Edmonton Oilers great Dave Semenko passed away last week after a battle with pancreatic and liver cancer. Semenko was not the best player of his era, but he was one of the most memorable. He was the enforcer for the legendary Oilers teams of the 1980s, a team that was before my time but lives on forever on YouTube. He was Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguard on the ice, giving The Great One the security he needed to put up offensive numbers that are unfathomable 30 years later. He was such a star as an enforcer, he even had the opportunity to get in the ring and fight Muhammad Ali for charity.
Perhaps the most touching tribute to Semenko came from Gretzky himself at Semenko’s funeral. Wayne got it. He was maybe the most supremely skilled player ever to lace up skates, but the way he talks about his former teammate and dear friend shows that hockey, even at its highest level, is a blue collar sport where the tough guys are just as appreciated as the high-end finesse players. That Oilers team was loaded, and Semenko was their heart and soul.
There was a time when every team had a guy like Dave Semenko on their roster. Fighting was just part of the game, and as hard as it sometimes was to defend the tradition of fighting in hockey to non-hockey fans, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the importance of fighting in the game.
I believe that if hockey had been invented as a new sport in the 2010s, and the leaders of this upstart National Hockey League trying to make their new game as appealing and sustainable as possible, fighting would never in a million years make the cut. That being said, to keep going with this thought experiment, hockey as we know it would have a much better chance of being invented in 2017 than football as we know it. The pace of play and high floor of acceptable skill required for entry into the NHL plays in hockey’s favor.
As long as there has been hockey there have also been great players who were also good to great fighters from Eddie Shore to Maurice Richard to Gordie Howe to Bobby Orr to Larry Robinson to Mark Messier to Scott Stevens to Cam Neely to Jarome Iginla to to mike Richards to Zdeno Chara. Even guys like Semenko or Terry O’Reilly or Shawn Thornton could probably get minutes in a post-fighting NHL. They would not be stars, and their careers would not have been as long, but in their primes, they could play well enough to make the cut even if they could not or did not fight. The players who lose out in the modern NHL are the guys who can only fight, the John Scotts of the world, or late career Shawn Thornton and George Parros.
According to Hockeyfights.com, a great website I do not check nearly as often as I used to for some reason, there were 372 total fights in 2016-17, which is up from 344 the previous season, but probably not enough to reverse the downward trend of fighting in the NHL. There were 734 in 2008-09, the highest since the 2004-05 lockout, but since the 2012-13 lockout, no season has cracked 500 fights, and the 347 fights in the abbreviated 2013 season feels like something from a different era.
Those are just numbers on a chart, but a clearer illustration came in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. My Boston Bruins won the President’s Trophy that season, but had their hands full with their most hated rival, the Montreal Canadiens in the second round. Ultimately, the Bruins fell to the Habs in seven games. Montreal was the faster, more skilled team, while Boston prided itself on strength and toughness. That’s the rivalry in a nutshell. One key difference in the two teams was the use of the enforcer. Boston had Shawn Thornton, and Montreal had George Parros. The two were friends, and won the Stanley Cup together as members of the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. While Parros spent the playoffs in the press box, scratched from the lineup, the Bruins played Thornton. That philosophical difference was not on its own what put the Habs ahead of the Bruins that season, but it showed how much the game had changed.
In 2011, inserting Thornton into the lineup in the Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks after Nathan Horton got hurt gave the Bruins an edge. They pushed the Canucks around after that, and won their first Stanley Cup since 1972. Thornton alone did not put them over the top, but his presence could not be discounted. Three years later, he was a liability in the playoffs for the Bruins.
The decline of the enforcer has been talked about for years. Before Dave Semenko’s passing, it was John Scott’s inclusion in the All-Star Game that caused a mass-reflection on the legacy of the role in hockey. Before that it was the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak, Bob Probert, and others. Every time, the same sentiments are expressed: fighting in hockey is hard to defend to non-hockey fans, and the role of fighting means less now than it did even five years ago, but nonetheless, without it, the game is missing something, and the guys who do that dirty work are some of the most appreciated in the dressing room as well as with the most hardcore of hockey fans.
If there were ever an opening for fighting to gain a more prominent role in the NHL again, we may have it with the addition of the Vegas Golden Knights to the league. With a 31st team, there are now more NHL playing jobs than ever before, and the talent pool is even further diluted. Teams may place a greater emphasis on protecting their most skilled players, and there may be more roster spots available for guys who can fight better than they can score. Then again, if the next couple years do not bring fighting back to where it was as recently as 2013, it might be gone for good in 20 years.
