No more goons: Fights decline but still serve purpose for Red Wings
Detroit — It is a trend the Red Wings are happy to buck.
While fighting continues long trend of decline in the NHL, the Wings believe occasional fisticuffs unite a roster in transition and makes it tougher to play.
In a previous era, when bigger, slower players were allowed by rules and their enforcement to clutch and grab, brute force established space. Now, comparatively smaller, fleet-of-foot players dash around open ice, deploying their skills.
Increasingly, in recent years, teams seek pace, not muscle.
And, so it is that players like Tie Domi, Dave “Tiger” Williams, Chris Nilan, Bob Probert, Joe Kocur and Craig Berube, all so-called enforcers of yesteryear, find little room on NHL rosters.
“It’s been an interesting kind of evolution to follow,” said Stu Grimson, who played in 729 games, including 68 for the Red Wings from 1994-97, fought over 300 times and had a robust rivalry with Probert and others. “The justification for fighting probably doesn’t have as much force as it once did largely because, I think, the game has changed a lot.
“You used to see guys like me employed to make it easier for guys who were skilled or smaller in stature,” said Grimson, now the chief counsel for an insurance company in Tennessee and a commentator on NHL Network. “Having guys like me made it easier for guys like that to play in an era when, if you could win the battle inside the game, the physical battle, the struggle to dominate another club physically, you were well on the way to winning the ultimate battle on the scoreboard.
“I don’t think that justification stands up today, as it once did."
Although fighting has declined significantly, from 0.6 fights per game in 2008-09 to a projected 0.18 for 2008-19, according to HockeyFights.com, which tracks pugilism in the NHL, Grimson said it clearly serves a purpose.
Echoing the observation of others, Grimson, dubbed “The Grim Reaper” in his playing days, said it can help inspire a team.
“I think the great justification for fighting in the game today is a tactical, strategic ploy, which is if my team is down by a couple of goals and we’re flat and we’re not playing well and I go out and get into a scrape with someone on the other side, in more cases than not — and I would estimate it is two-thirds or 75 percent of the time — my club will tend to be more competitive," he said. “But more to the Red Wings’ point: How does it bring the team together?”
“If a team is more aggressive in that respect, if they stick up for each other, it does draw a group closer together, without question. And, at the end of the day, I think that’s what any manager or coach wants. He wants a team that cares for one another because they’re prepared to sacrifice, they’re prepared to do that small things to achieve the desired outcome, which is ultimately a win.”
Despite the decline in fighting, there are some players teams rely on to fight.
“I think everybody knows I’m not going to stray away from a fight,” said Luke Witkowski, the Wings’ forward and defenseman.
Witkowski has fought three times this year, six times last season and four the previous one, including while playing for the Lightning.
Witkowski is 27th of the 28 Red Wings skaters so far this season in average time on ice per game, at 8:37.
About non-fighting aspects of his game, Witkowski is frank.
“Fighting’s part of my game, but I wish scoring goals was part of my game, too,” he said. “Scoring my first was a great experience and I wish I could do that more than fight. I think every fighter would say the same thing.
“That’s just our way of getting to the NHL. So, I did what I could to get here. And, that’s part of it.”
Players watch a lot of video, including missed scoring chances and goals, good coverage and bad.
Witkowski studies his fights, too.
“I definitely go back and watch,” he said. “It’s probably one of the coolest things. You feel like you’re in the coliseum, in the old days. Everybody’s out of their seat. Especially when you get a few punches in. Then, you really get the crowd going. You kind of feed off that.
"I remember every bad fight I’ve ever had. The one that really help me was the one against Tanner Glass when I was in Tampa. It was a pretty long one,” Witkowski said, of a similar role player, who skated for the Rangers on March 7, 2017 when the two arranged to fight during a faceoff and traded blows for a minute and 14 seconds. “It kind of helped me prolong my NHL career, I think, a little bit.”
The Red Wings entered play Thursday tied with the Rangers second in the NHL in fights with 10. The Bruins have 12.
Coach Jeff Blashill, Dylan Larkin and others say fighting is not something the Wings intend every game. But it has its place.
“Early in his career, if you remember back to my first year here, I thought that teams took runs at (Larkin) to try to test his toughness,” Blashill said. “You don’t see that anymore. And, you don’t see that anymore because they know he’s tough.
“Not that he’s going to make a career out of fighting. Nor do we want him to.”
In the first five games this month, the Red Wings had one fight against the Bruins, two against the Avalanche, none against the Lightning and Maple Leafs, and two against the Islanders.
They are unlikely to maintain that pace.
Besides, there are other ways of playing tough.
“Fighting does for a team, in terms of team chemistry, what other more obscure parts of the game accomplish, as well.” Grimson said. “Like blocking shots, for example.”
Against the Leafs, the Red Wings blocked 30 shots.
Niklas Kronwall, who has no fighting majors in his career, blocked six shots. Mike Green, who has fought occasionally in his career, had five.
“Here’s a very sacrificial act,” Grimson said. “You put yourself in front of a hockey puck that travels at 90 mph and above. It’s hard rubber. It can tear your face up.
“And, when you give yourself up in that way, it communicates to the rest of the group, ‘I’m out there to do anything possible, anything within my means, including putting myself in front of a puck, whatever it takes, for my team to win the game.’
“That communicates to the bench: This guy is giving almost the ultimate sacrifice. It draws the group closer.”
Fight nights down
NHL fights are down significantly in the last 10 years:
2018-19: .18 per game
Goons are gone
This chart shows the number of fights the Red Wings averaged per game by decade, and the highest single-season total in each decade.
Per game: .202
Leader: Bryan Watson, 7 (1966-67)
Per game: .688
Leader: Dennis Polonich, 23 (1977-78)
Per game: 1.335
Leader: Joe Kocur, 43 (1985-86)
Per game: .769
Leader, Randy McKay, 32 (1990-91)
Per game: .317
Leader: Sean Avery, 13 (2002-03); Darryl Bootland, 13 (2003-04); Aaron Downey, 13 (2007-08)
Per game: .275
Leader: Jordin Tootoo, 8 (2012-13)
* Decade incomplete