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November 03, 2017

Bullies no more: Why enforcers and instigators are an endangered species in today's NHL

Sean Couturier didn’t see it coming. The Flyers’ first-line center just lost control of the puck in the St. Louis Blues’ defensive zone about midway through the second period Thursday night, when Brayden Schenn — a former Flyer — swooped down and nailed him. 

Couturier fell paralyzed to the ice in a heap, his eyes rolled back in his head as if he had been punched on the chin by a heavyweight fighter.

Schenn received a two-minute minor for interference and play resumed. Couturier, somehow, returned to the ice — and for the next 30-some minutes, Schenn went on unimpeded without a single Flyer doing something about the hit on Couturier. That could have had something to do with the fact that Schenn was a former teammate, but it likely has more to do with the state of today’s National Hockey League.

The days of the ‘Broad Street Bullies’ and ‘self-policing’ are long over. ... There are no actual fighters anymore.

“He toe-dragged the puck into the middle,” Schenn told reporters after the game about the Couturier hit. “I’m not trying to go out there and try to hurt a guy. I know him pretty well. I played with him for six or seven years. I didn’t even finish through him. I was gliding, I tucked my shoulder, tucked my elbow, didn’t hit his head … I’m just glad that he came back in the game obviously. He probably went through the [concussion] protocol. The last thing I’m trying to do is hurt a former teammate.”

But ask yourself this: If this happened 15 years ago, wouldn't someone from the Flyers have gotten in Schenn’s face? 

Maybe back then, but not in 2017.

The NHL game is far more global, far more conscious of head trauma and has gotten far faster today, with a far greater European flair. It’s also left the agitator and lessening number of “policemen” in nebulous roles.

It’s a different day, by light years, than when Flyers’ general manager Ron Hextall played.

“In that day, guys had 250 penalty minutes and games were 5-4 and you didn't win or lose based on one penalty,” said Hextall, a notorious agitator and fighter in his time with the Flyers, once flattening Chris Chelios at the end of Game 6 of the 1989 Wales Conference Finals series against the Montreal Canadiens that earned “Hexy” a 12-game suspension. “You know what I'm saying? The game is [finer] now. The discipline every team shows, it's different. The lack of fighting, the lack of bad penalties.

“In our day you could take a bad penalty and it was no big deal. You wouldn't get reprimanded or anything. The game has changed in that way. We like emotional players. But controlled emotion is better than uncontrolled emotion.”

Riley Cote was a Flyer for four years, from 2006 to 2010, and most recently was an assistant coach with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Cote was also known to drop the mitts in his time, but he also has a strong connection to today’s game. He sees the way it’s played, and to some degree, doesn’t like the diminished role of the “policeman,” who’s morphed more into an agitator.

Cote openly wonders why superstars, genuine faces of the NHL like Sidney Crosby, can miss 114 games entering this season due to concussion-related injuries. It may be a big reason why the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins made a draft-day trade to acquire tough guy Ryan Reeves from St. Louis for center Oskar Sundqvist and the No. 31 overall pick.

“The days of the ‘Broad Street Bullies’ and ‘self-policing’ are long over,” Cote said. “Hockey is such an emotional sport that requires hitting among highly athletic trained machines battling for a puck on blades, you can’t remove that emotion. You can’t. It’s going to bring confrontation.

“There are no actual fighters anymore. But there are tough guys, guys like Wayne Simmonds and Radko Gudas, a Dale Hunter type of guy, the kind of guy that you want on your team, that guy will always be there. That type of attitude and flair is needed. All four lines have to produce to some degree. The fourth line need guys who can skate well, be bold and stay out of the penalty box. They are trying to defuse fighting though, and there is no accountability in the game anymore. That’s needed.

“You don’t retaliate anymore, and the game is dispirited that way in a sense. I wasn’t a rat. And there are a lot of rats in the game today, not true tough guys. I said something and I backed it up. I guess I agitated and instigated, but in a more respected sense. The code today is disrespected. I fought 30, 35 times a year during my pro career — but in response to hits where I didn’t have to say a word. The rat role is playing to draw penalties, and when the tough guy wants to come after, he doesn’t want to fight. That’s the rat role, versus the enforcer, true tough guy role.

Guys like that build momentum on your team, because of their physicality. I think there is spot for [enforcers] in the game — you have to hold guys accountable.

“There are more rats in the game today. The evolution of the game has bred that. There’s something about accountability and self-policing, because it keeps people in line. Sidney Crosby is a $20-million talent. Why does the best player in the world have so many concussions? You have to protect those guys. You can’t let that guy get hurt.”

It ruins the marquee/brand value of Crosby, the Penguins and the NHL. In the NBA, you won’t see the 12th man get sent off the bench to poke LeBron James in the eyes. 

Travis Konecny is in his second year in the NHL. The 20-year-old left winger has a bit of old-school in him. He likes the fact that the Flyers have players like Gudas and Simmonds, as does Jordan Weal, the Flyers’ 25-year-old, third-line left wing. Konecny and Weal are also both around 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, considered small in today’s NHL. 

“I think there are guys out there that you have to respect,” Konecny said. “Guys you don’t want to poke the bear, and I would say we have two guys on this team that are like that, [Radko] Gudas and Simmy [Wayne Simmonds]. It’s a shame that it’s gotten away from the game a little bit. There are guys that do have it in them to be tough guys on the ice, but it is more a game of skill now. Like Guddy [Gudas], he has it in him to be a tough guy, but he has the skill to play, too, and to be an instigator. Simmy is probably the guy on this team that you want to play against. There are guys in this league that know better not to even blink at Simmy.” 

Said Weal, “Gudas and Simmy are physical players, and as the games goes on, that deters guys from doing certain things and going into certain areas of the ice. Like with Guddy, if the puck goes into the corner and Guddy is on the ice, you know you’re going to get hit. It will make you think again about going into the corner with someone like him around. It definitely helps when you have guys on your team like Gudas and Simmy. 

“Guys like that build momentum on your team, because of their physicality. I think there is spot for it in the game — you have to hold guys accountable. If you take it out of the game, you’ll have guys running around taking advantage of other players out there. That’s not what you want. You want guys to respect each other and not take liberties out there. You could see that it’s starting to leave the game a little bit. I don’t necessarily believe that it should.”

Maybe the next time a Flyer gets cracked, an old-school lesson might not be a bad thing.

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