Tuesday 3 July 2012

Who Was the First Thug?

I'm going to talk about fighting again. Those who've been reading my stuff at various places over the years know well my position on fighting in hockey. One particular bramble in my teeth is the claim that fighting has "always been part of the game." This is simply untrue. It's essentially true that violence has nearly always been a part of the game, but fighting certainly has not.

In the early years, the most violent players did not fight; they assaulted, slashed, tripped and bashed, but fighting was rare. Players like Newsy Lalonde, Joe Hall, Alf Smith and Sprague Cleghorn were known to be rash and hostile players to say the least, but since it takes two to fight, such activity was fairly rare. And it was absolutely not the case that they used fighting as a strategic weapon.

That's what critics of fighting really abhor in the modern game. Few people are completely opposed to spur-of-the-moment, spontaneous fights. It's the premeditated, organized thuggery that disgusts most people. And this is a modern phenomenon. Designated goons have not always been part of the game. In fact, they've been around for less than 50 years, when the game has been played in an organized form for over 120.

There were no real thugs in hockey's first decades. By thug, I mean a player whose primary job was to be violent. There have always been players, to be sure, that have made violence a part of their game plan. But until a certain point, there were no players whose designated role was to hit opponents in the face.

In the 1920s, the Montreal Canadiens had a pair of rough defencemen in Bert Corbeau and Billy Coutu. Coutu was something close to a thug at time, but for most of his career he took a regular shift on the blueline with a very good defensive team. These were typical violent players of their day. They were violent, but also useful players, when they could keep themselves out of the penalty box. Jimmy Orlando with the 1940s Red Wings was similar. In four full seasons, he led the NHL in penalty minutes twice and was second once. But for his career, he averaged less than two PIM per game, which is hardly thug territory.

The Rangers' Lou Fontinato (late 50s/early 60s) is another player that seems a bit thuggish. In eight seasons he led the league in PIM three times, and averaged 2.33 PIM per game played. He certainly had a thug's approach to the game, often dropping the gloves, and otherwise trying to punish opposing players with his body. There's a case to be made that Fontinato is hockey's first true thug, though again he might have been too useful on defence to be so called. He played eight seasons on defence, when NHL teams played only four or five blueliners per game. As such the position was too valuable to waste on a thug. Even in today's game, with six defencemen, thug blueliners are rare.

Reggie Fleming (1960s) comes closer to the title of ur-thug. Some years he didn't play much but still too a lot of penalties, and he was certainly considered an intimidator. But still, his penalty totals are a bit low to be a real thug, especially when you consider his often-decent offence as well.

Howie Young might be it. In 1963 he had a truly thuggish season, scoring nine points but recording 273 penalty minutes in 64 games. But that was not typical for Young. He was always fairly high on the PIMs, but never had another thuggy year. His 1963 season could be considered the prototype season for a true thug, but it was not consistently Young's role.

Ultimately, you might be shocked to find that it really started in earnest with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Broad Street Bullies did their best to ruin the game in the 1970s, and it was the 1973 season, when Dave Schultz was inserted into the lineup, that the chaos really began. Along with Bob Kelly and Don Saleski, Schultz (and later others) took violence and intimidation to a whole new level. And it only got worse from there, culminating in Schultz's festering sore of a 1975 season, when he racked up an obscene total of 472 PIM, which beat his own previous record by 35% and which remains 15% more than any other season in NHL history to this day.

The game has only recently begun to recover. Designated thugs are of late becoming less and less common, finally, after decades of players who bring nothing to the rink but fists and fury. No one has broken 400 PIM in a season since 1993, and even 300 PIM has only been recorded three times since the turn of the 21st century. But when it comes to thugs in history, I think it's fair to blame the Flyers. Many other players joined in, but they started it.

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