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The Theory and Practice of the Hockey Fight

An appreciation of the fine art of the enforcers

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Fight during an NHL playoff game between the Dallas Stars and the San Jose Sharks at the San Jose Arena in San Jose, California on April 26th, 1998

Otto Greule /Allsport/Getty

YOU’RE AT A HOCKEY GAME, watching a hockey fight, and you’re no one – Mr. No One, Señor No One, account vice president at the Nada Advertising Agency, 1 billion Madison Avenue, New York. Bob No One selling cereal in a suit of a cunning Italian weave. You have shoes made from the skin of a reptile, an apartment with a view of one of the picturesque but filthy rivers that flow past the city, a Land Rover and a special way of wearing a fedora with the brim rolled as if it were the brim of a cowboy hat. You like wine. You’re in agency seats with some cereal guys from Battle Creek, Michigan, and, to demonstrate the fineness of your feelings, you’re shaking your head and saying that such displays of brutality are juvenile and coarse and the reason hockey will never amount to a major-league attraction in America, word up, memo to the commissioner, signed, Robert No One.

But forget you, Bob. Most people whose interest in hockey is peripheral believe that the fighting is deplorable. They regard it as undignified, unsuitable as an example to children and lowering to the image of Sport. A blight, a sideshow, a carnival event. Moreover, they view it as thuggish, discreditable, boorish, indefensible, crude, degrading and superfluous. Perhaps – except superfluous.

A hockey fight is not a dispute between two soreheads settling a grievance that has festered between them. Hockey fights are impersonal. They are not conducted by athletes who dislike each other. Two teams may dislike each other, and a fight may break out among some of their players, but not unless one of them provokes it. Fighters rarely confront each other more than once in a game. They have been called on to resolve a dispute and are no more likely to revisit the matter than lawyers are to open a settlement. They may participate in other disputes, but these will involve new complaints.

What accounts partly for the disengagement is the regard that fighters have for any player who will fight. Hockey is a roughneck prairie pastime imported from the Canadian frontier. Its code of behavior insists that a player be responsible for his conduct. If he torments other players with his stick, he is certain to be reproved. The reproof will come in the form of an assault by a player of threatening stature. If the offender is a player of commonplace ability who declines to defend himself – if he falls to the ice, say, and puts his hands over his head, what is called turtling – he might be harassed until he quits the sport. If he is a gifted player, someone will defend him. If he has honor but is overmatched, he will grab his opponent’s arms and press his forehead against the other player’s chest; such a defense is difficult to penetrate – he ties. If he can defend himself, he will be given some degree of respect, although he will probably learn to modify his behavior so that he doesn’t have to defend himself to the point of distraction. If, however, his only hope of making his living playing hockey is to be irritating, he will persevere. All sports feel congenial toward athletes who are tough and mean-spirited and will never quit or back down, Even chess.

The other explanation for the disengagement is that the disputes that fighters are called on to settle don’t usually begin with them. A hockey fight is proof that the players’ confidence in the structure of discipline intended to ensure an orderly unfolding of a game has collapsed. The event that brought about the fight was not the one that caused the players to drop their gloves and dance. It happened earlier. Perhaps a player of questionable skill roughed up the other team’s star. The offense may have been observed by everyone watching the game, or it may have been taken in only by the players and the referees and linesmen, or only by the players. In any case, the infraction was overlooked by the referees or else was insufficiently addressed. The players have excused it – perhaps what was intended as a permissible check turned into a knee-on-knee collision because the star shifted direction suddenly and the slower player couldn’t get out of the way.

On any hockey team, only a few players fight. Some are too small for it, some have no inclination toward it, and some are too talented, too important to their teams and too rich to expose themselves to gratuitous roughhousing. The players who fight often excel at no other component of the sport. Of a game’s sixty minutes, such players are likely to take part in only five or six. After noting a second or third infraction, a coach may tap the shoulder of his assassin, meaning, simply, your turn on the ice. The assassin does not need to be told to rebuke the offender – he has seen the offense. He will seek out the troublemaker, or someone of his stature if the troublemaker is not on the ice. He will not seek out a player who does not fight. That would be unsporting.

