By Eric Duhatschek
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
We were standing in the foyer of the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto a couple of weeks ago, discussing a philosophical question — does toughness still matter in the NHL anymore? — when Wendel Clark happened by.
The timing seemed weirdly serendipitous.
Clark, the former Toronto Maple Leafs great, defined toughness during a rough-and-tumble 15-year NHL career.
As times changed and eras evolved, toughness has become a misunderstood — or poorly defined — quality. Toughness is more than just fighting. Toughness is more than just body-checking — making a hit or taking a hit. Sometimes, the true measure of a player’s toughness is his willingness to go into the hard areas of the ice — along the boards and in front of the net — and fight for space and positioning, no matter how much they are being battered by an opponent.
So Wendel: Does toughness still matter, even in today’s kinder, gentler NHL?
“Toughness is still the biggest part of the game,” answered Clark. “Even your most finesse guy has to have a level of toughness to play in certain areas at certain times in the game.
“Toughness is a wide-ranging thing, as you say. It’s fighting. It’s finishing body checks. For the skill guy, it’s playing inside the dots. If you want to play outside the dots, you don’t need to be tough. But if you want to score goals — and especially as the year moves along and it gets closer to the playoffs — you have to go inside to get them. That takes a level of toughness — physical toughness and mental toughness. Teams, come playoff time, have to go into the hard areas of the ice if they want to win.”
On the day the question was posed to Clark, toughness — and what it means to be genuinely tough — was a major talking point around the NHL. The previous day, the Edmonton Oilers’ Zack Kassian had been doing a lot of the talking.
In the aftermath of a two-game suspension he received for rag-dolling Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk to the ice in a Jan. 11 renewal of the Battle of Alberta, Kassian said he finally understood — after speaking to George Parros, head of the NHL Player Safety Department — what exactly was (and wasn’t) allowed in the modern NHL, where fighting is on the decline and the era of predatory hitting was supposedly over.
If Kassian was confused about the limits — and where the league was currently drawing the line — it’s reasonable to think others were as well. Then Kassian took the discussion a step forward and said he was looking forward to testing the acceptable body-checking limits the next time he faced Tkachuk.
Social media took over from there.
Some called Kassian a dinosaur, noting that his attitude towards fighting — in an era of CTE and greater concussion awareness — was so outdated as to be practically pre-historic.
Others took the opposite side and excoriated Tkachuk for not manning up when he had the chance to drop the gloves with the big Oilers forward. Their rationale: If Tkachuk had accepted Kassian’s invitation to fight on the spot, then the controversy would have died a quick death — instead of lingering like a cloud over the team for the next handful of games.
The starkness of the divide also illustrates the essential dilemma the NHL faces when marketing the game.
Professional hockey was, is and likely will always remain a body-contact sport.
The printed version of the NHL’s 2019-20 rule book, which is 222 pages long, gives a detailed breakdown of how the sport is regulated. Given how complicated some of the rule definitions are, it’s no surprise that players cross the line all the time. That’s why they created the penalty box. That’s why penalties ramp up — minor, major, match — as infractions get increasingly egregious.
Ultimately, the NHL Player Safety department determined that the penalty to Kassian for hurling Tkachuk to the ice with so much force that his helmet came flying off was a two-game suspension. Because of the lingering, incendiary nature of the Kassian-Tkachuk confrontation, both teams were subsequently warned by NHL hockey operations to be on their best behaviour when they meet again Wednesday in Edmonton, the first of two meetings between the Flames and Oilers in a three-day span. (Calgary hosts the rematch Feb. 1.) Presumably, Kassian has been put on high alert by the Oilers to be careful.
There were enough veiled threats and hints at retribution in his post-suspension soliloquy that if something really bad were to happen to Tkachuk, the next court of justice the Oiler forward might face could be the real thing — a far-less-forgiving entity than the NHL’s version.
If Kassian wants or needs or to get a further briefing on what could possibly happen when NHL disciplinary matters spill outside the arena, his boss — Oilers general manager Ken Holland — is probably in a position to put him in touch with Todd Bertuzzi, who played for Holland with the Detroit Red Wings. Or Kassian could simply Google “Steve Moore incident” and get a refresher there.
Chances are, therefore, that forewarned is forearmed — and that smarter, cooler heads will ultimately prevail when the Oilers and Flames resume hostilities. Anyone expecting an old-fashioned take-him-to-the-woodshed beating is probably — probably — going to end up disappointed.
