So, you think you’re tough? Sorry, meathead, that’s a rhetorical question. I know the answer: in 99 per cent of the cases the answer is no. One knuckle sandwich in the mouth and most guys talking the talk wet their pants and run to momma. I find it amusing, then, when fans wade in on the question of tough guys, making arguments like they actually understand the demands of the job description when the truth is they know jack.
Case in point today was one of our readers taking a poke at Zack Stortini, who got after it with Jared Boll in Columbus Friday. The comment was: “Stortini doesn’t fight so much as absorb punches. He shouldn’t have to spend time in the penalty box for that… he’s certainly not hurting anyone!”
So as not to come off as president of the Zack Stortini Fan Club, I’ve got to admit I was among the most vocal Stortini critics to start this season, running a close second to Bob Stauffer. Frankly, I jumped on the kid too early and was guilty of piling on. “Huggy Bear” as Stauffer dubbed Stortini, was a clever nickname. So I ran my mouth, knowing better, only to take it back on a subsequent edition of Total Sports on Team 1260.
The beef about Stortini was that when the gloves came off he didn’t throw punches. In many cases in his earlier fights, that was true. But if you’ve followed Stortini this season, you’ve watched him drop his gloves 20 times and grow into the role. And, let’s not forget he’s only 22 years old.
Tough guy. Enforcer. Beat cop. There’s lots of names for the job Stortini does, but whatever handle you use, it’s easily the toughest gig in the game. I know first-hand because, in another life long ago, I did it on the ice and the lacrosse floor. There was nothing about broken facial bones and sore hands I didn’t understand, especially since I lacked the ability to ever make a living of any kind at it.
A lot of fans say, “Hey, pay me $600,000 a year and I’ll drop the gloves 20 times a season. Put me in there. Let me at him. I’ll show Stortini or (insert tough guy of your choice here) how to do it.”
Here’s a few things to consider and, hopefully, a little insight, before you make a donkey of yourself talking that way.
- Before you start cashing cheques on that $600,000 salary, you’ll have to start learning your trade in bantam or midget, at the latest. If you play five seasons from then through Tier II or the WHL, OHL or QMJHL and have 20 fights a season, you’ll scrap 100 times without making a dime.
- If you even make it to the junior level it means you were one of the toughest guys in your bantam or midget league. The bad news is the same holds true for every opponent who gives you the nod and says, “Let’s go.”
- Lose badly two or three times or get your brains scrambled by a right hand you don’t see, and you won’t even be a seventh-round rumour on draft day; you’ll end up being a pipe-fitter or a reporter.
- Make it to the AHL, where you can take a zero off that NHL salary, and now every guy asking you is the toughest guy from his junior team. He’s every bit as hungry as you are to punch for pay in the bigs. Make it this far and you’ve already beaten ridiculous odds.
- Establishing yourself in the NHL means taking on the big boys. If guys like Georges Laraque, Derek Boogaard or Raitis Ivanans don’t punch you into a coma, maybe you’ll stick around as the 23rd guy on the roster. Again, lose two or three times badly and it’s over. Get a real job.
- There are no nights off. Got a busted nose or a cracked knuckle from a tilt in Tampa Tuesday and think anybody cares in Miami Wednesday? Go home to momma, Nancy boy. If you can’t do your job just because you’re stitched up, spent the day with gauze shoved up your nostrils or because your hands hurt so badly you can’t brush what’s left of your teeth, find another line of work.
- Hesitate or pull a no-show when somebody runs your captain or your most skilled player because you’ve got a boo-boo, and it won’t be long until somebody says, “Coach wants to see you” and you’re back in the minors short a zero again on pay day.
- Every season you stay in The Show, another handful of willing kids will arrive looking to make a name for themselves at your expense. Duck them and you’re past it. Lose to them, and eventually you will, it’s over.
Say what you want about tough guys like Stortini, but at least understand what the job description entails and respect the odds they’ve beaten just to make it to the bottom of the NHL pay scale. They deserve that much.
—Listen to Robin Brownlee every Thursday from 4 to 5 p.m. on Total Sports with Bob Stauffer on Team 1260.