Lindbloom: The Nature of the Beast

“Maggie” – photo credit: SI Vault

“Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an’ what’s the reason for?
“Not us,” says the angry crowd,
Whose screams filled the arena loud.
It’s too bad he died that night
But we just like to see a good fight.
We didn’t mean for him t’ meet his death,
We just meant to see some sweat,
There ain’t nothing wrong in that.
It wasn’t us that made him fall.
No, you can’t blame us at all.” – Bob Dylan

By Rich Lindbloom

The recent deaths of Bob Probert. Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien have stirred a hornet’s nest in the minds and hearts of hockey fans and critics. Hockey’s numerous detractors are quick to point out the accumulative effects of getting pummeled by an opponent leads to serious brain damage. They claim it is barbaric for modern day hockey to tolerate fighting to appease the blood thirsty fans who are packing the modern day equivalent of the Roman Coliseum.

Ian Brown had an excellent article on NHL enforcers last week that was a great read. Even more interesting than the article, were the numerous replies elicited by his piece. I read over 50 of the replies, finding the majority of them condemned fighting in the NHL. One dad said the “goon” aspect of hockey is why he has steered his son into other sports. Another response to the article stated, “the relatively violence free, international hockey grows in popularity and is a joy to watch.” Someone else decried that it seemed like every team has one dummy (Domi – in his words) on the team.

Yet, in my mind, eliminating the toughness aspect of the game would be tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

One of the replies made me ponder just what hockey would look like if they eliminated fighting. (And I think it’s safe to say they could stop the fighting if they wanted to.) In his words – “I was in Switzerland on business and took in a European league game, The building was empty and the game was boring. Why do we keep talking about Europe like they have all the answers?” Another respondent wrote, “This (Rypien’s death) has nothing to do with NHL enforcers. His was a story of depression and suicide.” Perhaps the most incisive reply to those who would ban fighting in hockey was, “If you don’t like the game, go shopping with your wife.”

Whatever your stance on fighting in the NHL, I think most fans would agree hockey enforcers to some extent are as legendary as the league’s marquee players. Enforcers actually serve a purpose and are an integral part of a team’s success. I read John Ferguson, who was as tough as anyone whoever laced them up, allowed players like Geoffrion, Cournoyer, Beliveau and Henri Richard to play a lot bigger, knowing Ferguson had their back. He was feared, actually admitting he quit the game because he was afraid he’d eventually seriously injure another player. (He knocked Hawk winger Eric Nesterenko out twice.)

Hockey players tend to take liberties with the opposition if they know there’s no one to stop them. The opponent who would try to fuse Henri Richard’s face and the plexi-glass into one would think twice if Ferguson was on the ice. Ferguson was once asked if his coach ever told him to go fight someone. He said, “Not exactly. The coach would take him to the side and say, ‘you need to straighten that guy out.’” Enforcers aren’t always just goons either. Many of the league’s enforcers are quite talented hockey players. I’m presuming Denis Savard appreciated having Big Al Secord on his wing.

Before we decide to eliminate the violence in hockey let me ask you Hawk fans – Do you recall any of these names; Behn Wilson, Bob Probert, Curt Fraser, Dave Manson, Al Secord, Terry Ruskowski, Bob McGill, Dave Hutchinson, King Korab, Maggie, Stu Grimson, Reg Fleming, Ted Lindsay, Dirk Graham, Martin Lapointe, Mike Peluso, Jim Cummins, Gentle Ben Eager, the infamous Burr-dawg?  I even seem to recall a lightweight named Darcy Rota who had fists that resembled a food processor. I know I cheered for all those guys.

While I would claim to be a sophisticated fan of the game, (if such an animal indeed exists), relishing this game for its speed and skill, I’ll admit there’s an inner cave man that keeps rearing his ugly head every now and again. In a momentary lapse of reason last year, I actually took great delight in realizing we had the current heavyweight champion of the NHL sitting on our pine. There was one clear cut instance last year that belied my “I could do without the fighting aspect of the game,” statement I make on occasion.

There were less than five minutes left in the fourth playoff game against Vancouver, a game that we were winning 7-2 at the time. Vigneault threw his Dirtbag Line out on the ice, just as John Scott finished serving a 10 min misconduct. You may recall Raffi Torres was this line’s spiritual leader and had knocked Seabrook out with a questionable hit earlier in the series. As Scott skated over to the bench, Coach Quenneville looked directly at Big Bad John and pointed at him to get back out on the ice and exchange pleasantries with Torres. Now Coach Q might have thought this was just a good match up. I suspect he had other motives in mind.

