NHL Blog: No Punching in Preseason

10/02/2023. Fighting is down in the National Hockey League. That is no news to anyone. Dropping the gloves in otherwise meaningless preseason games is a little bit up this year, compared to recent memory. But it is still nothing, nothing like the preseason slugfests used to be. Here are a few stories from the old days.

The way Preseason used to be

Preseason used to be full of fights. That means back in the 1900s and early this century. Players knew in advance, who they would be lining up against if things got crazy, and they often did. Preseason hockey has changed dramatically in only the last few decades.

There was a time when a young Georges Laraque engaged in three different fights with Donald Brashear in a preseason game in Edmonton. Big Georges was just trying to make the team.

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There was a time when players would fight their own teammates in training camp scrimmages. They would decide before going on the ice which teammate they would fight. There was no feud. Players just wanted to impress the coaches, to perhaps earn a roster spot.

Coach Guy Boucher had to explain the culture change exactly twelve years ago in Tampa. Lightning was looking to play without an enforcer in the line-up.

There was a time, exactly sixteen years ago at Colorado Avalanche`s training camp, when newly signed Ryan Smyth got into a scuffle with teammate Mitch Love during practice. This is according to the Denver Post.

Love was a young defenceman, unlikely to make the team. Smyth had just signed a $31.25 million contract with the Avs and was playing on the top line with Joe Sakic and Andrew Brunette.

Only ten minutes later, in the same scrimmage, Mitch Love dropped the gloves with veteran NHL tough guy Ian Laperriere.

It looked like the rookie had messed with a high-priced star player, and Laperriere went in to send a message. But it was not what it looked like.

Afterward, it turned out that Smyth had actually started the fight against Love because of a hit earlier in the game. Mitch Love didn’t really fight back. Laperriere went after Love, to remind Smyth that someone else would be handling his dirty work.

All kinds of messages and codes.

That was in 2007.

“They should pay the fans..”

“I think that they should pay the fans to go to the preseason games”, said former NHL forward Al May recently on the radio show “Oilers Now with Bob Stauffer” (parts of this interview published with the verbal and written permission of Bob).

He was commenting on some of the early Edmonton Oilers preseason games. Some of those games saw lopsided scores, but nobody chose violence.

You could say that the Edmonton, Alberta, raised Alan May willed his way to the National Hockey League. He played between 1987-88 and 1994-95 a total of 393 NHL regular season games; 31 goals, 76 points, and a whopping 1,348 penalty minutes.

It was a different time in hockey.

May, who currently works as a hockey analyst for Monumental Sports Network in Washington, rinkside and in the studio for Washington Capitals games, was witness to a completely different era as a hockey player himself when he played for the Boston Bruins, Edmonton Oilers, Washington Capitals, Dallas Stars and Calgary Flames.

“Back when I played, I think the fans should have had to pay Stanley Cup finals money for what was going on in these games”, he said.  “I know just my first rookie game with the Boston Bruins, I have no idea who I fought, there were no game notes, you just go out there.”

Not for TV

There were no televised preseason games, no social media, and no streams back then, either.

“Now, I was a guy who didn’t start shaving `till I was about 30, and there were all of these guys on the other team who had full beards”, said Alan May.

“My first (preseason) game was three and out. Three fights and out. My next game, I got into a fight at the opening faceoff”.

“I was playing centre. I fought Shawn Cronin, who was a guy who was famous for bench pressing 650 pounds (that`s about 295 kilograms) in college.”

“Cronin The Barbarian”, a Michigan-born defenceman made the pro ranks from the University of Illinois-Chicago. He may be best remembered as a Winnipeg Jet of the early 1990s. He was strong. Very very strong.

“And then, I was in the penalty box. We were in the Boston Bruins practice facility, the youth hockey facility, basically. You got bench, penalty box, timekeeper, penalty box, bench. And there’s no glass”, remembered May.

Preseason games back then were sometimes played outside of the teams’ main arenas. No TV. The Bruins hopefuls were playing the Hartford Whalers hopefuls.

“When I was in the penalty box, the next face-off came, the puck dropped, and there was a fight. There ended up being eight of us, four and four, in the penalty box. They had a couple of French guys who wouldn’t shut up.”

Mad Mike and $500 for Beers

“My coach was Mike Milbury in that game. I just, jokingly, went up to Mike and asked “Should I go?”, and he said “Yes!”.

