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.
Anything can happen, and anyone can beat anyone else in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but I have a feeling that the winner of the Stanley Cup in 2014 is being decided in the Western Conference Finals. The series features the 2013 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks and the 2012 Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings, and the two most recent champs appear to be the two best teams in the NHL once again. With all due respect to the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens, it looks like the winner in the East will lose to the winner in the West for the third straight year. Right now the Kings lead the series two games to one, but it just takes one game or one period for the momentum to shift once again. In the meantime, it’s a lot of fun to watch.
The Hawks and the Kings are two of the most physical teams in the NHL, which has been a key to winning the Cup since this decade began. The series has two very good goaltenders in Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick. Both teams have star players on the blue line in Drew Doughty for Los Angeles and Norris Trophy finalist Duncan Keith for Chicago. Both teams have star forwards who can put the puck in the net. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Patrick Sharp for Chicago, and Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, and Marian Gaborik for Los Angeles.
What really amazes me is the way Jeff Carter has reshaped his image since getting traded to Los Angeles. Carter is big and talented, and was a very productive player when he was in Philadelphia, but he tended to disappear in the playoffs for one reason or another (often injury), and it seemed he was on the verge of becoming another Joe Thornton, who has yet to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals despite putting up Hall of Fame regular season numbers. After getting dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets, Carter hit the low point of his career. He looked uninterested on a
bad terrible team. Carter didn’t even last a full season in Columbus before getting traded to the Kings at the trade deadline. Carter was reunited with his friend and former Philadelphia teammate Mike Richards, and everything clicked. Richards and Carter were a huge part of the run the Kings went on in 2012 that culminated with this. Cater now has the reputation of a tough, gritty playoff performer. Can’t say I saw that one coming.
The Kings were the lowest scoring team during the regular season to make the playoffs. The made the tournament thanks to the stingy goaltending of Jonathan Quick and Darryl Sutter’s unrelenting defensive system. In the playoffs, they have lit it up, and have become a scarily balanced attack that outlasted their California rivals the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks in back-to-back seven game series.
I watched the third period of Game 3 last night. It was the first hockey I had watched since my Boston Bruins didn’t show up for Game 7 against Montreal, but the Red Sox are in the midst of a nine game losing streak, and I went sheepishly crawling back to hockey. These two teams should meet in the playoffs every year because it’s great hockey. While I was impressed with LA’s control of the pace and the puck in that period, I was even more impressed with the Staples Center crowd. They were really into it. I don’t know why I’m still surprised by things like this, but the stereotypes about non-traditional hockey markets still stick in my mind more than 20 years after Wayne Gretzky took the Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals. It took time, but LA is really starting to look like a hockey town. It certainly helps that the Lakers were terrible this year, and the Clippers were eliminated last week, but then I saw the tribute Teemu Selanne got from the southern California crowd in his last game, or the introduction the Ducks and Kings got at Dodger Stadium this past winter, and I realize it’s not a fluke. It’s not what you’d see in a rivalry game between Boston and Montreal, or New York and New Jersey, or Edmonton and Calgary, but it’s still really cool.
This week, following a first round departure from the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the hands of the New York Rangers, the Philadelphia Flyers have hired Ron Hextall as the team’s new General Manager, and promoted former GM Paul Homlgren to the position of Team President. Holmgren did an admirable job as GM, and the Flyers reached the Stanley Cup Finals under his watch in 2010, but it was time for a philosophical change in Philly when it comes to managing the hockey roster.
The beginning of the Flyers’ downfall (and downfall is a relative term in this case. There are much more poorly run organizations than Philadelphia.) occurred in 2011, when Philly was swept by the Boston Bruins team that they had rallied back against the previous year. Ever since the departure of Ron Hextall, the Flyers have had trouble in the eternal pursuit for another franchise goalie. Goaltending fell apart against the Bruins and Holmgren decided to acquire Ilya Bryzgalov to try and solve the problem. To fit Bryz under the salary cap, Holmgren dealt team captain Mike Richards to the Los Angeles Kings, and leading scorer Jeff Carter to the Columbus Blue Jackets (Carter was later dealt to LA in exchange for Jack Johnson). In 2012, the Kings won the Stanley Cup with significant contributions from Richards, Carter, another former Flyer Simon Gagne, and Ron Hextall, who was working as an assistant general manager at the time. Many jokes were made about the the Kings being like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air with all those guys leaving Philly to find success in southern California.
