sestito orr

I know, I know, the fighting “debate” sucks, so I’m sparing you that. Instead of engaging in that cesspool I just want to lay out a reality so you have more information: fighters often fight for selfish reasons, not for the good of the team. GASP. It may sound like common sense to those from within the game, but I don’t think your average fan believes that’s true. I think the majority believe the Selfless Warrior stuff – to serve, protect and defend and all that.

The common conception seems to be that heavies do it because it sparks a team, that it keeps stars safe, that the adrenaline overtook them, or that they do it to defend teammates. In many cases, those are legitimate reasons for fighting, and I’ve got no issue with them. In fact, I took them up whole-heartedly as a player (who was sh**ty at fighting).

One of my two fights that was on YouTube (apparently stricken to save people from losing their lunch while watching me dish out such savage beatings) shows one of our best defenseman getting kneed while cutting across the blueline, and I come from out of the shot with gloves already off, because damned if we were going to be a team that let people take liberties on us. That was our “identity” of sorts. You hope that by establishing the clear message that this group sticks together - mess with him and mess with us - that people are less inclined to take a passing shot at someone because they know it won’t end there. There’s something to this, no doubt about it, but even if the message isn’t sent to other teams it’s sent within your own locker room that I got your back, and your team gets (and stays) close and gets better together. Success comes easier when everyone is out for the team, like at any workplace. (By the way, slow motion replay revealed that, nope, guy didn’t even come close to kneeing our guy. My b.)

Gillies never eclipsed the 100 PIM mark.

Gillies never eclipsed the 100 PIM mark.

And so, cut back to the “glory days” of fighting. I think a lot of the love for tough guys came from the era when players like Clark Gillies scored a crapload of points, but was also so feared that opposing players genuinely gave more room to his linemates, Bossy and Trottier. It’s such a clean, easy to understand picture. And around that time, the Boston Bruins were tough…but they could play too. Dave Semenko played with Wayne freaking’ Gretzky, which sent a pretty clear “Don’t f***ing touch that guy” message, but also meant he played a regular shift.

From those heroes of yore, things started to drift.

Junior hockey coaches watched that “protect the stars” model work, and started grooming tough guys in their teen years. Goals became secondary to punches. To go back to Clark Gillies, the dude had 112 points one year with the Regina Pats. He was hockey first. The guys who admired him and his ilk from their living rooms growing up didn’t have the same focus, nor were the coaches who were so enamored with the punchy-punchy part. Somewhere we came to believe that teams need an assigned protector, so some teams began wasting roster spots on them, and so the arms race began.

If the other team had the biggest, toughest guy around, your team was viewed as helpless. You’d get ran out of the building, or whatever. The tough guys themselves learned that being The Heavy got you jobs and got you paid, so they started training to fight, taking boxing lessons and building more muscle. Bob Probert might have been the transition heavy. He wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t exactly fit to play on your top line. But if you could beat Bob (or even hang with him), you’d have a job in the league. And so on, and so on, and so on.

And so here were are now, at the point where in this decade, the heavies can’t play hockey, but they’re literally too tough to fight your average hockey player. It’s insane. I remember playing in the ECHL against Jeremy Yablonski and being both simultaneously afraid and excited because “Hey, they’re basically short-handed and I sure as hell don’t have to fight this guy, but boy I hope he doesn’t cheap shot me, cause what could I do about it?”

So, the fraternity of tough guys was born. They can’t effectively play NHL-level hockey (while some of them are very good at hockey, most just aren’t useful at the top level), so, they have to fight to keep their NHL paychecks. They have to perpetuate the myth of The Defender of Good at every turn. And, being that they get so few shifts and aren’t useful unless they’re doing the facepunch flamenco, they owe it to one another to oblige. Help me keep my job and I’ll help you keep yours. Most of these guys are best friends off the ice.

The problem here is, they aren’t bad guys for this. They have worked and trained as hard or harder than any other player in the league to get there, and they’re deserving of your respect for that. They did what they had to do to make it, which is something a lot of people taking potshots at them from the sidelines can’t say about their own careers. Do what you gotta do.derek dorsett

But when I was a player on the same team with respect for them, I with still aware with great clarity of what their motives often were. I’m sure it was the same for many people around me too. For those players who do a lot of thinking – your college players, says this biased guy – a lot of the fights are crazy out of context from not just the tone of the game, but the tone of the bench. But your coach is 50 years old and grew up when fighting was a big part of the game, the rest of your team was taught by someone just like him in junior, and it all just sort of seems oddly…natural. Good tilt, pat on the butt, back to the action. Sometimes it even kills the flow for your own team, which is why I use the word “selfish” – the aren’t out to help the team win, where others are.

