By Josh Martin, Sports Editor
Hockey may be the only sport where the role of the “tough guy” can have a significant impact on the intimidation factor against opposing teams. When you look at other sports, they just don’t have the same effect. In rugby and even football, it’s as if everyone gets tackled on the field. Even if there was a 7-foot-10, 350-pound monster running at you full blast, it wouldn’t make that much of a difference since you’re still getting tackled regardless. In basketball, there isn’t much contact whatsoever, unless someone accidentally knocks into another player. The same goes in soccer. But when you watch the NHL, almost every team has those players in their lineup that are out there to defend the star players by hitting, fighting, swearing, spitting, biting, and even occasionally scoring. These fourth-line scrappers are out there to make sure no one messes with the Supermen of their team. It’s almost like the mafia: if someone messes with the boss, then they’ll take care of it.
Don Cherry, the belligerent but somewhat loveable know-it-all on CBC’s Coaches Corner stated that the Edmonton Oilers needed some tough guys on their team to protect their talented star players. Nail Yakupov, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz, and Sam Gagner were the names of the talented players getting pushed around by bigger and tougher teams who dominate merely by having a physical presence. Several weeks later the Oilers traded for tough guy Mike Brown from the Toronto Maple Leafs to come in and be the type of player that they desperately need. Now the Oilers have at least some measure of “back up” for their scoring forwards.
The Vancouver Canucks have had a similar approach with their team this season with Zack Kassian having a Todd Bertuzzi-like presence—a power forward that is fast, strong, has good hands, and will hit and fight when he has too—Dale Weise being a gritty fourth-liner who provides a strong physical presence, and the newly-acquired Tom Sestito from the Philadelphia Flyers who was involved in a fight in his first two games as a Canuck. With the three of them on a Canucks team that was easily pushed around in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins, opposing players are suddenly thinking twice when they skate around on the ice looking for the Sedin’s to hit.
Hockey is the only team sport that I know of where two players can beat the crap out of each other, sit five minutes in the penalty box, and come back on the ice and play. It’s part of the game. Most of the time the two players scrapping with one another are both fourth-line players on their respective teams who are either trying to impress their coaches and teammates or trying to get some energy and life in the building. Rarely do the two guys actually fight because they want to hurt each other. This is most likely why fighting still remains in the sport.
Take a look at the Boston Bruins. They have been gifted with physical players that are not only tough, but can score as well. A rare combination of the two types of players in one. Skating around the ice when 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara is coming at you with all 255 pounds of himself ready to slam you into the boards would inevitably change the way you play, whether you realize it or not. This is why these players constantly want to “set the tone” early in the game to make sure that no one ends up pushing around the star players.
The simple way of defining the role of the tough guy is a player that will do whatever it takes to intimidate the players on the opposing teams. With only a limited amount of ice time, varying from three-to-eight minutes per game these types of players are out there as security. They’re not even focused on scoring chances. They’re out there because they’re 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, and will drop the gloves to any toothless buffoon that’s willing to bout.