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.
The summer of 2011 feels like a million years ago. I was newly 21, I was still working at my beloved summer camp job in New Hampshire, and my Boston Bruins were on top of the hockey world for the first time since 1972. That fall, the Red Sox choked away a chance at the playoffs and got Terry Francona, the best manager in franchise history fired over their lack of performance, effectively ending the most successful era in Red Sox baseball since the Wilson Administration. My baseball team was falling apart while it looked like my hockey team was on the verge of becoming a dynasty. Five years later, the Bruins are in the situation the Red Sox were in 2011, with no clear path forward. The triumphant return of the Big Bad Bruins lasted a few years, but was gone before we knew it. How did we get here? And how do we get out?
This time a year ago, when the Bruins missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007, I thought general manager Peter Chiarelli and head coach Claude Julien had to go. Chiarelli did lose his job, and is now running the Edmonton Oilers, but Claude was left in limbo while Bruins president Cam Neely took his sweet time in an exhaustive search for a new GM which eventually led him to his friend, former teammate, and longtime Bruins assistant general manager Don Sweeney, and let Sweeney make the decision on Julien’s future in Boston. Sweeney decided to stick with Julien, but he was constantly on the hot seat this season, and it felt like he needed to make the playoffs to keep his job. There were highs and there were lows, but in the end, the 2016 Bruins found themselves in the same place their 2015 version was…out of the playoffs at the hands of teams that just wanted it more (last year, it was the Ottawa Senators, this year, it was the Detroit Red Wings who still have not missed the playoffs in my lifetime). While I feel Claude Julien is not the right coach for the Bruins anymore, everything has a shelf life, and no coach has been in their current job longer than Claude, it is impossible and irresponsible to place all the blame for the Bruins last two disappointing seasons on him. The problem is I’m not sure the Bruins know how to fix the mess they’ve put themselves in.
If you’ve read this blog religiously or you’ve talked to me in person about pop culture at any point in the last five years, you probably know about my affection for the HBO series The Wire, as I find ways to shoehorn it into the conversation almost as much as Community, Star Wars, or well, the Boston Bruins. One of the big picture ideas to take away from David Simon’s masterpiece about Baltimore’s failing institutions in the midst of the War on Drugs is that there is no simple solution. There is no one person to blame. It’s easy to throw it all on Mayor Carcetti (whose existence as a character gave real Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor Martin O’Malley no chance of making it past Iowa in this presidential election cycle), or Claude Julien, but you’re not looking at the whole picture if that’s what you do.
Claude Julien was the coach that oversaw back to back collapses in the final month of the season, and he’s responsible for motivating the team, but he wasn’t the one who put the roster together. He has relied too heavily on veteran players and prioritized guys like Chris Kelly (when healthy) or Brett Connolly or Kevan Miller over the development of young promising talent like David Pastrnak or Frank Vatrano or Colin Miller, but he was also coaching this season for his job and the immediate success veterans give you in the short term could buy him time more easily than waiting for a return on the investment of youth that may not come until he’s coaching elsewhere. He might not have wanted him on the team, but he didn’t trade Tyler Seguin to Dallas for pennies on the dollar (that was Chiarelli). He didn’t use a 1st round draft pick on a goaltender, Malcolm Subban, when Tuukka Rask was under contract and just entering his prime (that was Chiarelli). He might have given Chris Kelly too much ice time, but he wasn’t the one who signed a third liner to a stupid extension with a no movement clause (that was Chiarelli). He didn’t mismanage the salary cap to the point where the Bruins had to let Jarome Iginla walk in free agency but didn’t sign anyone to replace him on the top line, or trade a top four defenseman in the form of Johnny Boychuk to the Islanders for future draft picks (those were both Chiarelli). He didn’t trade Dougie Hamilton to the Flames for draft picks, leaving captain Zdeno Chara having to shoulder the load of an elite defenseman with little help at the age of 39 (that was Sweeney). He didn’t have three consecutive picks in the 1st round of the 2015 NHL Draft and not take a single player who could contribute to the NHL club in the 2015-16 season (that was Sweeney). He didn’t trade a 3rd round pick for Zac Freaking Rinaldo (that was Sweeney). Claude Julien is not perfect, but he’s a very good coach who is the Bruins’ all time wins leader (passing original coach and GM Art Ross last month), who changed his system on the fly this year in an attempt to manufacture goals in a changing league. He will get another job this summer. He deserves a change of scenery as much as the Bruins need a change behind the bench.
As a fan, I was never going to be satisfied with just one Stanley Cup. I wanted a dynasty. I realize how that must sound for Cleveland fans or Buffalo fans, but I really wanted the Bruins to become what the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings became instead this decade. They had a great #1 defenseman in Chara, good goaltending whether it was Tim Thomas or Tuukka Rask between the pipes, and different but dynamic forward talents in Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Tyler Seguin, and Brad Marchand. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2011, they drafted Dougie Hamilton, who was supposed to be the next great Bruins defenseman, scheduled to enter his prime when Chara would be getting up there in age, extending his career by shouldering more responsibility. When the Bruins fought and clawed their way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final against Chicago, it looked like a team that would be back again soon.
