The first time I saw Cam Janssen, it was on a wall in Guelph. Lots of major junior arenas have Walls of Fame, usually full of long-forgotten local lacrosse players and old-time NHLers in wooly sweaters, but this was a little different. For one thing, it was hidden, sort of tucked away on a back wall behind a row of drinkers looking out over the game, and for another, all the photos were modern- a big lump of a man in Devil-red winding up a theatrical punch at a twisting opponent, the same man skating to the box, bare-headed and bruise-knuckled. None of the pictures were labeled, and I pored over them slowly, trying to remember if I’d ever seen this guy before, and what he’d done to earn this little impromptu altar on the back wall of a bar.
“That’s Cam Janssen,” the security guard said. “He played here for a while, now he’s in the NHL.”
“Yeah. He’s a great fighter. People here loved him.”
People love him still. Cam Janssen is, in fact, perennially described as a ‘fan favorite’, by media in New Jersey and St. Louis, by the fans in both towns. Read the praise, and you’d think, wow, Cam Janssen is so much more than just a fighter. He’s a great guy, hard worker, team-first player, a heart-and-soul type. He’s first on the ice at warmups! He trains really hard in the off-season! He’s the sort of guy everyone would want on their team!
Cam Janssen is the guy everyone wants on their team.
Take a minute. Think about that.
I’m not shocked by anything Janssen said in the now-notorious interview, but I am surprised that he said it. It is vanishingly rare to hear anyone speak so honestly and directly about the work of thuggery in hockey. See, usually, when people talk about enforcers (hell, when enforcers talk about enforcers; listen to Georges Laraque sometime), they dress up the role in a whole host of pretty, frilly justifications and rationalizations. There are literally enough of these to fill a book. In fact, I have that book on my shelf, it’s called The Code and it describes designated fighters in hockey as if they were blood-smeared saints, dedicated wholeheartedly to noble work of protecting stars, creating space for offense, and valiantly sacrificing their bodies for the good of their team. There is no other role in the game so swathed in moralistic praise, the language of honor, courage, strength, and selflessness, as that of the goon.
Goons need a lot of complicated rationalizations, because on the surface of things, it rather looks as if they exist to ruin hockey. A career enforcer spends most game nights eating popcorn in the pressbox, and when he does play, he plays 5-6 minutes per game of really bad hockey, trying to goad people into fighting and/or cheapshotting players who are actually good. Sometimes, if he succeeds in getting into a fight, it’s entertaining, but most of the time, the minutes the goon plays are the dullest, most insignificant, most boring minutes of a game, enlivened only by the dread that he might, frustrated by his irrelevance, do something stupidly, pointlessly destructive. That’s what enforcers look like, stripped of all the fancy justification.
But listening to Janssen speak, you realize that, in his case anyway, it is pretty much exactly that. Quoth Cam:
But you wanna be scary. You wanna put the fear of fucking God in people’s eyes, and not just, ‘Oh, I’m gonna beat you up.’ No, ‘I’m gonna catch you with your fucking head down and hurt you because you’re not gonna know I’m coming, because I know how to hit.’ Fighting guys is one thing because I know, ‘Oh, I won’t fight you. I’ll just turtle.’ Whatever. But if you have the puck and you know how to hit and you can hurt guys with hits like I know how to do, that’s what puts the fear of God into people
I’ll give you an example, guys will be like, ‘Hey,’ start chirping me or whatever the case when I skate by the bench, and one of the things that I say is, ‘Okay, I’m gonna hurt somebody on this fucking team, whoever’s got the puck with their head down, I’ll fucking hurt you.’ And then I’ll skate away, and they’ll be like, ‘Uh, well, uh, duh, uhhh.’ And then I’m out there next shift and guys just lose the puck, and they get rid of the puck and they get rid of the puck, because they know I’m coming.
Notice anything about that? Notice how there is no mention whatsoever of helping the team, of protecting stars, of making space for scoring? Nope. It’s all the self-aggrandizing rhetoric of threat. It’s all they trash talk me and I will hurt them. Not, if the team needs it, not, if they take liberties. When Janssen talks about his role on the ice, it consists entirely of this: fighting whoever is willing to fight him and head-hunting whoever has the puck. The only person he’s interested in protecting is himself, from people saying mean things to him.
We all knew that this is how it is, right? Since all the rules restricting fighting came into play, the only way real way erstwhile ‘policemen’ can make themselves useful is by trying to use intimidation tactics, and not the intimidation that comes from fighting, but the intimidation that comes from concussing. So let’s just drop all the crap about ‘protecting stars’ and ‘making space.’ Maybe that’s how it was in the eighties, but that ain’t how it is now. Cam Janssen doesn’t exist to make hockey safer for good players. He exists to make it more dangerous for them. He exists to skate around uselessly until he sees someone get the puck and have to put themselves in a momentarily vulnerable position to make a play and then hurt them. And he’s proud of it.
