It sounds like a dinosaur story, what I am about to tell you. It’s tempting to begin it with “Once upon a time,” but why should I resort to such trite methods, when some of you know exactly of which I speak?
They roamed. Another dinosaur-like word. But they did. Maybe patrolled is a better, non-reptilian verb. Yes, much better – for in their heyday, they carried the moniker of “policeman”, because they laid down the law of the ice.
Every team had one, in the days of six National Hockey League teams and short flights to Boston, Montreal, Detroit, and the rest – back when each club engaged each other 14 times a year to make up the neat, symmetrical 70-game schedule.
There was John Ferguson in Montreal – the original “Fergie”, before America became enraptured with the female, Royal version across the pond in the 1980s. Big John, they also called him. He was a generous amount over six feet tall, and he owned the goal crease. But mainly he made sure stars like Jean Beliveau and Pocket Rocket Richard and Yvon Cournoyer had enough ice with which to work their magic, confident of not being bullied.
There was Reggie Fleming in New York and Howie Young in Detroit. Chicago had Doug Mohns. Toronto had their guy. So did Boston.
Before Fleming, the Rangers employed a tough guy named Louie Fontinato. He was the premier policeman in the league, in the late-1950s. Then one night, Gordon Howe rearranged his face, and exposed Louie as a fraud.
“I remembered what (Ted) Lindsay once told me,” Howe expounded years later, long after he, with a few rock-solid punches, toppled Fontinato from the throne of King of the Policemen. “He said, ‘Make sure you always know who’s on the ice with you.’”
There was a scrum behind the net, and Howe was watching Lindsay get into it with one of the Rangers. The game was played in old Madison Square Garden.
“I saw Louie out of the corner of my eye, and he’s coming right at me,” Howe said. “I remembered Lindsay’s advice. I knew Louie was their tough guy.
“He was going to sucker punch me. I ducked just in time. If I hadn’t, I might have been over with. So I grabbed him by the back of the head and hit him with some punches. I broke his nose a little bit.”
Howe broke Fontinato’s nose a “little bit” like a crystal glass crashing to the floor breaks a little bit.
A season or two later, Fontinato, perhaps trying to earn back some of the manhood taken from him under the glare of Madison Square Garden in New York, tried to run a Toronto player into the boards. Only Louie was the one who got the worst of it, injuring his neck badly.
“That was the end of his hockey,” Howe recalled.
Louie Fontinato, deposed NHL tough guy
The policemen patrolled. The skill guys skated. Traffic was directed and law was enforced. It was a grand time – and not only because such law enforcement meant that gloves would be dropped with relative routine and disturbances would be settled with hand-to-hand combat. But it sure didn’t hurt.
The NHL has a funny way of doing things nowadays. Basically, the way it works is this. They take their game and legislate the excitement out of it, change and experiment with the rules, award points for losing, and stuff the same teams down the fans’ throats. It’s a curious operation, when you consider that those who admired the game – the fans, the players, the coaches – didn’t think there was all that much wrong with the things that were changed, and weren’t too ingratiated with the changes that were made. It might be why the league finds its product buried on a television network called Versus, between the bull-hogtying and the mountain climbing shows they air there.
The Red Wings have tried, even in the post-expansion, post-legislative eras, to keep alive the tradition of the policeman.
Even in the wretched days of the 1970s and ‘80s, brutes have been employed by the franchise, with little more charge than to keep things interesting for the paying customers, since the rest of the team wasn’t much to look at.
Bob Probert and Joey Kocur were the two most famous of these brutes. They patrolled and they weren’t always good cops. Sometimes they used police brutality to beat justice into their overmatched opponents.
But never did they pound into submission an unfortunate before a silent crowd.
Probert serving up some justice to Tie Domi
Probert would engage another team’s tough guy, and so would Kocur on a different night – sometimes you’d get both bad cops doling out brutality on the same evening – and Joe Louis Arena, aptly named after a boxer, would rock. If you ever wanted to see 20,000 people shoot out of their seats at the same time, then you would want to see Bob Probert in a hockey fight. Or Joey Kocur. Or Basil MacRae. Or Randy McKay. Or Stu Grimson, the Grim Reaper. All of these, the Red Wings paid at one time or another, to serve and to protect. If their salaries were ever questioned by those in the team’s brass, all they’d have to do is follow the roar of the crowd when the fists came out of their hockey glove sheaths.
But fighting isn’t easy to come by in today’s NHL. It’s frowned upon by the league, even though polls and sports talk radio gab fests and water cooler discussions and conversations over pretzels and pop indicate that today’s hockey fan pines for the occasional act of fisticuffs. Maybe even more than occasional.
The 2007-08 Red Wings are carrying on their policeman tradition. They have Aaron Downey, and the other night he took exception to San Jose’s Kyle McLaren and his running of Henrik Zetterberg and Dallas Drake. So Downey, eager to lay down the law for his new teammates, went after McLaren. In a quick, one-sided fight, Downey subdued the ne’er-do-well McLaren with some swift, hard punches. Justice served.
After the game, Zetterberg raved about what Downey did, and how it can only help the team.
“I just wanted to show everyone that as long as I’m around, nobody is going to pick on this team,” Downey said of his actions.
So who is it, again, who wants to see fighting eliminated from hockey?
The NHL, where the minority rules with an iron fist.
Oops – can I say fist?