Ilya Bryzgalov did not work out in Philadelphia, and was bought out two years into his nine year contract. Bryz is still a decent goaltender and isn’t the colossal failure he was made out to be in Philly, as evidenced by his performance in the playoffs for the Minnesota Wild. With the career ending injury to Chris Pronger, the whole defensive system for the Flyers was compromised and it has taken Philadelphia years to recover. While the former Flyers were bringing the Stanley Cup to Hollywood, the Flyers organization took steps backward. Head coach Peter Laviolette was fired earlier this year. Hextall was brought into the front office, and it seemed like it was only a matter of time before he took Holmgren’s job.
Hextall was a fan favorite during his time in Philly. He is the franchise’s leader in games played and wins in net. In 1988, he became the first goalie to score a goal in a playoff game. He’s a good choice to appease the fan base, but he also has a lot of good experience in front offices.
The Flyers are in a lot of ways the Oakland Raiders of hockey. They have a fast and physical style that is synonymous with their jersey and colors. They had their greatest success under a legendary coach from the 70s. Fred Shero’s Broad Street Bullies were knocking out the NHL competition, and John Madden’s Raiders were the NFL’s most polarizing team, and around the same time Rocky Balboa was knocking out Apollo Creed in a fictional version of Philadelphia. The last couple years under Holmgren, the Flyers looked like they were on the verge of suffering the same fate as the Raiders of the last decade or so. They were over-aggressive and desperate, and their passionate fans were growing impatient as they seemed to be losing control of the situation. With Hextall, there is a chance for a fresh perspective, and a new focus.
Joe Thornton and the San Jose Sharks blew it. They had a 3-0 series lead on the Los Angeles Kings and lost the next four games. Joe Thornton might someday lose his reputation for being a playoff choker, but it will not be this year. Sharks fans should remember that it wasn’t very long ago that Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Tuukka Rask were considered chokers, culminating with a collapse just as devastating at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers, but they came back the next season, and won three Game 7s on their way to a Stanley Cup, and the one series of theirs that did not go seven games was a sweep of the Flyers team that had beaten them the year before. That’s a discussion for this summer, but in the meantime, credit needs to be given to the LA Comeback Kings.
There is a common denominator between the Bruins’ collapse, and the Sharks’ collapse: Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Those two guys were playing for the Flyers in 2010, and play for the Kings now. They have had their backs against the wall like that twice now, and ended up pulling the series out. Maybe Flyers GM expected them to do it again in 2011 because after the Bruins completed the sweep on Philly that year, Richards got traded to Los Angeles and Carter got traded to Columbus (only to get traded to LA at the 2012 trade deadline) that summer. In LA, they became Stanley Cup champions, helping the Kings roll over the competition despite being the #8 seed in the Western Conference. Philly still hasn’t been back to the Finals since losing to Chicago in 2010, but they could have used Richards and Carter this year when they lost to the New York Rangers in seven games.
The other major factor in the Kings’ comeback was goaltender and UMass alum Jonathan Quick. Quick was nails for the Kings in the last for games of that series, and shut down one of the most potent offenses in the NHL. That’s what he does. In the Olympics, Quick was the guy who kept the United States in games they should have lost, or should have lost by a lot more. If Brian Burke had the humility to put Bobby Ryan on the American roster, Quick might have a 2014 medal to go with the Silver he earned as a backup in 2010, his Stanley Cup ring, and his Conn Smythe Trophy. If he keeps playing like that, he’ll have plenty more awards to add to his collection over the next few years.
The Kings will have their hands full with their other California rival, the Anaheim Ducks, in the second round. The battle for southern California should be some more great hockey for a region that has really started getting into hockey over the last 20 years. As much as must hurt to be a Sharks fan right now (and I know from experience thanks to the Bruins) it’s that thrilling to be a Kings fan right now (and I know from experience thanks to the Red Sox). Round two of the playoffs is already up to a strong start with the double OT game between the Bruins and Habs (it hurts that the Habs won, but I feel better about the Bruins after that game than I did after Game 1 of the Detroit series), and all of these series have a chance to become classics.