INCIVILITY toward another team’s star is not the only cause of hockey fights. Other reasons (briefly): Two teams are playing a game following one in which the winner assumed the lead easily and then handled the loser roughly; early in the new game, the losing team’s sergeant-at-arms might start a fight to encourage the other team to behave more considerately. A fight might also break out at the end of a onesided game if the losing team wants the winner to know that, despite the score, it will not tolerate liberties being taken against it. To establish himself, a physical player new to the league will taunt a player whose reputation for fighting is acknowledged. If the new player wins, he advances himself. If he loses, he demonstrates that he had the courage to challenge a fearsome player. If he loses decisively, he will have to try again. Some players are signature players for their teams – your captain, perhaps, or your best player. Treating them rudely, especially on their home ice, is cause for a dust-up. A fighter protecting the well-being of his smaller and more skillful teammates is serving as a kind of insurance, a way of doing what a team can to allow its best players to take part in a game without fear of a knucklehead’s hurting them or causing them to play with the self-conscious distraction of caution.

In addition to the severity of the provocation, whether or not a fight occurs has something to do with the score. In a close game, insults are not necessarily addressed. Players have memories. They can wait for another occasion. Also, certain fighters are sufficiently feared that simply having them take the ice can pacify an opponent. Hockey is a game of intimidation, and fighting is a means of answering a threat. A straightforward way to win a hockey game is to make your opponent lose heart. A team of big players, especially big, fast players, will force another team’s most talented defenseman to handle the puck a lot. When that defenseman is on the ice, the bigger team will carry the puck to the middle of the rink and shoot it into the corner on the side of the ice that the defenseman patrols. A race for the puck begins, with the defenseman aware that a bruiser is bearing down on him. The defenseman gets leveled a few times. It occurs to him to let the bruiser get the puck first. “I’ll get it next time,” he thinks.

I ADMIRE the courage of hockey fighters. I dislike hearing them referred to as “goons.” Such a term is inaccurate and disrespectful. Claiming a place on the roster of a National Hockey League team is, to me, a singular and impressive accomplishment. I admire the willingness of these players to accept sore hands and black eyes and split lips and cuts to their cheeks and foreheads and concussions and injuries to their shoulders in return for paychecks substantially inferior to the ones converted into Mercedes and Bentleys and restaurants by the players whose honor and well-being they defend.

Fighters menacing enough to intimidate other fighters are as uncommon as goal scorers are. Stu Grimson of the Carolina Hurricanes, Sandy McCarthy of the Calgary Flames, Donald Brashear of the Vancouver Canucks and Chris Simon of the Washington Capitals win most of their fights. The most punishing fighter in the National Hockey League is generally conceded to be Tony Twist, who plays for the St. Louis Blues. Twist is six feet one inch tall and weighs 245 pounds. His shoulders are so broad that his name on the back of his jersey looks like an abbreviation. A fighter who is held in some regard by other fighters might fight twenty or thirty times in a season; Twist fights about fifteen times. One reason he fights only occasionally is that he doesn’t get on the ice that often. He is not a swift or shifty skater. Understand, if he were to take the ice at your rink, he would be the greatest skater you had ever seen at close hand, but compared with the most accomplished players in the world, he is cumbersome. This means that his usefulness is limited to circumstances where his difficulty in catching other players, traveling with the pace of the action and taking part in the context of the game is not a liability. If he skated faster and with greater coordination, he would be rich. After the stars, the most significant players on a hockey team are those who have the size, speed and strength to pursue and claim the puck, or those who can punish the other team for having it. Hockey is not yet the employer of glandular freaks that football and basketball are, but it is eager to be. The only example of a skillful player as big as Twist is Eric Lindros, a forward on the Philadelphia Flyers. Lindros is six feet four and weighs 236 pounds. Players say that Lindros is so big and skates with such speed and determination that the blades of his skates make a sound against the ice that is different from the sound made by any other player. When your back is turned and you are headed into a corner to retrieve the puck, you can hear him bearing down on you. Players able to control the puck deftly are said to have soft hands. “Hands of stone” is the epithet most often applied to players whose hands are clumsy. Having hands of stone means Twist does not, as he says, “take the ice to score a goal or tie the game up.”