The risks are too great, personally and professionally to both Kassian and Tkachuk — never mind the fact that the two teams are so close in the standings and the positioning so tight for a playoff spot in the Pacific Division that it makes little sense for anyone to use the occasion to extract their own personal pound of flesh.
Even so, the renewal of the Battle of Alberta hostilities did spur an important, interesting conversation around the league — and on social media — about the need and value of toughness in the 2019-20 NHL.
“The one thing that hasn’t changed, and won’t change, is — you can’t win without courage,” said Ray Ferraro, an 18-year NHL vet, who now does colour commentary for TSN. “Toughness nowadays for me is only about a few areas on the ice. It’s a loose puck, or a puck battle three-to-five feet from the boards, or up against the wall. Because you’re boxed in — and sometimes, you’ve got to fight your way out of there.
“The front of each net -- although it’s nowhere like when I was playing. Front-of-the-net was legalized assault back then. But because the quarters are still so tight, you have to be tough and willing. When I think of this, it’s not even so much toughness as it is about a willingness to go in the tough areas. You know you’re going to get crosschecked, or punched in the face, or an elbow in the nose — all those things that happen in really tight quarters — and if you don’t have enough guys willing to go there and do that, you can’t beat a team like St. Louis.
“Now, in the regular season, it matters less because the games are of a different style.”
To Ferraro’s point, back in the spring, when he was doing his post-mortem on their Western Conference final loss to the St. Louis Blues, Peter DeBoer, then the San Jose Sharks’ coach, talked about how, in the end, two of the most physical teams in the NHL — the Blues and the Boston Bruins — ended up playing for the 2019 Stanley Cup championship.
DeBoer’s point was that you could talk all you want about how smaller, skilled players had an important role in the modern NHL, but if the ultimate goal is winning the ultimate prize, then you need a team that supplements its skill with size and physicality.
Instructively, just about everyone interviewed for this story independently brought up a few of the same essential points:
Toughness matters more in the playoffs than in the regular season, because in the playoffs, the officiating standard tends to slacken. The presence of the St. Louis Blues in the winner’s circle last year and the Washington Capitals the year before reinforced a message that’s currently resonating in front offices around the NHL: That when it comes to building a championship contender, you might get away with one style of team (small and skilled) in the regular season, but you need a hard, heavy physical presence to win in the postseason.
Ferraro added a third component to the equation: The increasingly underrated value of experience.
“I’m still waiting for the first small, young team to win,” said Ferraro, who played 1,258 games for Hartford, the Rangers, the Islanders, Atlanta, St. Louis and Los Angeles, while scoring 898 points and accumulating 1,288 penalty minutes. “The first team people point to is Chicago and I say: Look at how big about eight of those guys were. They were monsters. When people think of Chicago, they think of Patrick Kane first, but the first time, they had Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien and Troy Brouwer and Brent Seabrook and Marian Hossa (and Adam Burish and Colin Fraser and Ben Eager).
“It’s really going to be interesting to see, as the league has skewed smaller, the last couple of teams that have won have these big people that clog up the ice. What will be the requisite toughness that a smaller guy will need? Because, for example, Patrick Kane is not a very big guy. But he scores a lot of goals going through traffic — and going east-to-west in the zone; and that takes courage. And so that’s a form of toughness.”
Instructively, the Flames-Oilers rematch comes in the same week that both are playing home games against St. Louis. If ever the point about playoff toughness needed to be reinforced, each team will get an up-close-and-personal-look at Exhibit A.
“In the regular season, a lot of nights, there is no hitting, so you see a lot of skill plays go on,” said former NHLer Bob McGill, who played 13 seasons for six different NHL teams and accumulated 1,766 penalty minutes in 705 NHL games and now works as a commentator in Toronto. “Then playoffs come, and you need to your big-boy pants on, because it gets tough. When you see the Capitals play, and Tom Wilson is out there running around – there are guys that need to change their pants between periods when he’s doing his stuff.
“When it comes to crunch time, the teams that have that edge physically seem to be the ones that come to the forefront — and that goes a long way when trying to win a championship.”
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza, 36, who broke into the NHL with the Ottawa Senators in the 2002-03 season, says that while the definition of toughness has changed over the arc of his career, it still matters.
“It’s not fighting tough anymore,” said Spezza. “I remember, my first few years, I wanted to impress the group by showing that I could fight a little bit too. So, I fought once a year for a few years just to try and fit in.
That’s not part of the game anymore. But you have to be mentally tough to handle the ups and downs of the season. You have to be physically tough to be able to get yourself in the right areas to score goals and make plays. You have to hang onto pucks. You have to be able to take a hit. You can’t be shy on the forecheck. As a D-man, you can’t be shy getting into the zone.