One of the most frustrating things about Bruins hockey in the nearly 20 years I’ve been following the team has been the incompatibility and organization impatience the team has had with talented players. The argument could be made that it started in the 70s when they traded a transcendent goal scoring talent in Phil Esposito to the Rangers, but that was a different time, the Bruins had gotten the best years out of Espo, and they got another Hall of Famer in defenseman Brad Park from New York in return. By the 2000s, the franchise best known for the likes of Bobby Orr, Espo, Ray Bourque, and Cam Neely was trading away Joe Thornton in his prime and in his eventual Hart Trophy winning season. In the years that followed, they drafted and subsequently traded away elite prospects in Phil Kessel, Seguin, and Hamilton (the latter two were drafted with the picks acquired when the B’s traded Kessel to Toronto). Each of those players had questions about their toughness, about their fight. None of them were prototypical Bruins in the way Orr or Bourque or Neely or Terry O’Reilly were, but how many of those guys really exist anymore? Orr and Bourque are two of the five best defensemen in the NHL’s expansion era, so most blueliners will disappoint next to those expectations, and the idea of fighting being as important a part as goal scoring in a player’s identity is went out of style faster than the idea of TV shows getting canceled before their time in the age of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.
When the Bruins won the Cup in 2011, there were 645 fights in the NHL regular season, but that number was down to 343 in the 2015-16 season. For further illustration of how sharp the decline has been, there were 347 fights in the lockout-shortened 2013 season just three years ago, which was also the last year the Bruins made a deep playoff run. This year’s inclusion of John Scott in the All-Star Game was a fun Internet gimmick that exposed how tone deaf a giant corporate institution like the NHL can respond to spontaneity, but it also served as a eulogy of sorts for the role of the Enforcer on a hockey roster in the world of high definition TVs, social media, and concussion lawsuits. The DNA of the Boston Bruins is firmly rooted in a style of play that is becoming less and less relevant by the minute. I realize that, many hockey writers and sports radio pundits realize that, and I think the Bruins front office realizes that, but I am not convinced they know any other way to build a roster. If they did, why would they give up an asset of any kind to acquire a player like Zac Rinaldo?
It’s one thing to value a star defenseman over a star goal scorer who does not fight or play defense when it’s the 70s, but to be the last team stuck in the past is never a place you want to be as a fan. The Red Sox will always hold the distinction of being the last team in Major League Baseball to sign a black player, and the Lakers will go down as the last NBA team to not embrace analytics. I would rather have my team always be good than stubbornly married to a specific style of play. I’m not saying they should be the Oakland A’s of hockey, where even if they’re bad, they’re intriguing, but if you’re an A’s fan, you should never invest in your favorite player’s jersey because he will get traded, but it would be nice to see the Bruins be one of the smart teams that stays ahead of the curve. MIT hosts the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and the other three Boston teams are known in their respective sport for being on the smarter side of average. The Bruins last two general managers are both Harvard educated, but from the outside looking in, both seem to be more about Old Time Hockey and other immeasurable sports cliches than staying ahead of trends in the game. The Bruins are living in the past so much that the biggest highlight of the 2015-16 season was beating the hated Montreal Canadiens in the Winter Classic Alumni Game…not the Winter Classic itself.
Besides the fans, the biggest victims of the last two seasons have been Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. With the rest of the roster crumbling around them, they are as good as ever, and Marchand has transformed from the Little Ball of Hate to a legitimate NHL goal scoring threat. In another universe, if a couple of offseasons go differently (cough Seguin cough cough), Bergeron and Marchand could be the Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane of the Eastern Conference. Neither of them on the level of Toews or Kane, but the Eastern Conference isn’t on the level of the Western Conference, either. My buddy Luke and I were texting back and forth after the Bruins got eliminated, and our biggest fear is a long rebuild. Sure, I want the team to do it right, but I’d like to see them make some noise while Bergeron and Marchand still have their health. They are special players. They were the only scorers in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2011 against Vancouver, they led the charge in the Game 7 comeback against Toronto in 2013, and they deserve more cracks at more Cups. I hope it’s in Boston.
I’ve written before about franchise players who will never be eclipsed, primarily in the context of Boston’s teams. Because of Bill Russell, Larry Bird could never be better than the second best Celtic of all time. Because of Bobby Orr, Ray Boruque (who arrived in Boston the same year as Larry) could only ascend as high as second on the list of great Boston Bruins, even if Bourque played twice as long. David Ortiz may have three more World Series rings than Ted Williams, but if you think Ortiz means more to the history of the game and to the Red Sox, you’re lying to yourself. I wrote last month, that Tom Brady is that guy for the Patriots. Like Steve Young following Joe Montana, no Patriots quarterback will ever be better than Brady. I am convinced of that.
Salt Lake City only has one major professional sports team, and they have never won a title. Despite that, John Stockton and Karl Malone have firmly established themselves as the best that franchise will ever have. You can win as many championships as you like, but the Utah Jazz will never have a duo like that again. Stockton is the NBA’s all time leader in assists, and Malone is second only to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all time scoring list. Stockton is considered the best pure point guard in NBA history (if you’re 6’9″ and played center in a Finals game like Magic Johnson did, you’re in a category of your own), but the battle to be Utah’s second best point guard is ongoing.
Deron Williams was an All-Star who took the Jazz to the playoffs a few times before forcing Jerry Sloan into retirement and getting traded to the (then) New Jersey Nets. The future of Utah Jazz basketball is now in the hands of an Australian teenager named Dante Exum. Exum was a coveted prospect in the 2014 NBA Draft, but was also a giant mystery. Sure, his highlights looked impressive, and his father was teammates with Michael Jordan at North Carolina, but Dante didn’t play college basketball. It’s difficult to determine how good someone will be in the NBA if they look good against overseas talent.
Then this .gif happened.
Exum blocked Williams in impressive fashion in a game between Utah and Brooklyn. The two were never teammates, and neither team is going anywhere this year, but this is the kind of thing people will remember if the Jazz become the powerhouse they were in the mid-90s. The best Jazz team ever had the misfortune of peaking during Jordan’s second three-peat, and were victims of some of the GOAT’s Greatest Moments of All Time. Maybe things will be different for Dante Exum.