The other explanation for why Twist fights infrequently is that players visiting his arena in St. Louis, or welcoming his team into their own, often realize that hockey needn’t be played antagonistically. You can have just as much fun being polite. No fighter in the league is susceptible to fear, but none of them fights Twist without anxiety. Twist is bigger and probably stronger than any other fighter in the league. He punches harder than anyone else. He is ill-tempered. Some coaches tell their players not to fight him. He might hurt you; he might beat you severely. You are unlikely to defeat him.

If you are standing on the ice in hockey skates and you throw a punch as hard as you can at someone and you miss him, you will fall down. That is why hockey fights begin with the players grabbing each other’s jerseys. Balance, to a large extent, determines how forcefully a player punches. If you have no balance, the force of your punch derives from the strength in your arm. Balanced fighters throw with the force of their bodies moving forward. Twist has terrific balance. Many fights, though, become wrestling matches. The most accomplished fighters are trying to maneuver their opponent into the line of their fists. Some players try to rock their opponent back and forth, so that they can hit him while he’s moving toward them. Some players just try to grab their opponent’s stronger arm and hold on. They will try to prevent him from throwing punches and either attempt to upend him, which is difficult to do against Twist (weight, balance), or press him against the boards or in some manner subdue him so that the linesmen can step in and separate them. To prevent being neutralized in this way, some fighters wear jerseys several sizes too large. When their opponents grab the jerseys, they get fabric.

Twist’s attitude toward fighting is efficient and remorseless. “I’m not a grabber,” he says. “I’m out there to throw. If I get in a fight, I want to hurt you. You can hit me, but I’m going to hit you harder. That’s the scenario. I want you next time to see me coming and think, ‘It’s probably not worth it.’ When people grab me, I think, ‘What have we accomplished here?'”

THE FIGHTER I have most enjoyed watching is Joe Kocur, who plays for the Detroit Red Wings. Injuries in hockey fights are uncommon. Most of a fighter’s body is protected by equipment. The part of a player’s face that is exposed is approximately the size of a slice of bread. Fighters in the NHL have been practicing fighting for years. They know how to tuck their chins or turn their heads or lean back in order to avoid being hit anywhere but on the helmet. While it is unusual for a fighter to be hurt in a hockey fight, it has not been unusual to be hurt fighting Kocur.

Kocur is thirty-three. He is six feet tall and weighs 205 pounds. He has a small, round face, high cheekbones, a gap between his two front teeth, and a mischievous and obscurely defiant expression. Kocur was raised on a grain farm in Saskatchewan. He is of a physical type described in hockey circles as a hay baler – that is, he has the rounded, sloping shoulders of a farmer. He is exceptionally strong. Between 1991 and 1996, Kocur played for the New York Rangers. Colin Campbell, a former coach of the Rangers, says that when he once asked Kocur what his strength derived from, Kocur said, “Slews.” Slews are small, shallow ponds among the fields of a farm. To avoid driving through the fields and packing down the soil, tractors and trucks drive along the edges of the fields on bands of uncultivated land called headlands. The headlands are usually bordered by irrigation ditches. As a boy, Kocur would be assigned by his father to clear the headlands of rocks, which meant picking them up and tossing them into the slews and ditches. Kocur was a teenage player of modest promise when he got into one of his first fights. Everyone in the arena noted that when Kocur hit the other player, the player fell down.

Kocur’s manner of fighting is distinct. Whereas most fighters try to throw as many punches as they can, Kocur wants to throw only one. He tolerates being hit while waiting for the opportunity to launch his right hand, which comes from somewhere down by his hip or from behind his shoulder. As a junior-league player, Kocur once hit an opponent so hard that the player was knocked unconscious. He remained standing because Kocur had him by the jersey. As a professional, Kocur broke an opponent’s cheekbone with a punch; the player retired for a year. Kocur broke another player’s jaw. According to Campbell, the helmets that players wear are “built to stop .44 Magnums. Hitting one with your fist is like hitting a concrete wall.” In collecting material for this piece, I came across a player’s awed description of a punch that Tony Twist threw with such force that it dented a player’s helmet. Campbell says that he once saw Kocur hit a player with such power that he cracked the player’s helmet and gave him a concussion. Kocur developed a reputation in the NHL as the only player capable of knocking someone out with one punch. People used to say about Kocur, “When Joey hits people, they stay hit.”