“So, it’s a little different — but you still have to be tough to play the game.”
Former NHLer Alan May, who played 393 NHL games over eight seasons for six different clubs — Boston, Edmonton, Washington, Dallas and Calgary — and accumulated 1,348 penalty minutes to go along with 31 goals and 76 points (and now does commentary on Washington Capitals broadcasts) believes “the game has evolved and so has the way toughness is perceived by coaches and players.
“Back when we all played in the seventies, eighties and nineties – and maybe all the way through hockey — it was about hitting, taking hits, fighting, sticking up for your teammates, paying back on behalf of a teammate. But that stuff’s kind of gone by the wayside. There’s a handful of people that still fight in the National Hockey League on a regular basis, but you go into most games, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. So, the game’s easier to play in that regard — that you don’t have to waste any thought on it now.”
But May, who played in the NHL from 1987 to 1995 and also had a long minor-league career, sees true toughness in areas where others may not.
s)“To me, Sidney Crosby, is the toughest player in the National Hockey League when it comes to the puck — and what he does with it along the boards,” said May. “He’s like a fullback, trying to go over the goal line, in the way he tries to get to the net. When I think of toughness, it’s ‘nose and knees over the puck, battling hard in front of the net, blocking shots, and just going to middle areas.’ It’s not about dropping your gloves anymore, or about getting 20 hits. It is about protecting the puck and going to the high-speed areas and being ready to take a hit, coming around the net, below the goal line, having to play tough.
“So, the game has absolutely changed so much. I don’t know if it’s the same with other guys who fought on a regular basis, but I know with me, you’d be around 30 fights a season. Now, most teams don’t get to 30 fights in a season. It’s not part of being tough anymore.”
When McGill played, in a 13-year span between 1981 to 1994, games such as the one that Calgary and Edmonton played back in the second week of January were more commonplace.
“Everyone talked about the emotion in that game, and people getting pissed off and mad at each other,” said McGill, “and it was because there are so many games you see today and it’s nothing like that. It can be a 6-0 game and guys aren’t even upset about it anymore. That’s amazing to me. The emotional attachment is missing.
“It seems everybody’s buddies these days: ‘You don’t hit me and I won’t hit you.’ But again, when the puck drops for the playoffs, it’s like, OK, the real season is starting now. Who is going to be willing to put their balls on the line? Who’s going to be willing to have somebody slap you? Because that can be the difference between winning the Stanley Cup and not.”
Clark is from Saskatchewan and friends with a number of players and broadcasters in the Blues’ organization, all of whom hail from the same province, where toughness is genuinely valued.
But like May, Clark also sees a level of toughness in many of the league’s elite stars such as Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl — big men who take a lot of punishment in order to make plays.
Clark believes there’s been an evolution in Ovechkin’s game that has contributed to his longevity and can be traced back to Mats Sundin’s debut in the league in 1990.
Sundin and Clark were once traded for each other and then eventually became teammates in Toronto for a short period of time.
“Remember how, when Ovechkin started, he used to throw a lot of body checks?” asked Clark. “Then he figured out, ‘My body’s not going to last if I keep playing like that.’
“I wasn’t smart enough to figure that out myself. So, he backs away from that for the longevity of his career. But he’s also a guy that’s 6-4 and 240 — you don’t realize how big he is. He’s a big, strong guy who’s evolved his game to know when and when not to (hit). And he’s got a presence on the ice. Maybe he doesn’t throw it anymore, but if a guy goes to play him, you can feel it. The guy that goes to hit Ovechkin knows he’s trying to hit a pretty solid guy. I picked up one of his sticks once and the stiffness of the stick he uses, I couldn’t lean on that every single game. That’s how much strength he has.
“It’s the same with Draisaitl. I said that to our guys when the Oilers were coming through here. I said, ‘I didn’t realize he was that big.’ On TV, you think, ‘OK, tall, skinny guy.’ And then you see him, and you say, ‘No, that guy’s big.’ And for him, it isn’t about throwing his weight around. But when someone goes to try and check him and nothing happens, it’s because that guy bounced off him.
“That changed in my era in the late eighties and nineties when Mats Sundin came over. The skill guys used to all be about 180 and played a finesse game. All of a sudden now, here’s Sundin — 6-3 and 230 pounds — so the physical guy can’t brush away the skilled guy as much anymore. They say, ‘You can hit me, but you’re just going to bounce off.’ That’s how the game really changed. The skilled guys got as big as the tougher guys. They didn’t play tough, but you couldn’t affect them, because they were as strong as you were.”
