- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2002

In the halcyon days of hockey yore, Washington Capitals rookie Stephen Peat would have been free to focus on what he does best.
Which is, to put it bluntly, pounding the other guy's face into a bloody, misshapen pulp.
An up-and-coming on-ice pugilist, Peat has accumulated 15 fighting majors this season. Couple that with his hard-won reputation as one of the toughest players ever to emerge from the rough 'n' tumble Canadian junior leagues, and he's a virtual virtuoso of meditated malice.
Nevertheless, he spends ample time before and after each Capitals practice honing his skating, passing and bless his heart shooting, skills formerly reserved for players who, well, reserved glove dropping for intermissions.
In fact, Peat is often the first player on and the last player off the ice, working with assistant coach Tim Hunter in drills that are distressingly devoid of jersey tugs and helmet rips, not to mention chin-splitting right crosses.
"I've used fighting to get here," Peat said. "But I'm trying to work on all my skills and show that I can also play the game so they'll keep me around. Any guy that comes into this league, if you think you're going to stay by just being a fighter, I think those days are past."
Are they ever. Once the happy hunting ground of brawlers like Dave Semenko and Tony Twist, the NHL is slowly morphing into a kinder, gentler league, a sunny, squeezably soft place where skill trumps intimidation and a puck in the net tops a punch to the nose.
As such, the one-dimensional hockey bruiser species: Homo Goonus teeters on the verge of extinction, a victim of harsher rules, shifting mores, shrinking rosters and creeping irrelevance.
"In the olden days, there used to be more guys out there just to fight," said Caps forward Steve Konowalchuk. "Now you can't get away with that. A fighter has got to be able to play hockey."
That wasn't always the case. In the golden age of hockey brawling the mid 1980s to early 1990s blue-line gladiators roamed the Earth like sweater-clad Tyrannosaurs, give or take a few missing oversized teeth.
There were bodyguards like (the aptly named) Marty McSorley. Enforcers a la Twist. Terrible tag teams such as Bob Probert and Joe Kocur. The common denominator? Good hit(s), no glove(s).
Night after night, city after city, the league's heavyweights squared off to the strains of uptempo hair metal protecting smaller teammates, rectifying on-ice injustices and firing up fans. Often they knocked heads for no other reason than the sheer, unfettered joy of turning another man's God-given features into unrecognizable paste.
Never mind the hockey part.
"It was a different type of hockey," said Caps defenseman Brendan Witt. "A lot of the fans really wanted to see the fights. The old teams, like [Philadelphias] Broad Street Bullies all they did was brawl it up."
Today, though, many of the game's legendary cudgelers including Twist, McSorley and Kocur are retired. Others, like Stu Grimson and former Cap Craig Berube, are pushing 40. And most of their would-be successors see action on a severely limited basis.
No-skate knockout artist Kevin Sawyer has been in 24 fights this season, the third-highest total in the league. In his six-year career, however, the Anaheim winger has played in only 65 games. Likewise, Boston facebreaker P.J. Stock has averaged just under 25 appearances a season during his six NHL campaigns.
Or take Detroit. Fifteen years after the team's front office happily promoted the punishing duo of Probert and Kocur a k a "The Bruise Brothers" the Red Wings sport a star-studded lineup and the best record in hockey.
All without a single brawler on their roster.
"You're seeing it less and less," said Caps coach Ron Wilson. "In the playoffs, most teams don't even dress their enforcers."
Why the shift? For the most part, it's a matter of supply and demand that is to say, a dwindling supply of duke-dealers that reflects a waning demand for, well, duke-dealing.
Embarrassed by a bench-clearing, pregame melee between Montreal and Philadelphia during the 1987 playoffs, the NHL cracked down on the rough stuff, instituting harsh punishments for leaving the bench and an additional two-minute instigator penalty for any player who provokes a tete-a-tete.
The result has been a dramatic drop in on-ice fisticuffs. From 1985 to 1988, the league averaged more than one fight per game, an all-time high. By the 1995-96 season, however, brawling had fallen by 25 percent.
Two seasons ago, the NHL averaged just one scuffle every two games. More than 60 percent of those games were actually fight-free, the highest percentage in two decades.