While this year’s NBA Finals is a clash of titans, the third installment in an immensely successful summer blockbuster franchise, the 2017 Stanley Cup Final is set up like Rocky. Coming out of the Eastern Conference is the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending champions captained by the NHL’s biggest star. Coming out of the Western Conference is the Nashville Predators, the second wild card team (A.K.A. the #8 seed in a playoff format the gives me such a headache I find myself looking for my glasses only to find out I’m already wearing them while staring at the standings on NHL.com trying to make sense of it during the season) and a late-90s expansion team that had never been past the second round of the playoffs prior to this spring. While I will be surely be pulling for the Preds in this series, regardless of outcome, these teams bring out the best hockey has to offer.
The Penguins are hockey royalty at this point. Sure, there were some lean years in the time after the departures of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr and before the arrivals of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but they are going for their fifth Stanley Cup win and are in their seventh trip to the Final in a 26 year span. With a win in the upcoming series, the Crosby/Malkin Era Penguins will have more Cups than their Lemieux/Jagr Era predecessors, and young goaltender Matt Murray will be well on his way to becoming this generation’s Ken Dryden.
While the Penguins are the well-established franchise looking to become the first to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings, the Predators have spent the last 20 years trying to prove they belong in this league. David Poile built this Nashville franchise patiently and methodically, and to borrow a take from Greg Wyshynski, embraced the role of being “Nashville’s Team” and not just a team in Nashville. That patience and that commitment to representing the community in a non-traditional hockey market such has Nashville has endeared the Preds to their fans and transformed Nashville into a sneaky-great hockey city. After this playoff run, Nashville is sneaky no more.
For years hockey fans and media members, primarily in Canadian and Original Six markets have bemoaned NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s strategy in the 1990s of moving teams from the north to the south, and popping up expansion franchises in mostly non-traditional hockey markets. The Quebec Nordiques were moved to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche, and won the Stanley Cup in their first season in their new city. The Minnesota North Stars became the Dallas Stars, and won the Stanley Cup a few years later. The Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes within their first decade in Raleigh. The Florida Panthers and San Jose Sharks made appearances in the Stanley Cup Final, and the Anaheim Ducks and Tampa Bay Lightning won the Cup. While they have not had much playoff success to speak of, the Arizona Coyotes can justify their existence because last year’s #1 overall draft pick, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is a Scottsdale, Arizona native, and got into the sport from going to Yotes games. In each of these victories, both actual and moral, I can see Bettman wanting to scream “I told you so!” to all that thought putting hockey in the south was a terrible idea. Before this playoffs, Nashville was a great hockey city with great hockey fans, but now the rest of the hockey world is finally starting to notice.
The Predators’ incredible playoff run began in earnest by shocking hockey fans across North America when they swept the formidable Chicago Blackhawks and inspired my favorite Reddit post of all time from a dismayed Hawks fan, but it really began with a franchise-altering trade last summer. The Preds sent All-Star defenseman and team captain Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for a younger All-Star defenseman in P.K. Subban. It was a phenomenal trade for Nashville. Weber is a very good player, but Subban is better, younger, and on a better contract. The trade could have been justified for Montreal if replacing Subban with Weber led to greater success in the short term, but one year later, the Habs were eliminated in the first round by the New York Rangers, and the Preds are already deeper in the playoffs than they have ever been.
Subban is one of the most exciting and charismatic players in the NHL, and as a Boston Bruins fan, I was thrilled to have him off the Canadiens. He is so likable. Even when he was in Montreal, I had such a hard time hating him the more I learned about him. Adding P.K. to a Predators team that was already trending in the right direction made them one of the NHL’s most intriguing teams this season. Even through their struggles, I thought they were better than their seeding, and I was not totally shocked by the way they disposed of Chicago.
On one hand, Nashville is not Rocky Balboa to Pittsburgh’s Apollo Creed because they have more than a puncher’s chance once the puck drops on the series tonight. They are a deep defensive team even beyond Subban, and they are getting great goaltending from Pekka Rinne, who seems to have turned the clocks back a couple years during this playoff run. While the Preds have suffered their share of injuries, most notably Ryan Johansen and team captain Mike Fisher (A.K.A. Mr. Carrie Underwood), the Pens have been without their best defenseman, Kris Letang, for the duration of the tournament. The injury induced mismatches could make for a very interesting series with Pittsburgh’s great forwards going against Nashville’s great defensemen.
On the other hand, Nashville is Rocky Balboa because Rocky did not need to win the first fight with Creed to build a seven movie franchise out of it. Rocky didn’t win the first time. All he had to do was go the distance to make a name for himself. The Preds are a young team, and their window to compete is wide open. They have already exceeded the expectations anyone had for them two months ago. While the Stanley Cup is about actual victories and not moral ones, the Preds have already won on some level. If nothing else, they have proven that they belong in the Stanley Cup Final, and their fans belong in the NHL.