Goons get all the fucking honorifics in hockey. So brave! So tough! So selfless! Bullshit. Where is the fucking honor in that? Where is the courage? What is so selfless and noble about sneaking up behind skill and destroying it? In fact, you know what? If anything, that sounds a bit like cowardice to me, because it’s doing a kind of harm to others that you never have to face yourself. Cam Janssen doesn’t have to worry about somebody leveling him while he’s carrying the puck because in the NHL Cam Janssen couldn’t carry the puck if they let him do it in a fucking Easter basket. Oh sure, he’ll attack people face to face, when he can see punches coming and can hit back. He’ll fight people fairly. But the kind of unfair, non-consensual violence he’s talking about inflicting on others is the sort he doesn’t have to face himself, because he is a terrible hockey player who barely has the puck long enough to be vulnerable with it. He’s not a policeman. He’s a scavenger.
And a self-delusional one as well. Look at the last part of the quote, where he talks about how players are so scared of him that they just cough up the puck in terror. No, Cam, that’s not ‘getting rid of the puck’, that’s taking a shot on your net, which other teams do at a fantastically high rate when you are on the ice. In fact, those four minutes a night that Janssen plays are pretty much the worst minutes the Devils ever play. Every now and then, very rarely, he might hurt someone on the ice, but on the grand scale of things, he hurts his own team way more than he hurts his opponents.
If Janssen’s shit actually worked the way he described, the Devils would be playing him fifteen minutes a night on the top line so he could terrify opposing forwards into coughing the puck up for Kovalchuk. Instead, they don’t dress him for half the regular season and not even one playoff game, and when they do let him play, they give him only five of the very softest minutes against the easiest opposition. Cam Janssen plays the tenderest, juiciest minutes in the game and he still gets roundly crushed in more or less every available metric, including fights lost. You know what that means? It means Cam Janssen can’t scare anyone out of anything. Maybe opponents are intimidated in some way. Maybe they know exactly what he means to do to them and feel fear. But, evidently, they swallow their fear and make the play anyway, even knowing that he may come in late and high and knock them out. But usually he doesn’t. Most of the time, his puck-carrying opponents succeed in their goal and he fails in his, and the only people who are really intimidated are the Devils’ coaching staff, who are patently scared to have Janssen on the ice in any game or situation that actually matters.
People will tell you that loving tough hockey means loving enforcers. No. Guys like Janssen, Parros, they’re a very recent invention, a product of the last 30 years or so. For most of hockey history, there was no space on rosters for anyone who couldn’t play, and the famous old-time tough guys could carry the puck and throw a hit both. If anything, hockey was tougher when players, star or checker, fought their own battles, rather than downloading the entire team’s violence onto one or two marginal players. Hockey was violent before the designated goon and it will still be violent after. The Boston Bruins, widely considered one of the best and toughest teams of recent years, have not one roster player who registers an average of less than nine minutes of ES time per game, not one who requires the kind of sheltering Janssen does, and not one who gets killed nearly so badly on the shot clock. Call Shawn Thornton a thug if you want, but he can play in the postseason.
People will tell you that hockey has always been violence and gore, and that’s true, but it is also true that it’s changed a lot and is changing still. There are things that used to be acceptable- stick violence, bench-clearing brawls- and are now anathema to nearly everyone. Head-hunting is next on the list. Maybe it was cool in the 90s, maybe everyone loved it back then. But we know things now that we didn’t know then, and among the things we’ve learned is this: if we let it, head-hunting will destroy this game. It will cripple our stars and our grinders alike, it will ruin lives and ruin the image of the game. This story doesn’t just end in bloodshed, it ends in dementia and lawsuits. It doesn’t matter if hockey used to be that way for a hundred years. It can’t be that way anymore.
And, if I may anthropomorphize the game for a moment and scream at it as though it were a benevolent god who might hear my pleas: Hockey, how well and truly fucked are Your priorities, that Cam Janssen is a fan favorite and Alex Semin is considered cancerous? That a player who not only lacks skill but actively tries to annihilate skill is widely beloved and a guy who plays fast, exciting, scoring hockey is openly reviled? Because the former is always first on the ice for warm-ups and the latter doesn’t give good interviews? Your devotees are always crying that they want to see more speed, more wide-open play, more goals, and then they worship at the altar of a man who exists to destroy those things. In the balance between the beautiful and the brutal, why do we Your people have such contempt for beauty and such love of brutality? And the utter, blind hubris to then complain that You are becoming too slow and boring?
Earlier in the interview, Janssen talks about his hopes for a long career, if he can avoid getting “punch-drunk” because “that can happen to tough guys”. Well, Cam, you know, most of us don’t call it “punch-drunk” anymore, we call it ‘post-concussion syndrome’, but yeah, it happens to tough guys. You know who else it happens to? The guys you catch with their heads down. The guys who didn’t have the opportunity to avoid head injury that you have when you talk about dodging punches or eating them the right way. So yeah, maybe you’ll get to have ten more years of hockey. Lucky fucking us. We get to see ten more years of you playing four minutes of shitty hockey per night. Ten more years of Cam Janssen scavenging the ice, trying to take ten years off the careers of the players who make the kind of hockey we actually want to see.