If you look at the fighting majors leaders, the list of who the top enforcers have fought really highlights how irrelevant the sideshow is, and what makes what they do selfish. Tom Sestito is tied with Derek Dorsett at nine fights each, which is basically one tilt every three games. Sestito’s list of combatants: Derek Dorsett, Colton Orr, Ryan Reaves, Luke Gazdic…you get the point. Tom Sestito also makes $750,000 this year to do it, as he does next year, already booked. One way deal, son. So when he steps on the ice with one of those guys, and no one on the other team takes him seriously enough to take themselves off the ice by fighting him…the other heavy owes him. They owe each other.

These guys are not scoring near-700 points ala Gillies, nor are they taking a regular shift. They are surviving off the Myth of The Defender, and the game will likely – sadly in a way – weed them out over time. Everybody wants a Lucic or Chara, but smart teams don’t (or won’t in the future) bother chasing pure fighters because it has so little impact on the game. Real fear does have an impact, as with the two names I mentioned above, but not when it’s a sideshow on the bench (not to call those guys sideshows, just what they do). It has impact when it’s in the context of game action. Eff you for that, eff you for this, fine, let’s do this. 

There is zero correlation between fighting majors and the standings. It’s just…it’s own separate thing when it’s not between two guys who get at least double digit per game on the ice. I’m pro-fighting-ish, and see no reason to legislate it from the game. I’m of the mind that it’ll happen on its own as GMs (ala Ken Holland) come to find that they have more success without a hired gun eating up a roster spot. The free market corrects itself, or something like that.

Comments (28)

  1. Great article. I think the coaches/GMs play a big role in this. I’ll use David Clarkson as an example. He made the NHL based on his “truclulence”, not necessarily his offensive talent. As he greatly improved his skill game while in the NHL, his role as a fighter declined because the coach/GM said he was too valuable to be off the ice for 5 minutes. And he got (over)PAID.

    So the team now “needs” someone who is less valuable to fulfll that fighting role. If I were in the AHL and saw what happend with Clarkson, I would think “Why not me too?” I am willing to take a few punches and “be a good teammate” for a chance in the show.

  2. Great article. I know you dont want to start the debate, so I wont further it, except to say that articles like this that peel back the myths of fighting are just more evidence to me that time is not on the “pro-fighting” side.

  3. I agree with you completely on where fighting has come from and gone to. And why we still need it in hockey for the “right” reasons and why part of it should be removed from the game as the pure face puncher accomplishes nothing except a paycheck for a player type the game has passed by.

    You nailed it with the back in the day guys. Gillies, O’Reilly (pictured with Jethro in your article), and even earlier John Ferguson etc were all tough as nails and could and would go to toe to toe with anyone in the league but could also play the game.

    I disagree on the first true enforcer. That was Semenko. He only ran Gretzky’s left side very part time and only when required and needed. And he did his job well back then. But he couldn’t really play or skate well and even tho hockeydb shows him getting some goals and assists (max’d out at 27 points one year), well, playing with Gretzky and Kurri a donkey could have done that especially in the run and gun 80′s. Guys like Tim Hunter followed to counter Semenko and the enforcer as we know it, was born.

    I also would disagree a bit on Bob Probert. Prior to his heavy boozing he could play top line and did with Stevie Y. 87-88 he hit 398 PIMS but he also put up 62 pts in 74 games in what was his 2nd full NHL season. He still managed 40+ points a few times even after his heavy drinking issues started. Not bad for a seriously bad ass face puncher.

    Probie had some hands and and while not exactly Bobby Orr, could skate circles around a guy like Semenko. I believe he was more cut from the back in the day guy cloth and it is a real shame his career and life was cut down and short by the booze and drugs.

    Good article JB.

    • Was going to make the same points about Probert but you beat me to it. He was a legitimately talented player, just a trainwreck off the ice. Bourne mentioned Gillies scoring 112 points in 65 games as some solid evidence of his talent. Probert was similarly talented in the OHL. Probie’s last OHL season saw him pile up 72 points in only 44 games. If he kept up that pace and played the same number of games as Gillies, Probert would have finished with 106 points.

      Proberts 87-88 season really is one of the best seasons of all time, when you really consider everything. Set the season record for PIMs and fighting majors, while also scoring 29 goals and 62 points, in 74 games. Oh and he then dropped 21 points in 16 playoff games.

