Michael Sdao is a defenseman trying out for the Ottawa Senators who spent the 2012-13 season playing for Princeton University. He made his first foray into pro hockey following that college season by joining the Binghamton Senators of the American League, where he dressed in 12 games, compiling a goal and 23 penalty minutes. He’s 24-years-old, 6’4″ and 220 pounds, and he’s going to have to fight a bit.
You now know everything I know about Michael Sdao, aside from his raw stats.
The picture above is of him following his “fight” from last night with Brian McGratton, arguably the toughest arguable “player” in the National Hockey League. In his other pre-season game he tussled with Anthony Peluso, which resulted in this GIF, courtesy @Wham_City:
You don’t get a lot of fighting experience in college, and I remember a couple of my largest buddies struggling in their early attempts at going with people who had experience experience with going.
Now, I’m not saying that Michael Sdao has to fight – he doesn’t, of course. Nobody does. I’m just saying he kind of has to. It’s an undeniable fact that in the culture of hockey fighting is worn like a badge of honor, and if you’re a kid trying to not just make an NHL team now, but also a team somewhere down the road, collecting badges is never a bad thing. We’ll get back to Sdao in a moment.
Pre-season games are often scary as hell because you have a bunch of kids who don’t know if they’re talented enough to make it to the show on raw skill who are willing to do anything to get there (including fight), a bunch of kids trying to make in on raw skill who’d like to be left alone to play hockey, and a bunch of veteran players who know they don’t have to fight so they just go on mad slashing sprees when slighted as Phil Kessel did on some kid from the Flyers’ (whose name I can’t remember, which is the point) last night. (Or think of Bill Guerin-on-Brent Draney back in the day, the single most violent hockey act that people don’t remember for some reason. Don’t hassle them vets.)
And then you have players like Brian McGrattan who just fight because that’s their role, and hockey’s back.
In a National Post colum titled “Calgary Flames vs. Ottawa Senators pre-season game features four fights as players try to ‘make a name for themselves“ McGrattan had this to say:
“That’s why I’m on the team, to stick up for my teammates. [The fact Sdao is trying to earn a job] doesn’t matter. I don’t care if you’re 20 years old, 30 years old, you’ve gotta learn. You can’t do that. Teams are just going to have to learn — they won’t be doing that anymore.”
“That,” was basically nothing, for what it’s worth.
And we could all sit back and laugh at that concept if his coach Bob Hartley didn’t follow up McGrattan’s words with this, from the same post:
“For a while, it looked like a playoff game out there. Suddenly, we have some friends in the Eastern Conference. There was a lot of talk between both benches. On the ice after every whistle, there was a scrum. There you see the warriors and the non-warriors. Obviously, that’s another kind of test.”
And herein lies the problem for young players trying to make pro hockey teams. Gotta separate those warriors from the non-warriors.
As much as the attitudes about fighting in hockey may be changing on the outside, a lot of the people hired to make personnel decisions on the inside are ex-players who grew up in an era where toughness was unquestionably necessary to be a part of the league, and they saw enough examples of fighting having a positive benefit on their team that their attitudes are not changing. Those opinions are forged in experience.
Where Michael Sdao may not want to fight (I have no clue, he may love it), he “has” to, at least a little bit. Nobody wants a 6’4″ pussycat, and while his role down the road may not be to fight at all, by fighting in pre-season he’s demonstrating to those men making the decisions that he’s willing to do whatever it takes.
And while “doing whatever it takes” may sound like some myth that doesn’t matter to some people out there, players who are of that mind tend to be far more valuable than those who only take what’s easy and when it’s available to them. That’s the case in every sport – as cliche as lines about “that extra [whatever] percent” are, there are a few plays a game that can turn the outcome and having guys who don’t take shifts off, who are obsessed with success, helps a whole bunch.
So I want to call the pre-season fighting stupid, I really do. But I get it. I get why some guys use pre-season, as scary as it is, to punch people’s faces. Fighting is scary as hell and if you’re the type of guy willing to overcome that fear just to demonstrate that you’re someone willing to do whatever it takes, then I give you some credit there. People might think Sdao is behaving like a neanderthal or whatever, but I think he’s probably making a name for himself within his organization. And no, losing fights doesn’t matter; there’s a hockey quote that goes “It’s not how many you win, it’s how many you show up for,” which is somewhat embarrassing in itself, but it comes from a place of showing courage, as misplaced as it may be.
So yes, pre-season is scary, and yes, it’s often a roller derby, but there’s a reason. Sdao is now on my radar, and he’s on yours too. Can the equally-talented guy who didn’t get beat up say the same thing? He can’t. That exposure ain’t worth nothing in decision-making rooms. So as stupid as the concept sounds, don’t write the kids making a mess of the games off. There’s a purpose in mind.