of knocking Justin Bourne’s hockey credibility because of how far he went in the game ended about two years ago, and his work since then has only put them further to rest. Ad hominem attacks like that one don’t make any valid points.

  8. See the fighters aren’t the really scary part, its guys who skate and hit like bowling balls. It’s like Jack Tatum used to say, “I want the receiver thinking about me, because then he can’t focus 100% on the ball.”

  9. JT,

    Why didn’t you get bigger and stronger yourself when you were a pro? Honest question, just curious.

  10. All due respect, JB – but I think that a part of making the league has to do with the guys who see these skating freighters and who make the play without hesitation anyway. Those guys who can skate around without fear, who are laughing about it? Guaranteed that the guys skating around who know their opponents play scared are also laughing… as Milan Lucic revealed to the world after crushing Ryan Miller. It’s much easier to scare a guy who has to work in the morning and then pick up his kids (or grandkids) than it is to scare a guy who is actually at work at that moment, and whose job security relies in large part on not being scared of taking contact.

    I’m sure that it still does have an effect, and that in the NHL, the effect doesn’t have to be as great to make a difference in games because of the generally crazy-high skill level of the players. But I do think that even a spooked NHL player is an NHL player because he either forgets the fear well enough to keep going, or else finds way to make a difference despite the fear. If he doesn’t, he won’t be long for the league.

  11. The absolute best hockey I have ever seen was the series between Russia and Canada in the early eighties. It was, by far, the fastest best play-making, best passing I have seen. They played by European rules which meant there was more space behind the net, which made Gretzky even better than usual. The rules allowed checking but, if started a fight, you were out of the game – no debating, no sending both off the ice, just pure hockey with skill.

    Then, went back to the brawling intimidation of the skilled players which made it necessary to have the McSorley’s necessary, to clutching and grabbing in order to slow the game down to the level of the less skilled, unnecessary time breaks in play due to easily avoidable breaks in play through player ejection, etc. The idea is to play hockey as well as it can be played and as break free as it possibly can. As of now,, we have a few teams, one in particular, that get favored penalty calls by the refs and decisions by Brendan Shanahan. Anyone who is not a rabid Bruin fan and has seen Lucic run over Miller while his head snaps back and his helmet flies off from an elbow to the head and results in Miller getting a concussion, while Lucic skates off the ice with a smile and is then patted on the back by his coach knows that Shanahan was in the Bruins’ pocket on this call, whether from favortism, policy, NHL TV income, whatever. Boston is a large market U.S. team with a large TV audience. It makes you wonder if this is a secret NHL policy to promote Boston because their intimidation through fights sells tickets and creates a wider audience.

    Then there is having Mike Millbury, broadcast the Stanley Cup on a national network. Millbury is always calling for fighting and not calling hitting in the head and says new rules protecting players from concussions are making hockey a game of wooses. Millbury, by the way would never been considered for the Cup games between Canada and Russia, Millbury is incensed by Burrows biting a Bruin’s hand that is in a glove but the Bruin doesn’t appear hurt. The Bruins player does not appear hurt and does not have to miss a shift due to the “injury”. However, Millbury goes into rants several times during the broadcast telling fans they “should be outraged” also. Later on, Vancouver’s
    Bieksa is slashed behind the knees by a Bruin while the play was over. He is unable to stand and is crawling to get off the ice. Millbury states that being slashed behind the knees is disabling and brings you to the ice but is calm in describing the effect but shows no sign of being upset about it. Millbury is a total Bruin fan. What the *0&#! is Millbury doing broadcasting the Stanley Cup on a national network?

    What I see happening now is that teams are loading up on players who wouldn’t be in the NHL without their fighting ability. The NHL shows no interest in taking a different direction. They say they want to reduce concussions but they don’t eliminate fighting which would be simple using European rules. That’s a whole lot easier than eliminating checking hits to the head or boarding. However, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Those of us who want to see the most skilled, fastest hockey we can are helpless watching the Millburys getting their way.

    So, this is where I see things going. Teams load up on the biggest, best fighters they can and put them on their AHL teams. When Team X come to town, they bring up the goons, save their skilled players for their next opponent but wear the Team X down over the season. If you get three Conference teams using this tactic, Team X will be largely injured by the time play offs begin and will unlikely to win a championship. Given a period of time the league splits up into the WWW league and the Speed league. At that point both fan groups get to see what they were missing. I hope I get to see the Speed League soon.

  12. Is that your fantasy? Wow. Milbury sure gets your goat. I saw him at a Flyer’s vs Isles rookie camp scrimmage that turned into a fight a thon. He was yelling for his players by name to get lined up to fight. That will make you love him even more .His kids were banging a puck around with no regard for anyone in the stands the whole time.

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