  4. I really enjoyed the article. On the issue of fights often having little to do with the game, there is also this interesting article about goal scoring after fights:

    Obviously someone can claim that winning the fight doesn’t matter, because it’s about firing up the team by making the sacrifice. But it’s interesting that if you are actually in the business of winning games, fighting doesn’t seem to do anything for you (and may even slightly hurt your chances).

    One other thing to come out of the development of a separate class of fighters, particularly the “super goons” is that it really seems to hurt the idea of fighting as self-policing. If a smaller pest runs a guy, he’s not going to fight the Scotts of the league, because he’s way out of the weight class. So far that it would be against the Code for Scott to fight Marchand, for example — it would just never happen. So either the pest fights someone closer to his size (also, what about when the offender wins?), or two heavies go at each other, say that honor has had its satisfaction, and they get to claim that they did something to justify their salary. It’s bizarre…

  5. I know that the NHLPA would never go for this-because you know, jobs- but I wonder if dropping the roster size to 17 or even 16 skaters might not be the best way to legislate some kind change in this mentality into the league.

    • So basically make it impossible for a team to roll 4 lines even if they aren’t using a designated fighter? That makes no sense to me… destroys a lot of current tactics and would seriously hamper certain coaches.

    • I’ve wondered the same thing. How many roster spots do you have to eliminate before face-mashing is no longer an important enough skill to justify being dressed?

  6. I’m curious to see your take on a guy like Shawn Thornton who, in my opinion, is clearly one of the more talented fighters. Does he get to skate a regular shift without the fighting? Or is he lumped into the same class as Orr, Sestito and Reaves who can’t really play the actual game even though he does show more ability?

    • I’m not JB obviously and I would really be interested in his opinion as well. But here is my 2 cents.

      Thornton scored 20 points in 2010/11. Colton Orr has scored 24 points in his whole career of 448gp. Sestito has 10 points in 87 career games.

      Orr is a non starter in this comparison I believe. He is is completely in the face puncher only camp that needs to go buh bye in the game. And I’m a Leafs fan.

      Sesito might have more to offer yet but not likely very much more.

      Thornton has been a very good 4th line role player that brings more than a butt to warm the bench for 57 minutes/game. I always respected his ability to be more of an energy player who would get in on the forecheck and take the body and drop them when required as opposed to just because another face puncher is on the ice. And remember, I’m a Leafs fan so I hate the Bruins :)

    • This will never happen but I think players have to do something to earn their spot on the team next year as well. If you don’t put up 5-10 points a season, or say, 1 point per fight, then you’re down to the AHL for a year. That will weed out guys like Colton Orr and John Scott but the enforcers who can produce a bit will get to stick around. Obviously you need to do something to allow for injuries or whatnot, but that can be figured out if this is ever implemented.

      • I’ve proposed suspending guys AND penalizing the team financially for having a ratio of major penalties (with fighting majors given full weight and other majors given half weight) to minutes played beyond a threshold. Points are less relevant as far as this is concerned, I think.

        • Wait, so you consider a fighting major to be twice as negative as a non-fighting major??

          So you think that a fight is twice as dangerous/illegals as a kneeing or injurious boarding penalty is? How does that make sense. If anything the ratios should be flipped with fights getting half-credit. After all, 90% of fights are mutually agreed upon affairs unlike non-fighting majors which are reckless, injurious plays.

          Your approach ‘rewards’ dangerous play and punishes fighting. It’s the instigator penalty taken to the next level, allowing the punks freer reign than the ‘police’

          • Personally, I’d give all majors equal weight, but non-fighting majors aren’t racked up by a single person. If the idea is to eliminate fighting by cracking down on guys who fight and don’t do much else, I think the fighting penalty should be weighed more heavily.

            that doesn’t mean I think fighting penalties are twice as bad – but for the purpose of this “statistic” they are more relevant, so if anything should be weighed more heavily, it would be the fights.

          • So maybe the NHL also needs to come up with a way of policing the punks, the Sean Avery’s of the world, in a similar way.

            Dirty play (up to a point) occurs in every pro sport, let’s not forget it, but the worst stuff has no place in the game either. But the presence of goons doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on the pests. As is pointed out in the article, the punks aren’t fighting the heavies. I’m not advocating no fighting or no consequences for the punks. I’m advocating that guys fight their own battles more, and that the ‘designated fighter’ role is BS, and penalizing the organization and not just the individual is the way to end it, if that’s what the league wants.

