by | Jun 19, 1995 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Well, here we are, the climax of the playoffs, the Stanley Cup Finals, and I have the good news and the bad.

The good news is they’ve taken boxing out of hockey.

The bad news is they’ve inserted wrestling.

Remember goons? The NHL’s designated fighters? Their lips were always stitched, their knuckles were always raw, their eyelids looked like plums, and their faces resembled Tommy Lee Jones’ bad side in “Batman Forever.” Remember?

They’re all healed now. Some even look like men.

“It’s been a while,’ admitted a scarless Stu Grimson, when asked about his last fight. Grimson, you recall, began his Red Wings career with a light-heavyweight bout against the entire San Jose Sharks roster. He drew blood from at least three guys.

In the playoffs, he doesn’t punch; he just stares and sneers.

“My last fight? . . . I think it was Winnipeg,” said Darren McCarty, another enforcer who has hung up his fists in the post-season. “You can’t fight in the playoffs. You have to swallow insults. That’s the bad part.

“The good part is I don’t have any lumps on my head.”

Lumps on his head?

“My last fight was probably three months ago,” said Keith Primeau. “You’re right. My hands are healed; my neck doesn’t hurt; my jaw doesn’t ache. It’s like having an off-season.”

Unfortunately, Primeau hurts elsewhere, especially in his lower back, which is now as stiff as a sequoia and threatens him for Game 2. And while Primeau says it locked up during a face-off Saturday night, it was no doubt aggravated by the current rage in the playoffs: the clutch, grab, hold, twist, poke, slam and sit on.

Is it hockey, or one-two-three . . . pin! Rules change, or disappear, in playoffs

Now, I know some of you are just getting into the game. And I hear you say,
“Mitch, what exactly is the NHL’s rule on contact?”

This is a good question. The answer, found in section 14- J.101c, is: “Who knows, hoser? Pass the beer.”

This is why, in Game 1 of these finals, it was a penalty for Kris Draper to pop a jab into a New Jersey Devil’s face, but it was perfectly all right for a Devil to take Paul Coffey, roll him over, flop on his chest and sit on him for a few minutes while doing his nails.

It is why Steve Yzerman was pushed from behind, and a whistle blew, but Sergei Fedorov skated into the New Jersey zone and had one guy put a stick under his left arm, and another hook him under his right, so they could carry him home and roast him over a barbecue pit — and nothing was called.

It is why the celebrated New Jersey trap defense — which, near as I can tell, is a fancy name for “gang tackle” — works so well in these playoffs, and why superb skaters come flying down the ice like Carl Lewis and wind up slow dancing like Patrick Swayze.

“There was one play Saturday where Doug Brown was trying to get the puck out of the corner,” said Shawn Burr, “and one guy had him in a headlock, one guy was holding his stick and another guy had him around the waist. Last time I looked, that was interference.”

Then again, it depends on where you look. And when. Hockey actually has penalties for hooking, tripping, slashing and interfering. But you see plays every period — especially in the playoffs — where a guy gets hooked, slashed, tripped and interfered with, and nothing is called.

But, hey, the good news: no boxing!

“Guys do a lot more trash-talking now,” McCarty said, “since they don’t have to worry about getting punched in the mouth.”

Interesting. I asked McCarty to give me an example of hockey trash talk.

“Oh, you know. It’s just ‘Bleep you, you bleeping bleep, you think you’re a bleeping tough bleep, you bleep, I’ll bleeping kill your bleeping bleep and bleep your bleeping . . .’ “

OK. That’s what I thought. Devils want to put Cup in a hammerlock

Now, we salute the NHL for cleaning up the fighting. Fighting slowed the game down terribly, and besides, all those loose teeth clogged the Zamboni machine.

But you wonder if the league — which wants desperately to be the favorite sport of the MTV set — won’t have to re-do its clutch-and-grab policy to ensure more action — and less square dancing.

After all, the NBA took one look at last year’s defense- soaked Houston-New York series and went running for the rule book.

“Hey, what’s the difference?” sighed Paul Coffey. “For now, that’s the way our sport is. If I’m New Jersey, I’m laughing.”

Actually, no one in New Jersey should laugh too hard, since they still, after all, live in New Jersey.

But just the same, it is funny how a sport that once heard its loudest complaints about brawling now has healed knuckles and unbroken jaws — but not a shift goes by without a little sumo wrestling.

Of course, come next season, they’ll be beating the snot out of each other again. “And we’ll remember who mouthed off during the playoffs,” McCarty promised.

Personally, if they guaranteed us 60 minutes of up-and-down playoff action and 10 minutes of fighting — versus the grope- fest we have now — I’m not sure how I’d vote.

But what does it matter? The grab, hold and spin is, as the players love to say, “part of the game.” Of course, they also said this about fighting.

It is part of what makes the NHL so great. No matter which game you watch, you can always, in the heat of the moment, with the crowd going crazy, turn to the guy sitting next to you and say, “Do you have any idea what’s going on?”

And he throws an octopus.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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