Some of hockey’s most iconic moments derive from pain.
Fighting back from injury to return to a game, responding to a big check, blocking a shot, or participating in a brawl are just some of the ways hockey’s inherent toughness is displayed.
Toughness is celebrated. It’s an asset to play the game tough, with a thin line at times between competing and crossing that line.
NHL players are expected to show toughness, whatever anyone’s individual definition of the word is.
To many, that means stepping in and defending teammates from dirty or questionable hits; at times, it means stepping in to defend even a clean check.
Violence begets violence, and hockey relies on the self-policing of which violence is allowed and which isn’t more than any other sport. A game as physical as hockey where checking is legal — and fighting isn’t discouraged, per se — is going to naturally breed more of that culture.
The NHL looks different than it did even 20 years ago in that regard. Physicality isn’t leaving the game, but the way it’s approached is evolving, and with it, so are the players.
“The speed is a factor,” said Bruins president Cam Neely, who finished his NHL career with 1,241 penalty minutes. “What I’ve noticed over the years, guys are turning more. When they’re on the boards, they’re turning their back to the play. Whether that is trying to draw a penalty, or college kids aren’t used to being hit from behind, so maybe there’s an element of that there.”
The term “soft” is thrown around in hockey circles in different contexts; sometimes to describe someone unwilling to battle for the puck, and other times a reluctance to fight for teammates.
The Bruins weren’t immune to that narrative earlier in the season. Despite ending the season with the most fighting majors in the NHL (26), there was a perception they needed to add an “enforcer.”
As the team was more successful, that idea seemed to dissipate.
“I think it (fighting) does add a boost,” said Jake DeBrusk. “It’s in my bloodline personally, so I like seeing that, obviously don’t want anyone to get hurt. I think it brings gamesmanship to the game…. I think it checks both teams in and results in a physical game, and brings an emotion to it, I think that’s where the boost comes from. Maybe if it’s lopsided, it’s more for one team, but it benefits everybody.
“I think it’s one of the reasons we’re a hard team to play against. Not necessarily the fighting part, but that gamesmanship.”
Head injuries are the pinnacle of concern with brutality in hockey, and rare is it playing through a potential brain injury is lauded this decade.
“Concussions have played a big factor in it,” said Neely. “The players have concerns about suspensions, so all those factors I think have brought the contact down a little bit. But we still want contact in our game.”
The other types of injuries, though — broken bones, bruises, teeth being knocked out — are sometimes met with concern within the context of when a player can return. And if they do it ahead of schedule, or play through pain, the hockey world sees it as a virtue, discounting any potential pressures.
That, too, has changed over time. While there’s a place for celebrating players competing to the best of their abilities, player safety has come to the forefront more.
“In youth hockey they have big stop signs on the back of the jerseys,” said Neely. “With all of it, there’s reason behind it to avoid injuries and especially hits to the head. It’s something the league has worked hard on, educating the players, but it does start at the youth hockey level…. Now they’re even talking about starting contact at a later age.
“That’ll be interesting to see what that brings to our game down the road.”
Earlier in the season, David Backes — who has a concussion history — found himself in more fights just when his ice time was decreasing.
“We really appreciate that as a staff, and the players do, too,” head coach Bruce Cassidy said at the time. “That he’s putting himself in harm’s way for the good of the team, and that’s leadership.”
Later, the team cleared the air that the 13-year veteran wasn’t being forced to literally fight for his spot, and he wasn’t out there picking battles. But the ensuing conversation debating the value of that sort of thing in today’s game showed how its merit is evolving.
In a sport that allows — at the price of losing a player for five minutes — fighting, and isn’t afraid to use the sports’ violent appeal in promotions advertising the toughness of the game, it can be tough to see where player safety has a role. After all, a sport not afraid to allow gloves to be dropped with little consequence risks more injuries, just when it says it is trying to eliminate them.
Self-policing has always been relied upon to stop things from getting out of hand, resulting in bigger brawls or more dangerous situations.
“It’s good to show your teammates that you’ll do it,” said Chris Wagner. “It’s maybe not the biggest part of the game anymore, but just to know you’ll do it and watch other guys do it makes you want to fight too, just to stick up for guys… When guys start running around and talking, you kind of don’t have a choice at some point, even though it isn’t the biggest part of the game anymore. It’s more of a team chemistry thing, I think.”
While fighting has gone down in the past couple of decades, players handling things on the ice isn’t going anywhere yet.
“We went from bench-clearing brawls, line brawls, to getting away from that, to having fights out of anger, which is still part of our game and should be part of our game,” said Neely. “We went to staged fights, which I thought was ridiculous, and thankfully that’s gone. Fighting does come from something that happened on the ice that upset you. That’s still gonna happen, guys still get pissed off at each other out there. Maybe just not as much.”
The nature of hockey in its current form is always going to leave room for violence. Player safety has taken big steps, but as long as toughness is used as a blanket term of competitiveness, ferocity is enabled.
Hockey is changing. It will always hold its physical aspect in high esteem. The natural scaling back of the advocating of brutality won’t make the product suffer with speed and skill at a higher premium than ever, so long as there’s a compete factor.
“I value players who want to compete hard,” said Neely. “When you’re competing and battling for pucks and taking the body, you’re going to get upset some people at times. I’m not talking about you have to drop the gloves, but you got to compete for the puck.”