Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, as he is wont to do, succinctly summarized why his team had signed Brad May to a contract.
“We had him for a few exhibition games and no one bothered our guys,” Babcock said. “Then we didn’t have him and people started taking some liberties.
“I don’t mind it when tough guys are tough guys. But when guys who aren’t tough start playing tough, that drives me crazy. And we’d seen enough of that.”
So the Red Wings found May, a 37-year-old notorious tough guy, on the scrap heap a couple weeks ago, gave him a tryout in the preseason, and signed him to a one-year deal the afternoon of the team’s home opener Thursday.
“May provides something that no one else on the team does,” Babcock continued, ever the pragmatist. “So he’ll always have a role.”
Tough guy. Enforcer. They used to call them policemen, back when I first started following hockey in the late-1960s, early-1970s.
Babcock has often said that players like May “keep the flies off” the more skilled, star guys.
Once upon a time, the skilled, star guys functioned as their own bodyguards.
You think Gordie Howe needed someone to keep the flies off him? Ted Lindsay was another who could score as well as fight.
Bobby Hull could take care of himself. So could Johnny Bucyk and Rocket Richard. And many others.
Somehow, somewhere along the way, we lost that triple threat hockey player—one who could check, score, and fight.
The Red Wings employed one such pugnacious, tenacious little guy in the 1970s named Dennis Polonich.
Polo, they called him. No one said hockey nicknames were overly creative.
Polonich was a homegrown Red Wing, drafted by the team in the eighth round in 1973 and nurtured through the minor league system. He must have had that Napoleonic Complex, because Polo was all of 5’6″ and that measurement was surely taken while he was on skates.
Polonich was a Red Wing in the thick of the worst stretch the franchise ever had, in terms of success on the ice. He played on teams that were cringe-inducing in their ineptitude.
But Dennis Polonich could play hockey a little bit, in addition to being the team’s resident tough guy. He was a triple threat, indeed. No Henrik Zetterberg, but not an unskilled hack, either.
A quick check of hockey-reference.com confirms my suspicions.
In 1976-77, Polonich scored 19 goals. The following season, 16. And that was despite being whistled for 528 minutes in penalties in those two seasons combined.
Then Polonich’s career changed.
It was in October, 1978—the Red Wings entertaining a team called the Colorado Rockies, the hockey version, pre-baseball.
Another triple threat player named Wilf Paiement tangled with Polonich and words were exchanged. Your typical heat-of-the-moment hockey stuff. Shortly thereafter, Paiement and Polonich met again on the ice. Things escalated, as they tend to do.
It all happened so quickly.
Paiement took his stick—by all accounts with two hands near the top, and swung. His aim was for Polonich’s face, and he connected.
Polonich went down in a heap, in a flash, and it was so fast that many at Olympia Stadium didn’t even see what had happened.
The result of Paiement’s stick swinging was not only a league reprimand of 15 games worth of suspension, but also a lawsuit filed by Polonich against his attacker.
The violent thwack of Paiement’s stick against Polonich’s head only caused Polo to miss 18 games in the 1978-79 season, which was amazing considering the magnitude of the attack, which had left him with a concussion, severe facial lacerations, and a broken nose that required reconstructive surgery—resulting in lifelong breathing problems.
He was never the same.
Polonich scored 10 goals that season, played just 109 NHL games after that, and scored a grand total of four more goals in those 109 matches, after scoring 55 goals in his previous 277 contests.
Before Wilf Paiement rearranged his face, Polonich was a tough guy who could score on occasion and who “kept the flies off” the Red Wings’ more skilled players—and they had precious few in those days.
But after, Polonich was a shell of his former self. He still accumulated some penalty minutes, but not as many and his fights were less frequent. He just wasn’t the same, period—physically or mentally. He was out of the NHL by 1982—the same year in which Polonich finally collected some money from Paiement—an $850,000 settlement.
Some who would know say that Paiement’s attack on Polonich was the most violent act ever committed in an NHL game.
But because of Polo’s reputation as an instigator and pest, he wasn’t exactly portrayed as the traditional victim, despite the horrific nature of the attack. There was a lot of “he got what he deserved” from those around the NHL.
In Detroit, the fans loved Dennis Polonich. He was a shrimp but he didn’t hesitate to take on the biggest and baddest that the NHL had to offer. Go to YouTube and type his name in the search box and have some fun.
The Broad Street Bullies themselves, the Philadelphia Flyers, would invade Olympia and those were some fantastic wars—despite the distance between the two teams in the standings. When the Flyers came to Detroit, blood was shed and the Red Wings often won the game.
And Polonich often led the charge, engaging Dave Schultz or Moose Dupont or Bob Kelly in some rock ‘em, sock ‘em fisticuffs.
All that went away after Paiement used his stick as a golf club and Polonich’s head as the teed up ball.
Brad May, today’s Red Wings enforcer, is to make certain that no nonsense goes on involving the Zetterbergs and Datsyuks and Lidstroms. Not on his watch, anyway.
May is still in the NHL at age 37 because his kind is a coveted asset.
Dennis Polonich only played in the NHL until he was 29, but would have played longer, likely, if it wasn’t for Wilf Paiement.
Polo probably would have given the 850 grand back in exchange for remaining an impact player.
Few things are sadder in hockey than an enforcer who doesn’t scare anybody anymore.