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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Give them something to fight for
Players would prefer to get back to doling out discipline on the ice.
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published December 18, 2006
MONTREAL - Step into Aaron Downey's office.
It is a simple bench in front of his locker at the Bell Centre. But it is here the Canadiens right wing has come up with a marketing device he said would boost NHL attendance and TV ratings:
Get rid of the instigator rule, which doles out heavy penalties for starting a fight.
Downey said he doesn't want to go back to the bad old days of the Broad Street Bullies and bench-clearing brawls, but there is something to be said for allowing players to police themselves on the ice.
"It would be an amazing game for the fans," Downey said. "Sex sells and so do gladiators. People want to see that. They want to see heart and passion."
But in a league preoccupied with creating offense, and with games officiated, some say, in ways that limit or even discourage physical play, enforcers - intimidators of the opposition, protectors of teammates - have gone the way of the gladiators.
"It looks like they're gone," said Downey, who has had 45 fights in a seven-year career. "It's evolved into something different."
"The thing now is not to just go out there and fight," Tampa Bay's Andre Roy said. "You have to be able to play the game. If not, you won't be in this league."
The view is illustrative of a tug of war within the game.
The NHL is desperate to appeal to new and casual fans with an up-tempo, goal-scoring product.
But it also must retain its core fans who believe intense physical play, battles for pucks and position, and even fighting, are the essence of the game.
It's a struggle that began in 1992, when in an attempt to eliminate indiscriminate brawling, the NHL instituted the instigator rule. The current version provides for 17 penalty minutes: a 10-minute misconduct, five for fighting and two for instigating.
Add a continuing two-year crackdown on obstruction that some complain causes players to shy away from contact, and many flash points that sparked fights have been eliminated.
Then there is the salary cap that precludes teams from taking up bench space with players who can fight but can't really skate or who can throw a punch but can't block a shot.
"The old days of sitting on the bench and playing a shift or two are over," Toronto's Wade Belak said. "You have to be able to contribute every night."
In a faster, more-skilled game. Players took the hint.
Georges Laraque, a notorious fighter in his days with the Oilers, has four goals and 16 points this season for the Coyotes.
Ottawa's Chris Neil, one of the league's toughest players, has nine goals and 17 points.
Roy said his best day since returning to Tampa Bay was Dec. 7, when he played 10:34 against the Thrashers, was responsible defensively and did not fight.
"You've got to know when to fight and know when to play the game," Roy said. "You don't want to put your team in trouble."
Fights still happen, and NHL stats show they are up slightly from last season, though down about 35 percent from prelockout levels.
Of the half-dozen players interviewed for this story, no one said it will be eliminated.
As Downey explained, "It's a genetic gene inside the game."
With practical applications.
"There is too much dollars and cents in the game," he said. "You can't have a guy like Nashville's Jordin Tootoo, for example, running a guy who makes $4-million and putting him out for four months. You've got to protect your investment."
Said Belak: "There's always a need for enforcement. If somebody goes out there and takes liberties with your best player, there should be somebody who can stand up for the guy."
Still, the days when Los Angeles' Marty McSorley piled up 350 penalty minutes in a season protecting Wayne Gretzky are over.
"The game is so fast, you just can't afford to have somebody who goes out there and takes penalties," Downey said. "There aren't too many guys left in the league who will give you that tap on the shoulder."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8622. View his blog at lightning.tampabay.com.