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.
With the head scratching news that the New Jersey Devils have hired two co-head coaches, or something like that, in the form of Scott Stevens and Adam Oates, this headline is what I’ve been asking myself all day. Usually the Jets are the team in the Garden State that leaves us with more questions than answers when it comes to personnel moves (and as a Patriots fan, I am forever thankful for their ineptitude), but this time it’s the Devils, a hockey club that has won three Stanley Cups in my lifetime, second only behind the Detroit Red Wings in that duration, that has everyone confused. This could be another stroke of brilliance for longtime Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello, or it could mean the beginning of the end. Nothing lasts forever, not even Martin Brodeur’s career between the New Jersey pipes, and maybe not even the Lamoriello era in New Jersey.
Stevens and Oates are replacing Peter DeBoer, who was hired in 2011 as the successor to Jacques Lemaire, who retired after his third stint with New Jersey, but let the team to its first Stanley Cup championship in 1995. In DeBoer’s first season, he led the Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals, defeating the hated rival New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals. They caught lightning in a bottle, with Martin Brodeur turning the clocks back in a goalie showdown for the ages against New York’s Henrik Lundqvist. The magic ran out in the Finals against the Los Angeles Kings, however, as young American goaltender Jonathan Quick carried the eighth best team from the West to its first ever Stanley Cup.
After that, things went south for New Jersey, losing captain Zach Parise in free agency to the Minnesota Wild in the lockout-extended 2012 offseason, losing sniper Ilya Kovalchuk (who had been under contract for the next decade) to the temptation to play professional hockey in his native Russia, and having to part ways with Brodeur, who was so synonymous with the New Jersey Devils uniform, that his jersey appears on an episode of Seinfeld from 20 years ago (Brodeur now plays for the St. Louis Blues, and this just looks weird after seeing him in red and black for so long). Sure, they signed an all time great like Jaromir Jagr, and he is still able to produce at a high level at the age of 42, but the Devils have struggled in close games, and have been dreadful in shootouts ever since losing Kovalchuk (who was in Russia’s shortened shootout rotation against T.J. Oshie and Team USA in the 2014 Olympics). Shootout losses cost New Jersey a shot at the playoffs in what was a wide-open Eastern Conference last season, and they were off to another bad start this year.
Scott Stevens and Adam Oates have both been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Stevens was the fifth overall pick, selected by the Washington Capitals, in 1982, and was the Devils’ captain for their Stanley Cup championships in 1995, 2000, and 2003, and his #4 now resides in the rafters of Prudential Center. He is one of the elite defensive defensemen in the history of the game. Oates, a center, was on the losing end of the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and also played for the Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues (where he and Stevens were teammates), Boston Bruins, Edmonton Oilers, Philadelphia Flyers, and Washington Capitals (whom he coached from 2012 to 2014). Oates went undrafted, but after a standout career at RPI, Oates would eventually become the NHL’s all time leader in points among former college hockey players. Both have impressive achievements to their names, but neither has gotten a head coaching chance where they were in a good position to succeed, and I’m not sure this is a great chance, either.
Lamoriello’s idea is to have Stevens coach the defensemen and Oates coach the forwards, like defensive and offensive coordinators in football, except in hockey d-men and forwards have to be on the ice together and work as a cohesive unit. it makes sense to have offense and defense run by different coaches in football because Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork never have to be on the field at the same time, but this seems crazy. Stevens and Oates will both have the opportunity to prove themselves worthy of sole possession of head coaching responsibilities, which provides us with ample opportunity to observe potential House of Cards-esque scheming and backstabbing in this quest for power. If Adam Oates starts having weird asides with an audience that isn’t really there during press conferences (even though Oates looks more like Ray Liotta than Kevin Spacey), then fan favorite Stevens had better watch his back.
As I was writing this, another report came out that in addition to Oates and Stevens, Lamoriello will be coaching as well, creating an unprecedented head coach triumvirate. Lamoriello has gone behind the Devils bench on an interim basis before, and it could be a great way to evaluate a team that needs to make moves to rebuild and get younger (their two best players are Jaromir Jagr, 42, and Patrik Elias, 38). It also provides him with a more hands-on chance to observe Stevens and Oates’ head coaching styles. Lamoriello has been running the hockey operations for the Devils since 1987, is the longest tenured GM in the NHL, and has had great success. He has lasted ownership changes, and his success has carried over into other sports (he owns a minority stake in the New York Yankees), and his job is probably safe as long as he wants it. It’s not the conventional way of doing things, but conventional doesn’t keep things fresh when the losses pile up and a fanbase that is used to winning hockey hasn’t been getting any for the last three years. To make matters worse for New Jersey fans, the rival New York Rangers and Islanders remain competitive throughout the Devils’ struggles. They don’t have to be good this year, but drafting well and coaching well is crucial in this transition phase. This could go really well, or really poorly, but either way, Lou Lamoriello and the Devils have my attention.