The Ruffians on the Ice

There is nothing I love more than a hockey player who can fight.

Why do you think I like Mike Comrie so much? Little, played for the St. Albert Saints and the Edmonton Oilers, could score like he needed one more goal to get his kids back, and every so often would lure a seemingly superior opponent into a false sense of security before dropping the gloves and giving him a good old thrashing. I don't care what certain reporters or even some louder fans say, fighting is terrific. There's a reason twenty thousand people will leap up and cheer for a good one, even if it's just two heavyweights going through the motions in the name of some ephemeral Code rather than out of genuine animosity.

Certainly, if Glen Sather's only goal was to make the New York Rangers more entertaining, he did his job signing Derek Boogaard. That guy's got fists like pistons. Todd Fedoruk still wakes up screaming after remembering Boogaard's reconstructive surgery on his face. Watching a man fall over clutching his head in agony has never looked so good.

You know what? I even think there's an argument that signing players who can fight makes good hockey sense. Nothing quantifiable, nothing that most of our readers would be able to put any stock in, but hockey is an emotional game played balancing on a knife's edge between intensity and a loss of control, and the sight of a teammate dropping the gloves and standing up for his club in the most obvious manner can be a fortifying one. A good fighter is like a good leader or a popular teammate: somebody whose contribution cannot be laid down in easy numerical terms but who is making a contribution all the same.

That doesn't mean I think teams should sign goons, though. Oh, God, no.

Let us take our own Zack Stortini as an example. Stortini got in 17 fights in the 2009-10 season. The Oilers win-loss record in games where Stortini fought, regardless of whether he won or lost, was 7-8, and in all other games was 20-47 (Stortini fought twice in games against Tampa Bay and San Jose; the Oilers won both). It's a small sample and of course the Oilers are a rather extreme example as one of their core problems was that, being a terrible team which was compiling terrible results, they needed better-than-average effort and intensity to win any hockey game and anything that might spur them on to greater efforts was an asset. More importantly, correlation does not equal causation: were the Oilers playing harder because Stortini inspired them with his fisticuffs, or did Stortini drop the gloves because the Oilers were playing hard and he was caught up in the rush?

It's a terrible example in another way, as well: Zack Stortini is actually quite a good hockey player as well as a decent scrapper. You can play Stortini for seven, eight, even ten minutes a night and come out ahead. Stortini and Dustin Penner were the only Oilers to play more than sixty games and record a plus rating. Even on a night where Stortini doesn't inspire anybody in his vague, impossible-to-quantify but undoubtedly entertaining way, you'll still want him on the ice because he knows his way around it. This isn't true of Derek Boogaard, or Steve MacIntyre, or Jody Shelley, or Donald Brashear, or most of the other players we think of when we say the word "goon". It wasn't true of Georges Laraque for the longest time, although as Big Georges becomes a parody of his former self it is growing more and more accurate by the day.

I have nothing but respect for well-rounded ruffians like Zack Stortini but I have absolutely no time for mere goons or tough guys on my hockey team. Why would I? A guy who can score goals or prevent them has a far larger and far clearer impact on team success than somebody who plays two minutes a game and can punch really hard. Somebody who can do both is by far preferable, and thank goodness we have one. So why did we sign that garbage bag full of useless MacIntyre again?

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