My heart jumped like a school boy in love as Scott and Torres began chirping away. Scott appeared to be smiling –Torres, not so much so. Unfortunately, the linesman immediately intervened and sent both lads to the box for 10 minutes for “talking.” In retrospect, a great move by the zebra’s. (Apparently the combatants were not talking about Shaft, and the linesmen we’re not digging the dialogue.) It wasn’t like I wanted to see Torres carried off the ice on a stretcher, but I was hoping for a serious beat down of a player who had been taking indecent liberties with our players throughout the series. This was the time, this was the instance, when the role of the enforcer seemed to be a vital part of the game. I have to somewhat sheepishly admit, anticipating this bout had me every bit as excited as a Sharpie breakaway.

It made me think though, as my screams filled the arena aloud, am I partially responsible for the early demise of enforcers such as Probert, Boogaard or Rypien? As Pete Seeger wrote, “Tell me, is this blood upon my hand?” As a I scream, “Hit em, hit em!” from the upper reaches of the 300 level, am I really much different than the Romans at the Coliseum?

Some music critic called Bob Dylan’s Who Killed Davey Moore, the worst song Dylan ever wrote when he released it. I must have poor musical taste-I think it’s one of his best. Pete Seeger sings an exceptional version of it, one that resonates in my mind 50 years after he recorded it. You can hear the bitter anger in his voice as he goes over all the people who contributed to this very talented prize fighter’s early demise. Moore was 59-7-1 in his career, but died at the age of 30, three days after getting knocked out by Sugar Ramos in a tremendous fight.

Seeger holds no punches as he angrily sings about the referee and fans –

“I could have stopped it in the eighth
An’ maybe kept him from his fate,
But the crowd would’ve booed, I’m sure,
At not getting’ their money’s worth.”

I guess this begs the question; is the fan the reason fighting is allowed in NHL games? Would attendance drop if the extracurricular activity were significantly curtailed? Perhaps Don Cherry put it best when questioned whether or not the retiree down in Florida is watching the game for its aesthetic beauty. “You think there saying ‘Oh my, that was a lovely pass.”’- probably not. However, I suspect the violence has more to do with the nature of the game, than the bloodthirsty fans.

It’s a combination of the incredible speed, violent collisions, cheap shots, grudges and men skating around with a weapon in their hands. It’s as close to the ultimate team game as there is. It certainly contains an ‘us vs. them’ mindset that extends beyond just the players, into the stands. Actually this type of mindset can be traced as far back as Chpt 3 in Exodus. Verses 11 and 12 give a vivid description of perhaps the first enforcer. “One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

Keith Magnuson certainly had a mindset like Moses from the first moment he stepped out onto the Stadium ice. Perhaps more than any Hawk, he looked out after his own people. He’ll never be known for his skating or scoring abilities, yet his number hangs in the rafters alongside some pretty good company. Don’t ask me why, but I was never as close to crying at a Hawk game the night they retired #3’s jersey. Something deep inside of me seemed to surface, knowing that retiring his jersey was so right. In retrospect, they should have stained it with a little blood before raising it. Kids that see Keith adjusting his shoulder pads on the Jumbo-Tron before games will probably never quite understand why it sends a shiver up my spine. This despite a pretty poor record in his bouts. As Mikita once put it, “The problem with Maggie’s fighting is he kept leading with his chin.”

Known in some circles as the “angry carrot,” Keith’s first game was in the preseason against the Leafs. He battled Mike Walton in a bout where it was reported “he didn’t exactly shine.” A few days later he leveled notorious Canadian tough guy, John Ferguson – winning the hearts of the Hawk fans. Leveling Ferguson was the hockey equivalent of committing suicide. “Keith would fight anybody,” said Flyer bad boy, Dave Schultz. “From what I understand when he came into the league, he would go to his teammates and ask them who the tough guy was on that team. And then he’d go after them.”  Cindy Magnuson tells a heartwarming story about a letter she received from Schultz after Keith’s death. “I used to sit at Gate 3 ½ and wait for Keith and watch Dave Schultz walk by and I used to hate him, and then he sends me this note about how much Keith meant to him and to hockey, and how much he loved him. I mean, where else do you find something like that except hockey?”

Wait a minute-are we talking about the three headed monsters known as enforcers. Are you trying to tell me they actually have feelings? You mean somewhere beneath that tough outer shell resides a soft spot? Allain Roy, Rick Rypien’s agent noted, “The one constant I’ve seen is that all of the enforcers are nice people.” Derek Boogaard actually was very involved in helping military veterans and their families in his community. Maggie not only devoted a lot of time to charitable causes, he never turned down an autograph. The Hawks will never have a better ambassador.

