One pulled punch after another, the fight game is dropping out of the NHL. Boston fan favorite Shawn Thornton finds himself punching the clock (and any willing opponent) in Sunrise, the NHL’s sleepy south Florida town where hockey went to retire. The Maple Leafs made heavyweight Colton Orr a surprising roster cut at the start of this week. Mustachioed muscleman George Parros, last seen as the resident enforcer in Montreal, is out of work.
At this hour, fighting remains a tolerated part of NHL play, still punishable by a five-minute major penalty, but it’s clear it is being counted out.
“Slowly, but surely,’’ Bruins tough guy Milan Lucic said with a tinge of regret in his voice, “it’s dwindling away.’’
Here in the Hub of Hockey, where fighting was an essential ingredient of the swashbuckling Big Bad Bruins of the 1960s and ’70s, the fan base retains a tribal appreciation for the guys who ply the sweet science. There are legions of Lucic followers, many of whom sport his No. 17 proudly on their backs. And Wednesday night, with the Flyers on Causeway Street for the season opener, ex-UMass-Lowell winger Bobby Robins (Class of 2006) took over Thornton’s vacant position as wannabe fourth-line tough guy.
A new hired gunman was on the job. For now, at least.
“I’ve seen some good ones,’’ said John Healey, who Wednesday night began his 46th year as a Bruins season ticket-holder (Section 306, Row 12, Seat 3). “Terry O’Reilly, Stan Jonathan, Cam Neely . . . and, hey, Bobby Orr was a pretty good fighter, too. He just didn’t go that much.’’
Healey, from South Boston, for many years was a member of the Gallery Gods, the Hub’s hockey cognoscenti who formed decades ago in the old Garden and often sat together in the balcony.
The graying Gods are still around, but far fewer in number, and sit in scattered locations in the upper bowl. They aren’t what they used to be, in part because of the game’s spiked economics. Healey said he paid $1 per seat when he first bought season tickets, and this year he is paying $45.
“I think it would ruin the game if they got rid of fighting,’’ said Healey, decked out in a Black-and-Gold sweater, No. 1 on his back. “If a guy hits you on the back of the head, you should be able to do something about it, right? If you’re going to get rid of something, get rid of the shootout.’’
Much like Lucic, it was Robins’s willingness and ability to fight that finally helped him land NHL work. It just took him a lot longer than Lucic, who made the jump directly from junior hockey (Vancouver Giants) to the NHL.
Robins traveled as far as Northern Ireland (Belfast Giants) to keep his dream alive, and finally landed an NHL varsity job these last couple of weeks in training camp, ironically in an era when the very skill that got him here is being marginalized around the league.
Prior to his first NHL shift, the 32-year-old Robins acknowledged that it will be his endless work to improve his skating, and not perpetuating his established fighting, that will allow him his best chance to remain in the bigs.
“If you can’t keep the pace,’’ he said, “you can’t play.’’
Midway through the second period, Robins performed as expected, trading heavy punches with Philly defenseman Luke Schenn in front of the Flyers bench. First bout of the season, the Boston rookie with No. 64 on his back. Just the type of exchange the Bruins like: Their fourth-line winger sent off with one of the opposition’s top defensemen.
In part, it was Thornton’s diminishing leg speed that made him a Boston roster casualty over the summer. But it never was truly his skating that carried him to the show. Ever willing to put up his dukes, Thornton has his name etched twice on the Stanley Cup (once with the Ducks, once with the Bruins), the majority of his valued nightly contributions registered with his fists and not his scoring touch.
Lucic, only 26 years old and now with 486 career games, could end up being counted in the last wave of players to have their fists highlight their résumé. Had it not been for how he pounded his way through the teenage talent pool of the Western Hockey League, where he averaged nearly 150 penalty minutes over two seasons with the Giants, no telling what would have become of his career trajectory.
“If we went 10 years back to when I started as a 16-year-old, a big element for myself that got me looks in the junior ranks, and got me looks by scouts was that element of toughness, that element of fighting, and that’s what gave me a look and a chance to get on those junior teams,’’ said Lucic.
“It got me drafted. Yeah, I mean, I only had 9 goals and 10 assists my draft year. But I also had 25 fights that year.
“At the end of the day, what really gave notice to people was that toughness, the fighting element of my game.
“I think it would be a lot more difficult. Who knows if I would have gotten a look today?’’
Meanwhile, the love of old-school justice lingers in the stands. The venerable Gallery Gods aren’t alone when it comes to enjoying the sight of a couple of guys mixing it up.
They grew up in the rock-em-sock-em NHL, a league that once tolerated bench-clearing brawls and ice sheets strewn with gloves and sticks as the residue of donnybrooks. In the old Garden, some of the fights continued down the runway that once separated the home and visiting benches and spilled into the hallway beneath the stands.
Such routine brawls disappeared more than 20 years ago, before the Bruins moved into their new Garden.
“The hockey that I like to watch is the brand that the Bruins fans like to watch,’’ said Lucic, asked if he agreed that many Bruins fans would consider hockey without fighting to be a diluted brew. “I guess it would be kind of like decaf — still tastes like coffee, but you don’t get the kick, right?’’
Who’s to argue with the menacing, 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound Lucic? He is who he is because he could pack a punch, and even he wonders how his life will be if the fight game goes away. His game is best when his emotions are running hot, usually after he has tangled in a fight, especially so on home ice in front of a full house.
Can Lucic bring his game to full throttle if the fight game goes away?
“I don’t think so,” he said. “From a personal standpoint, I don’t think so.
“I like watching the Flyers play, because they play with that jam, they forecheck, and they mix it up and all that kind of stuff. Because it is like a double espresso, right? That’s what you want.’’
And the future? Does the NHL stand at the cusp of fight-free hockey?
“We will have this conversation in five years,’’ said Lucic, “and see what it is like.’’