Warning: The following post contains spoilers from the recent Simpsons episode “Steal This Episode.”
Nothing lasts forever. Well, nothing but The Simpsons and the hockey careers of Teemu Selanne and Jaromir Jagr, it seems.
This Sunday, The Simpsons proved yet again that they are still funny and still relevant after 25 seasons with their latest episode, “Steal This Episode.” Homer is tired of getting movies spoiled for him at the water cooler at work by Lenny and Carl, and he’s even more frustrated at all the ads before a movie in the theaters, so Bart teaches him how to illegally download movies from the Internet. When asked how he knows how to do that, Bart simply replies “I’m under 30,” which is funny because Bart has been a ten year old for 25 years now. If he aged like a real person, and not like a cartoon, he’d be old enough to run for president.
The Simpsons had already been on TV for a few years when Selanne and Jagr broke into the NHL in the early 90s. Since then, they have taken the league by storm and turned into two of the greatest goal scorers the game of hockey has ever seen. In fact, they are the two highest scoring European-born players in NHL history.
Teemu Selanne was selected 10th overall in the 1988 NHL Draft by the Winnipeg Jets, and made his NHL debut in 1992, the same year he played in his first Olympics for Finland. The Finnish Flash played two stints with the Anaheim (Mighty) Ducks, the second of which started in 2005, continues to this day, and includes winning the franchise’s only Stanley Cup Championship in 2007.
Jagr was drafted 5th overall in the NHL Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990 and made his NHL debut that same year. He won the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992, but left Pittsburgh after a decade to take his talents to the Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, Avangard Omsk (KHL), Philadelphia Flyers, Dallas Stars, Boston Bruins, and now the New Jersey Devils. For over twenty years, he has been the aloof rock star hockey has needed, and deserved. In 1998, the NHL allowed its players to compete in the Olympics for the first time, and Jagr has been representing his native Czech Republic ever since, including winning a Gold Medal at the Nagano Olympic Games in 1998.
The 2014 Sochi Games will be Teemu’s sixth Olympics and Jagr’s fifth. These two have accomplished everything a hockey player dreams of, but they’re not done having fun just yet.
With the 2014 Winter Olympics coming up, there are a lot of Olympic mainstays that will not be present. Chris Drury, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Brian Rafalski are no longer skating for the Team USA. Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger will not be there to secure Team Canada’s blue line, and Jarome Iginla and Joe Thronton will not be there to set up Crosby anymore. Nicklas Lidstrom will not be lacing up for Team Sweden.
In the winter of 2010, Lost was still airing new episodes on ABC in the midst of its final season, Breaking Bad was starting to become the most talked about show on cable, and The Office and 30 Rock were anchoring NBC’s Thursday night lineup. Four years later, all of those shows have ended, and Jay Leno is giving The Tonight Show (presumably) for real this time, to Jimmy Fallon, while he was taking it back from Conan O’Brien right around the time of the Vancouver Olympics. Four years later, The Simpsons are still going strong. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Homer and Marge were headed to Vancouver to represent the United States in couples curling. Bob Costas guest starred in that episode. It was very funny. I hope the show lasts forever.
One of the highlights of the episode was when Judd Apatow, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, and Seth Rogen all guest starred as themselves starring in a pirated movie “based on Judd Apatow’s life, starring his family, and ad libbed by his friends” as Homer put it. He also showed, in his backyard pirate theater, the latest installment of the “Cosmic Wars” franchise, which created a loophole in which episodes one through three never actually happened, as many Star Wars fans probably hope will happen for them.
Homer ended up getting busted by an FBI agent voiced by sitcom veteran Will Arnett (On a side note, it feels weird referring to a man as young as Mr. Arnett as a “sitcom veteran” the way you would for Ted Danson, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, or Ed O’Neill, but after Arrested Development, Sit Down, Shut Up, Running Wilde, Up All Night, and now The Millers, as well as memorable guest appearance on 30 Rock, The Office, Parks and Recreation, and The Simpsons, the shoe totally fits.), who actually played an FBI agent on a couple episodes of The Sopranos. The feds got tipped off when Marge tried to pay Hollywood back for the movies Homer stole. After that, the Simpson family needed to seek asylum from the Swedish government like Edward Snowden, and they recreated an iconic scene from The Fugitive. There was so much to love, and it reminded me why we need The Simpsons so much. The world is changing, but we can now take comfort in that fact that an edgy new show once condemned by Barbara Bush is now as accepted and beloved an American institution as the game of baseball.
These things have to end eventually, right? Teemu Selanne claims to be done at the end of this year, but we’ll have to check back in four years. Jagr claims he’ll play hockey until his legs fall off, and I want to believe him.