I worked with a friend named Mike, who worked a bit as a bouncer in his formative years. He said he was 21-1 in fights where he tried to escort a pixie out of the watering hole he worked at. (The one fight he lost he said the other guy did not exactly escape unscathed!) Somehow we got on the subject of bullies in school one day and he told me he always fought for the kid getting picked on. Something tells me if Mike could skate he’d be a pretty good enforcer.

If the truth be known, violence is inherent in the sport of hockey. It is and always will be part of its allure. Actually, the two line pass may have done a lot to reduce the thuggery in the game. The speed of the game seems to have somewhat diminished the ability of teams to carry players who make their living solely by intimidation. It’s harder to carry a Hound and a Hammer in the lineup. Seems to me there was a lot more fighting in the old days. On the flip side, perhaps the two line pass has contributed to the numerous concussions taking place, as the speed and pace of the game continues to accelerate. I’m thinking this has a far more serious impact on a player than occasionally getting his face turned into raw hamburger. Kind of that every drug has a side effect dilemma.

One thing for certain, as long as there are St. Louis and Kaner’s in the league, you’ll need to have players who are willing to protect them. Someone to say, “Yo meatball. You don’t touch dat guy, got it? And don’t make me repeat myself!” If you don’t have that player, someone will try to take their lunch money away, guaranteed.

Actually one of the replies to Ian Brown’s article must have emanated from Vancouver. It said “Lack of an enforcer was why the Canucks lost the Cup. They were the better team but were beaten into submission by some of the dirtiest players I’ve ever seen, along with NHL referees who would deliberately let it happen and an administration who turned a blind eye to what was happening.” I’m thinking he was talking about a player like Rick Rypien when he mentioned lack of an enforcer. While obviously delusional, he does bring up a good point. It’s hard to win the Cup without the players known as sandpaper-without players who played with a heart and passion like Magnuson’s.

I guess we could try to take a lot of the violence out of the game. Again, I think it would be a bit like putting a governor on a horse like Secretariat. Perhaps, something a dad told me at the rink recently explains hockey in a nutshell. He told me when his daughter was 8, she sort of dominated the coed league she was playing in. She already had a hat trick when one of the best players on the other team gave her a pretty wicked cross check to the lower back, sending her sprawling to the ice. Later in the game, after a faceoff with the Bobby Clarke clone, she wickedly slashed the back of the culprit’s legs. (European style hockey? Bolland style hockey?) She was immediately sent to the box for her premeditated retaliation. As so often is the case in hockey, the referee missed the first infraction.

After the game, when asked by her dad why she slashed the instigator she replied, “He tried to hurt me, so I tried to hurt him.” From the mouth of babes, part of the inherent nature of the game was revealed. The part of the game that we fans, whether we want to admit or not, are attracted to. Especially when someone tries to hurt one of our own.

No, we didn’t have a direct hand in the death of a player like Rick Rypien. Yet, I’m not so sure the boxing writer in Dylan’s song ever quite convinced himself that he didn’t have some of Davey Moore’s blood upon his hands.

“Not me,” says the boxing writer,
Pounding print on his old typewriter,
Sayin’, “Boxing ain’t to blame,
There’s just as much danger in a football game.”
Sayin’, fist fighting is here to stay,
It’s just the old American way.
It wasn’t me that made him fall.
No, you can’t blame me at all.”

Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an’ what’s the reason for?”

When asked about the perils of boxing, Geraldine Moore, Davey Moore’s wife, said “I can’t blame boxing for my husband’s death. Boxing made us a good living when he was alive and he loved it.” I believe players like Rypien, Probert and Boogaard found joy every time they jumped over those boards. Doing whatever was required to help their team win.

Enforcers – also known as goons, thugs, meatballs, nozzles and a whole list of unprintable expletives-Should they be eliminated from this great game? Do they detract more than they add to the game? Would it be better without them? I’m not so sure. While Rick Rypien’s jersey will most likely never hang from the rafters in Rogers Arena, I guarantee you it’s hanging in the hearts of many Vancouver fans.

When my brother John went down to the parade to honor our Stanley Cup Champions last summer, he saw one jersey on a gray haired old fogy our age. It bore the name and number of a player who tore out onto the ice every period he played and into life with reckless abandon. A player who always thought team first and would fight for his teammates with his dying breath. He simply said, “Rich, I saw a Maggie jersey at the parade.” Nothing more needed to be said.

Rich Lindbloom

[Editor’s note: This article was filed prior to the passing of Wade Belak on Wednesday evening August 31st]

Rich Lindbloom is the author of the book War Drums in the Distance, Special Moments in a three-year quest for Hockey’s Holy Grail.

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