Would Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Jordan Eberle or Justin Schultz of the
Edmonton Oilers have the first clue what to do if an opposing player jumped
them or forced them into a fight? Could they defend themselves?
I don’t know the answer to that, but in an era when the game is evolving
and enforcers, who’ve historically done the bloody knuckles work when the
gloves come off and little else, are being phased out, it might be a question
worth asking – of skilled and non-combative players right around the NHL.
That’s what made an item that came out of Calgary Thursday interesting.
It seems the Flames enlisted the help of Serge Roberge, a ruffian who piled up
342 penalty minutes for Calgary coach Bob Hartley with the Cornwall Aces of the
AHL in 1994-95, at the Saddledome to provide fighting lessons.
TSN’s Jermain Franklin caught some of the bare-knuckles instruction
after an on-ice session and the Calgary Sun followed up with an item. Hartley says he
isn’t trying to turn his Flames into an NHL version of Fight Club, but he also
wants to make sure his players have at least a clue what to do if the gloves
come off, as they inevitably do.
One of the situations Hartley cited happened last year and involved
Oiler captain Andrew Ference, who took obvious exception to a hit thrown by Lee
Stempniak, Ference went after him and punched him into a bloody mess.
“If you go back to last year, Lee Stempniak against Edmonton delivered a
great body-check to Ference,” Hartley told The Sun. “Ference took exception to
this — he’s a warrior, he’s the captain of that team — and he jumped Stempniak,
and he nailed him.
“The next morning, Stempniak came to me and he said, ‘I had no clue what
to do,’ and he had his face sewn like a baseball.” Enter Roberge, who spent
time Thursday providing some rudimentary tips about what to do when the leather
hits the ice and the fists start flying.
“We didn’t teach them to fight,” Hartley said. “We taught them, if they
get caught in a scrum, if they get jumped . . . sometimes, a big body-check
will create a confrontation, and if we put one of our kids in a situation where
they just don’t know how to hold or how to survive, well, we’ve got a kid with
a concussion or a broken jaw or a broken orbital bone.
“We don’t expect them to get 200-300 penalty minutes with a 15- or
20-minute session on how to hold and how to protect yourself. We’re just trying
to avoid some injuries and instill a little confidence in them that if someone
jumps them, at least they know how to react.”
FIGHT YOUR OWN BATTLES
There’s no question fighting is declining in the NHL and that players
taking up roster spots solely to intimidate and scrap in the name of protecting
skilled players are on the way out. I have no problem with that – which is a 180 degree turn from my position on the issue just three or four years ago.
Staged bouts that are little more than punch-in-the-face contests between
designated heavyweights have, and should, go the way of sticks with straight
blades. That said, fighting remains a part of the NHL game. A lot of people are
pleased that’s the case – as long as it’s unscripted, in the heat of battle.
So, what if the battle sees somebody like Nugent-Hopkins or Schultz or
Eberle caught up with somebody intent on engaging in a punch-up? Do we assume
that somebody who has risen through the ranks of hockey has at least a faint
clue what to do? Flail away and hope for the best? Take five-in-the-eye and
turn the other cheek?
With a quick peak at their fight cards, you’ll see the Oilers certainly have players skilled in the art of nose-bending who
could teach teammates basic survival skills to help them get by – Luke Gazdic,
Kevin Westgarth and Matt Hendricks, to name just three. The Oilers also have
assistant coach Rocky Thompson, a Golden Gloves boxer and one the most
technically skilled fighters ever to play in the NHL.
In years past, Oiler tough guys have passed along fighting tips to
teammates and the team once employed kickboxing champ Darryl Duke as part of their
fitness staff. As for this edition of the Oilers, I don’t know if coach Dallas
Eakins has or is considering anything formal in terms of teaching his players
to defend themselves.
What I do know is players these days are coached up on every single aspect
of the game. Hockey-ops staffs around the NHL have expanded to aid in every
course of development, including, skating, strength and conditioning as well as
nutrition. Why not fighting?
As long as fighting remains part of the game and gloves come off in the
heat of the battle, I’m thinking an on-ice tutorial or two – no, I’m not
suggesting the addition of an actual “fighting coach” — on the fineries of
fisticuffs for the uninitiated might not be such as bad idea.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.