“He walks to the end of the bench, and he comes back, and he goes “Any time, Al”, and I go “Really?”, and he says “Yeah, get going”.

“So, I walked over, and I jumped over the timekeepers and jumped in the other box. Next thing you know, we had an eight-man brawl”.

“So there was an eight-man brawl. I KOd whoever was coaching that team because he came over and grabbed me while someone else had me while I was throwing punches. So for the people who don’t like fisticuffs, they should probably shut off the show right now”.

“It was awesome, and I was in the dressing room at the end of the period. There were about ten guys in the dressing room with me. Terry O`Reilly, who was the Bruins head coach at the time, came in and was yelling: “WHERE`S MAY? WHERE`S MAY?”

“I was so scared. I thought that he was going to kick me out of training camp. He came in, and gave me five hundred dollars to take all the rookies out for beers that night.”

“It paid to step up in those games, and you really did have to get out, try to get out unscathed. You know, that was preseason hockey back then.”

“I think the next year I was in Edmonton’s training camp, and I was in one of those crazy Calgary versus Edmonton rookie games at the Agricom. It was the biggest group of players I had ever seen in Calgary; we had all these goalscorers from the Ontario League with us on the Oilers. We had guys like Dan Currie and I think Fabian Joseph was with us.”

“They had all these guys that looked like grandparents. They were 6”4 or 6”5, and all had bushy beards. I fought three guys and to this day I have no idea who those three guys in the first period were.”

“That was my training camp. It was so different back then. And those were like cookie-cutter, easy preseason games, compared to what I heard the Flyers and the New Jersey Devils used to do in the preseason. I’m happy I didn’t have to go through that gauntlet all the time.”

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Yawning between benches

“That’s what preseason used to be like. A few years back the Caps were playing the Boston Bruins in a preseason game on a Friday night. The arena had about three thousand people in it. It was a hundred degrees outside.”

“I was literally between the benches yawning in the game because it was so pathetic. I think there’s too many of these young players right now, that are so overcoached, they overthink, so worried about their Xs and Os, that I don’t think you can shine.”

“You have to take the puck, you have to do things with it. You got to run people through the glass, and you gotta go off-script. They can always reign you in, but I think you have to find a way to make the team.”

“You gotta step up and step out, and be noticed. I think there are too many kids that just put the jersey on. I want you to play like you own the damn thing like you are not going to let them take it away from you.”

“I think that is one of the problems. And the vets, they used to have to earn their spots back back in the day. And now, the vets, it’s like quarter-speed, it’s not even half-speed. That’s one of the big problems I have.”

“It’s like the NFL preseason games, where they should also pay the fans to go to the games.”

The Old Days are no more

Some old hockey dinosaurs may miss the old days, but that is not the way the games are played anymore. We are seeing Canadian players coming out of Junior Hockey who never had to fight. Junior teams used to start brawls on purpose with other team’s best players, trying to get them kicked out.

Hockey is different now. Hockey is much more skilled. You can not get away with things like you used to. When the score got out of hand, you would see brawls. It is a completely different game now. We may not see any fights in a preseason game.

The teams are not built that way anymore. Every NHL team has a couple of players who can fight if needed, but there is no need.

Some fans miss it. Parents of the players who are playing today do not miss it.

In Canada, pugilism is being legislated out of the game, to some extent. The Quebec Major Junior League banned fighting. Anybody who fights sits out a game. Two games if you are deemed the aggressor. And another one-game suspension for your second fight of the season.

These types of rules are getting rid of a certain player. Teams used to carry players whose job was to fight. Now, you have to play hockey. There will still be times when someone stands up for his team when a star player gets run. That player will get thrown out of the game.

Some other player may score two goals after getting the ice time of the player who got kicked out. But after the game, the coach will still thank the one who stood up for a teammate.

But you will not see a player try to goon it up after his team is down by five goals. The hockey is different now than 10 years ago, and way different than it was 20 to 30 years ago.

Some say that the danger in getting rid of the fighting is increased stickwork and dirty play. The solution to that is stricter and harsher penalties and longer suspensions.

There may come a time when we see a team go through an entire regular season without a single fight.

The idea being that the product on the ice is so good, that you will not miss the fights.

Jouni Nieminen, Edmonton

X: @OnsideWIthJouni
[email protected]

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