Between 1985 and 1991, the year Kocur was traded to the Rangers, he played in Detroit with a guy named Bob Probert. Probert is now a member of the Chicago Blackhawks, but, having had surgery on his shoulder, sat out most of the season. In any case, he was regarded for more than a decade as the most successful fighter in the NHL. Any young player wishing to prove himself as a fighter had to measure himself against Probert. Even more so than Kocur, Probert is a legitimately skilled player – one year he played in the all-star game. Probert and Kocur’s most gifted teammate on the Red Wings was Steve Yzerman, who is still the team’s captain. Kocur described his responsibility to the Red Wings as “keeping flies off Stevie.” Probert and Kocur were intimidating partly because they seemed only halfway under the control of their coach and partly because they had the habit – perhaps Kocur more than Probert – of picking fights with players the other had fought earlier in the game. Sportswriters referred to Probert and Kocur as the Bruise Brothers. Probert’s fights were often long and rancorous. In the Hockey Scouting Report covering the 1990-91 season, Michael A. Berger wrote, “Unlike teammate Joe Kocur, who remains relatively calm during a fight, Probert loses control.” Kocur’s fights were shorter. Often he hit someone and they fell down. In Bad Boys, Stan Fischler’s book about hockey fighters, a player answers a question about how he had done fighting Kocur by saying, “It was OK. I came out of it alive.”

Opponents who wanted no part of Kocur’s right hand would grab his arm and duck and try to hold on. Kocur would try to free his arm. The patter of the television announcers describing these fights would consist of remarks such as, “Davis has got ahold of Kocur’s right arm, and he’s not going to let go. Kocur’s trying to get his arm free – Joey’s a big-time heavyweight in this league, and if he gets that right hand – Jesus and Mary, look out, he’s got that arm freeMayday. … Well, Davis’ll know better next time.”

The consequence to Kocur of such an incautious style has been a right hand that has been described as looking like a homemade tool. The actor Jeff Daniels, a friend of Kocur’s, says that Kocur’s hand is a “blunt object with fingernails.” Kocur’s hand has been cut and stitched so many times that the skin on the back of it can no longer be gathered. It’s as shiny and smooth as a piece of linoleum. Some of the scars are small and white, like the marbling in a piece of meat, and some wind back from his knuckles like trenches. One of the longer scars is the result of incisions made to repair a tendon that had split, and another is the result of surgery to control a staph infection – Kocur had cut his hand on an opponent’s teeth, and the doctor sewed the cut without cleansing it thoroughly. The infection became so virulent that doctors considered amputating his arm from the elbow. Kocur’s hands are always cut, and they always hurt. When he fights, he becomes so involved that he isn’t aware of the pain, but afterward he is.

In 1996, Kocur felt he had become incidental to the fortunes of the Rangers and asked to be traded. He was exchanged for a player on the Vancouver Canucks. Kocur played eight games, and during the summer the Canucks let him go. He joined a minor-league team in San Antonio, played five games and left. He ended up playing in an amateur league in Detroit. Halfway through the season, the Red Wings gave him a contract. He played the rest of the season and figured in the Red Wings’ winning the Stanley Cup. He fights rarely now. “I’m not supposed to go looking for trouble anymore,” he says. “I’m just here if things get out of hand.”

Kocur is far from the most graceful skater in the league – he has the agility of a file cabinet – but he is better than many and is so strong that he is valuable to the Red Wings as a player who can slow down the other teams’ belligerent and talented players. I asked Campbell whether he thought that Kocur was still as highly regarded for his ferocity. “Everyone’s sure Joey’s got one more punch,” Campbell said, “and no one wants to be that last punch.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Hockey

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