"The number one reason for the decline is the instigator penalty," Hunter said. "Guys are hesitant to start a fight, because you don't know if you'll get that extra two minutes and put your team in jeopardy. Power plays are so good these days that it could be the difference in the game."
Other factors have contributed to the league's shrinking Fight Club. When the NHL merged with the WHA in 1979, an increased roster allowed teams to add punchers; likewise, the recent drop from 24 to 23 active players has eliminated the goon slot on many clubs.
Add in an average NHL salary that pushes $1.5million, and general managers increasingly are reluctant to sign a player who brings little more than mangled knuckles to the table. Not when expansion and league parity make every shift count.
"If you're paying some guy $500,000 to $600,000 a year, you want them to play more than one or two minutes a night," Hunter said. "Unless you have a lot of talent, you can't spare a spot [for an enforcer]."
In addition, there's the issue of old fashioned hockey values or, more specifically, a decided lack thereof. According to Wilson, a decade-long influx of finesse-minded Europeans has greatly undercut the league's raison de Goon.
"Old-time North American hockey viewed [fighting] as a way to settle a score or settle things down," he said. "I don't think it's looked upon the same way now. I know a lot of players that roll their eyes when they see two tough guys duke it out, because they feel it's pointless."
With all of the above in mind, hockey's fist-first Neanderthals have come to the same crossroads that confronted their slope-skulled Cro-Magnon predecessors: evolve or else.
Despite racking up 3,000 career penalty minutes, Toronto's Tie Domi is more than a scourge to ill-advised hecklers he's a marginally adequate hockey player. Witt, a former pugilist, has made himself into the Caps' soundest defender.
As recently as four seasons ago, Washington's Chris Simon was considered one of the top enforcers in hockey. Following his 49-point breakout in 1999-2000, however, he's been reclassified as a viable power forward far too skilled to languish in the penalty box.
"He's putting up goals, getting points, proving he's a playmaker," Peat said. "He doesn't need to fight."
The Caps hope to eventually say the same of Peat. The 32nd overall pick in the 1998 draft, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound forward is raw with the puck but an excellent skater, so good that Washington has moved him from defense to the wing. It's a difficult transition, Peat admits, but one he hopes will help him become something more than the club's designated hitter.
"If dropping the gloves is part of getting me into the game, I'm going to do that," he said. "But at the same time, I want to become a better player. I'm not looking to be an All-Star, but I want to be known as a gritty player who can lay the body checks, play his position well, make passes, maybe get a goal here or there."
To that end, Peat has sought advice from Witt, Simon and especially Hunter, who made a successful switch from bare-knuckle toughman to rock-solid special teamer over his 16-year career.
A Vancouver penalty-killer during the Canucks' 1994 run to the Stanley Cup finals, Hunter didn't score a single playoff point. However, he logged valuable ice time in all 24 of Vancouver's postseason contests, including an excruciating seventh-game loss to the New York Rangers.
"Fighting was a step, getting my foot in the door," Hunter said. "But I knew that in order to play a long time in the league, I had to be able to do more. I had to take a regular shift."
With enforcers everywhere beating their swords into plowshares as opposed to simply beating each other there's no question that pure, unadulterated NHL goonery is becoming a lost art, slipping gently into the good night of a less accepting era.
Nevertheless, Hunter said, new-school sparrers like Peat will always have a place in the game, at least so long as it involves high-speed collisions, angry men and large, bladed sticks.
When Boston's Stock delivered a crushing hit to Washington's Rob Zettler during the second period of a January game, Peat took umbrage. In the ensuing throwdown, Peat and Stock exchanged 71 punches in just over 30 seconds, two toughs raging against the dying of the light.
And, of course, each other.
"They've been talking about [getting rid of fighting] for the 22 years I've been in the NHL, and I haven't seen it yet," Hunter said. "I don't know if it will happen. I think it's a fair way for players to police the game and be accountable.
"Plus, there's nothing better than having one mean SOB that can play seven to 10 minutes a night and totally intimidate the other team. That's a nice option to have on your bench."

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