Late Thursday afternoon we learned that Colorado Avalanche roughguy David Koci, having gone head-hunting behind the net on Mike Green in the Capitals’ 6-1 smackdown of the ‘Lanche Tuesday night, was more or less absolved of any wrong-doing by the league — he was modestly fined, no suspension. So much for the league sending a clear message about respect by players for one another . . . color us unsurprised.
Time and again we’ve listened patiently to the game’s critics of enforcement and fighting suggest that were the league merely to rigorously sanction instances of egregious violence, there’d be no need for skating predators and pain merchants. So what are we to do with the league’s blind eye toward Koci? Shrug and wait for the next skilled Capital crumpled upon the ice from thuggery, apparently. Or should we?
Here we’re going to lay out our individual vantages on the issue, and invite you to share yours. It’s an emotional and heated topic without a clear-cut, easy answer—all the more reason to hear all sides. And it’s indisputably salient and important for the league as a whole, and the Capitals in particular.
The Caps don’t need an Enforcer — they need a Destroyer. Donald Brashear-esque enforcers are like WWII Battleships: deadly, imposing, but of limited use. Whereas destroyers are more nimble, just as deadly in a quick-strike capacity, but useful in a wide range of situations (in hockey, not just for heavy-weight fights and bench-warming).
When you hear Destroyer, think Dale Hunter… Matt Cooke with even more edge… and yes, Chris Pronger; scary, slightly crazy, sometimes dirty players whom the opposition truly fear, because you just never know who they’ll target or what they’ll do next. And not a drop-the-gloves kind of targeting, more the “You did something we don’t like to our star — now your star is going to regret it.”
Mind you, this part of the game is unfortunate, and the NHL needs to fix it. The league needs to do so by suspending players, and even coaches like the Avs’ Joe Sacco, for intentionally encouraging such dangerous play perpetrated by talentless goons. Yet, as clearly evidenced by the league’s inexplicable excusing of talent-free Koci’s goonery, the NHL mindset change will be glacially slow to arrive. The Capitals are built to win now. Expect more liberties to be taken with the Caps’ stars, particularly in the playoffs, until there’s a Destroyer draped in Capitals colors.
In the modern NHL, where the salary cap puts constraints on virtually every roster move, signing, and trade, why would any team want to waste even $1 million on lousy non-talent? So with last season’s departure of six-minute-per-game, $1.2 million Donald Brashear (whom I admire very much), came an era where skill can flourish on all four lines and light the lamp on a regular basis. One fighter, Matt Bradley, is having a career season, scoring one more goal already than he did all of last season. Why, you ask? Leaving enforcer types off the roster makes the faster, skilled players a lot better because there’s more room to operate. You think fights give energy boosts to teams? I think any Capitals’ goal at Verizon Center does the job, and the guys in red have scored every game this season at home.
The question of whether the Caps need an enforcer is a moot point, because they already have one and his name is Alexander Ovechkin. Now he isn’t the typical enforcer in the traditional sense of the term, instead he enforces by putting the puck in the back of the net. When everything is said and done, sure it would be nice to get some physical retribution when teams run at Caps players, but isn’t a win so much sweeter? Why stoop to their level, instead take the high ground and just flat out embarrass them. In the end five minutes for fighting will feel good for a period, but two points and several goals by Ovie will feel so much better.
I don’t think that Washington needs an enforcer in the pure sense of the word. The Caps have no use for Danny Carcillo, David Koci, or Patrick Kaleta. One could argue that the Caps did just fine with dead weight on the roster in the form of Michael Nylander, so they could probably do fine with a thug taking a roster spot. The difference is, they would also take a spot on the game day roster. But it is clear that the status quo is not working as teams have been taking runs at Capitals, even after clean hits. While the Caps have countered with a lethal power play and taking the win, there is still the risk of serious injury. What if Green was out indefinitely with a concussion or another injury instead of probably playing tonight? Would the debate take a different tone?
Perhaps what this team needs is a little more grit. A little more toughness. A Dale Hunter type. Sure, Hunter racked up over 3,500 career penalty minutes. He also scored over 1,000 points. That’s not one dimensional. His playoff numbers? How’s 118 points in 186 games? Ask Philadelphia about his points.
One might say that these type of players have no place in today’s game. Perennial powerhouse Detroit begs to differ. Just this year they signed Brad May. Here’s what Dan Cleary had to say about May.
“Knowing what he does on the ice is a good, calming factor for everybody, knowing teams aren’t going to be able to take liberties on our good players and run around. It’s a great element that has helped us in the past with Mac (Darren McCarty) and Downs (Aaron Downey).”
Where is our Dale Hunter?
This is a longstanding and spectacularly spirited debate — I think it fairly brought down Twitter the other day — and the two sides are united by a keen interest in seeing the welfare of Washington’s players preserved and protected to the fullest extent possible. Bright and thoughtful people are seated on both sides of this issue. But what I find conspicuously missing across a wide cross-section of the anti- enforcers crowd is an acknowledgment of the since-the-game’s-inception role enforcement has played in our sport. If hockey — at the NHL level most particularly — has ever known a role for an enforcer on more or less every roster, and yet now all of a sudden has far less of a need for one, when precisely did the metamorphosis occur? And how? Salary caps suddenly altered the nature of our sport? Really?
For me this question is answered easily by the nature of our game. No other sport asks of its athletes what hockey does. Collide with one another, on every shift, at upwards of thirty miles per hour. Do so within the confines of unyielding dasher boards and increasingly inflexible plexiglass. Be built like NFL safeties and linebackers. And for good measure, carry a weapon in your hands. The nature of our game strongly suggests that nightly there will be violence; having one or two independent sets of eyes at ice level monitoring the drama is hardly deterrent; and decades’ worth of circumstantial evidence is highly suggestive that when a game’s violent tensions are addressed in culminating fashion by a slow dance involving heavyweights, most often order is restored. The cheap stuff comes to a screeching halt.
The cold hard reality is that non-sanctions like that for David Koci are par for the NHL course. This is a league that has ever wanted and nurtured ‘the buzz’ associated with toeing the line on socially unsanctioned, frontier-style retribution. It’s part of what distinguishes the NHL from all other sports. It isn’t going anywhere. And if you aren’t adequately prepared for engagement with it, you are vulnerable.