As a commentator based in Washington, May knows Wilson’s game better than most — and says Wilson’s evolution as a player was critical to the Capitals’ run to the Stanley Cup championship.
“I know Twitter hates Tom Wilson, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that every single team in the National Hockey League covets him,” said May. “Every single one. When he came into the league, I thought he mishandled at first. He accepted what he had to do and did what was probably drilled through his head throughout junior – having to drop the gloves, which I thought was unfair for a 19- and 20-year-old kid to have to do.
“But now I watch how he’s evolved in the game. Now he doesn’t have to waste time visualizing that, or thinking about that anymore. I saw him the last two seasons, but especially last season, beat players with speed moves; and beat players with finesse, stick moves, where he’d go in-and-out and do a toe-drag around them. That’s because he doesn’t have to worry about that other stuff anymore. He’s built his game by thinking about what is required to be an effective hockey player.
“With the way he plays, he has so many players now that will not go into the corners with him to get a loose puck. In the past, he probably would have finished that player. Now he just goes in and takes the puck.”
Both May and Ferraro also say they’ve seen an evolution in Kassian’s game.
“You ask any team,” said Ferraro. “If you can get this version of Zack Kassian on your team, would you like to have him? And the answer is yes, 31 times. What I mean is, the new-and-improved Kassian. The one that’s been down the road, after the potholes that he’s had. He seems to be a new person. I remember the day he got acquired by Vancouver, and I was on TradeCenter, and they asked: What are they getting? All I could remember was him in junior and so I said: ‘They’re getting a rumbling bull.’ And then he lost his way for a while. But right now, in this game, he’s different. He can make a play with a great player, which he’s playing with. Or if they happen to get a forward that would be the perfect winger to play with McDavid, and Kassian had to drop down to another line, he can play that style too. Kassian’s a good player, and Edmonton’s going to get him signed at a decent dollar — and I don’t know a single team that wouldn’t be interested in that.”
“A lot of people will say: Kassian gets to play with McDavid and Draisaitl now and again,” said May. “Well, you know what? He’s earned that. Because other players have gotten that chance and haven’t done what he’s done with that chance. He’s a high-energy player every game — just like Matthew Tkachuk is. They’ve got different ways of doing things. But Matthew Tkachuk is fully involved in every game – and to me, that’s toughness. I think a guy like Filip Forsberg is like that. He’s a guy that wants the puck and steals it, and throws big hits and absorbs big hits, and goes to the high-traffic areas. He’s fully involved in every game. To me, a Drew Doughty, same thing. Those are tough hockey players in today’s game.”
Ferraro says that you find toughness in unexpected players and cites a player such as Niklas Hjalmarsson — tall and rail thin — as an example. Hjalmarsson won three Stanley Cups with Chicago; was one of the rare players targeted with an offer sheet; and now plays for the Arizona Coyotes. According to Ferraro, Hjalmarsson’s mix of grit and compete is an illustration of true toughness, someone willing to do whatever it took to help a team win.
But Ferraro also noted that as you get older, it becomes more difficult to stay physically engaged.
“Some of your willingness to go through the slop dissipates,” said Ferraro. “Because when you’re 20, you’ve never rehabbed before in most cases. When you’ve done it four times and you’re 34, holy crap man, this is hard. All you’re doing is struggling to stay the same. Everybody else is getting better. You’re just trying to get back to where you were.”
Injuries limited Clark to only 793 regular-season games over a 15-year career that included stops with Toronto, Quebec, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Chicago. In that span, he accumulated 564 points and 1,690 penalty minutes. Also worth pointing out: How effective he was in his 95 playoff games – 37 goals, 69 points, 201 penalty minutes. Clark’s final season came in 1999-00.
How would Clark feel if he could play in today’s game?
“It’d be fun to play now,” said Clark. “Any era. Hockey’s great. But today? How many power forwards are they looking for? Because it changes everything. That guy in Washington — Tom Wilson — he might be their most valuable guy because the whole team plays differently when he’s in the lineup. He adds a dimension that isn’t in the game anymore. He changes the whole game. And it’s just about hard body-checking. People will say, ‘Well, that’s a penalty.’ And I’m saying, ‘No, no. That’s just a good, hard hit.’ Because you are still allowed to hit, as long as it’s shoulder first.
“If you just finish your checks now … but the kids coming up don’t do that. We’re called old, archaic guys if we say, ‘In the old days, it was this way. It was that way.’ No. It’s just a change in philosophy. Not right or wrong. Just different.”