  7. Sure beats workin’ at the Chrysler plant.

  8. Tyler Dellow had a good piece on the emergence of pure goon similar to what you are saying.

    “Looking through the numbers though, I came across something interesting. The pure goon, a player like Steve MacIntyre, didn’t really exist prior to 1980. I defined a pure goon season as being one in which a player produces no more than one point per twenty games, plays at least twenty games and averages at least two PIM per game. I limited my analysis to forwards, for obvious reasons. This produced a list of 101 players, with names like you’d expect: MacIntyre, Colton Orr, Cam Janssen, Andrew Peters, Darcy Hordichuk (a guy I was criticized for not mentioning as a reason for optimism for the Oilers…get over it…get over it), Riley Cote…real cementheads,

    Amazingly to me, of the 101 player-seasons on my list (guys like Janssen and Peters show up repeatedly), exactly none of them occurred before 1980-81 and only ten of them prior to 1990-91. This baffled me, so I went back and ran the search again, changing the parameters to include forwards with at least a point every ten games, twenty games played and two PIM per game during the 1970s. This produced one more name, a fellow by the name of Dave Hoyda, who scored 1-3-4 for (of course) Philadelphia in 41 games in 1977-78 while accumulating 119 PIM. It seems that, prior to 1980, if you wanted to be an NHL hockey player, you couldn’t be one just because you could fight. Guys like Dave Schultz and Tiger Williams could put a few points on the board as well.”

  9. The bottom line is that “tough guys” (enforcers, goons, whatever you want to call them) have pretty clear incentives to fight. That’s why I agree with everything written, except the selfish tag. It’s the perception of fighting’s value – by the coaches and management who employ enforcers and dole out ice time as well as that of the fighters themselves – that ultimately matters, not the actual correlation between fighting and win/loss records. Quite simply as long as there are coaches and GM’s who – rightly or wrongly – measure a player’s worth on his ability to throw punches at other players, there will be plenty of guys lining up to fill the job description. These players are taught in no uncertain terms that they must punch their opponents in the face to continue earning a paycheck and that doing so is in the team’s best interest. That’s why while I may disagree with a guy like George Parros on the value he provides on the ice, I believe he is at least being intellectually honest when he argues that he and other enforcers provided added value to their teams. Selfish would be knowingly putting your team at a disadvantage by getting into a scrap. Sure this may happen on occasion, but enforcers wouldn’t be too popular in the locker room or with the coaching staff if anyone got wind that these players were knowingly putting their team at a disadvantage on a consistent basis. Instead, I believe these guys feel that their self-interest fully aligns with the team interest. Their employers must feel the same way, because enforcers wouldn’t be earning ice time and roster spots if they weren’t doing what is required to satisfy their coaches and management.

  10. There’s nothing sad about their removal from the game, and there was no need for the parenthetical after the use of sideshow, these guys are the definition of the word. The sooner these jokes are out of the game the better.

  11. I love this piece. It’s great to finally see someone reasonably address the goon issue (which is related to, but separate from, the fighting issue to a great degree).

    The idea that the goons help their teams by fighting primarily each other and not offering much else baffles me. One team’s goon fights the other team’s goon in what is pretty much a bizarre stand-in for a dick-measuring contest. So what?

    If the NHL really wants to minimize fighting without instituting a full-on ban (which I do think would be problematic for reasons it’s not worth expanding on), I do think there’s an answer:

    For a given player, take the number of fighting majors he has. Add to it the one half of number of non-fighting majors he has. (Or, if they want to crack down on B.S. beyond fighting, don’t half the number of other majors). If the ratio of this sum to average time on ice per active game exceeds whatever value is deemed appropriate, the player is suspended x number of games. If it happens again, more games, etc.

    Most importantly, PENALIZE THE TEAM. First time it happens to one of their guys, a significant fine. Second time, bigger fine plus they can’t replace the guy on the roster for the length of his suspension. third time, all that and something more.

    NHL teams LOVE the goons because for relatively little money, they have a guy who will draw fan attention by fighting, and whose loss to injury or suspension DOESN’T HURT THEM. Make rostering a goon hurt the organization, and , they’re gone.

    • I like your fines idea. I think it could be even simpler. You fine every organization $10,000 for every major picked up by the team. Is any team going to hand over an extra $200,000 to have a guy like Colton Orr in the lineup? You’d see those guys move out pretty quickly, along with any other player picking up lots of major penalties (ie. your Patrick Kaleta’s, etc.)

  12. Pretty sure Tommy Tostitos is a sideshow unto himself…

  13. Maybe the rise of the dedicated goon coincided with the increase in the duration of commercial breaks. Those longer breaks allow players to rest which skewed ice time to the top lines so it was not as necessary to have your fourth line actually be able to play.

  14. Not to mention that players are in better shape now and probably recover from their shift more quickly than players in 1980, even if they are putting out more on those shifts.

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