The first thing Jason Spezza did when he got home after the Maple Leafs’ game on Saturday night was tune in to Edmonton vs. Calgary.
Ditto Zach Hyman. Ditto Michael Hutchinson. Ditto other players, such as Florida’s Aaron Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau.
They aren’t just hockey players, they’re hockey fans, and they liked what they saw — goalie fights and all.
“I thought it was good entertainment. Thought it was good emotion, and a little bit old school there,” said Spezza.
“It was fun,” said Hyman. “It’s old school, but this is different because you have guys who don’t usually fight fighting. Growing up, I remember watching old-school Maple Leafs playing against Ottawa, and you start your fourth line. And it would be the big boys going to war. Now we’re in a different era where it doesn’t happen that often.”
It’s well documented that the days of the staged fight are over, and that goons — signed strictly for what they bring to the game physically — are a thing of the past.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to go that way (again), just because of the safety issues,” said Spezza. “The league is doing a really good job of trying to make it known that it’s not really acceptable as much anymore. I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to the old days, but there’s nothing wrong with passion in the game and rivalries.”
There have been 137 fights this season featuring 181 different NHLers, according to hockeyfights.com. At that pace there will be 209 scraps by season’s end. A decade ago, there were 1,423.
Fighting in hockey isn’t dead. It still has a heartbeat.
“There aren’t as many tough guys as there used to be,” Huberdeau said before Monday night’s game against the Leafs. “It’s a faster game, but I think sometimes it’s needed.”
That’s what the players liked about Saturday night’s Battle of Alberta — an 8-3 Edmonton win that featured 102 penalty minutes. Flames goalie Cam Talbot and Oilers counterpart Mike Smith squared off in the highlight of the night.
“After I saw the goalie fight on my phone, I flipped over and watched the rest of the game,” said Hutchinson, the Leafs’ backup netminder. “I think it’s entertaining. I think it’s hard, wearing goalie gear, to do much damage.
“All the fans enjoy seeing it, because it’s one of the more rare moments you see in hockey. So I know for me, as long as both guys are healthy at the end of it, I thought it was pretty entertaining.”
It was the first goalie fight in the NHL since Washington’s Braden Holtby and Ray Emery, then with Philadelphia, grappled in 2013.
In this case, the goalie fight was really just a sideshow. Tensions were high after Calgary and Edmonton played each other three times in less than a month — games that featured one-on-one battles between the Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk and the Oilers’ Zack Kassian, a near knee-on-knee hit by Calgary captain Mark Giordano on Edmonton captain Connor McDavid, and a stick-flip by Flames netminder David Rittich after a shootout save.
“(The Oilers) were celebrating their seventh goal (in a blowout) because they hate each other,” said Hyman, laughing.
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Players appear quite content with the level of fighting now, happy that there’s still an outlet to let off steam.
“I think it’s great when guys protect each other and protect their teammates,” said Ekblad. “I think it’s great when guys stick up for themselves. I think it’s great when teammates come in and stick up for the other guy. I think it’ll always have a place in hockey.”
Anaheim leads the NHL with 20 fights, while the Leafs had the fewest with two before Monday night. Defencemen Justin Holl and Travis Dermott were the warriors, although Hyman fought twice last year.
“It’s important that there’s passion and emotion,” said Hyman. “And what comes with that is frustration, and what comes from that is guys battling and competing, and stuff happens and then fights happen.
“Whether that has to lead to fighting, that’s always up for debate. But the emotion, the passion, I think that is the most exciting part — seeing guys actually be that engaged.”
Players on the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star have left China and been checked for the novel coronavirus. “We left the country early so we wouldn’t get caught up in anything serious,” said Kunlun defenceman Trevor Murphy, a native of Windsor, Ont. who also played for the Arizona Coyotes. “We’ve all been checked, we’re all healthy.” The Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League has had to make scheduling changes, with China having imposed a temporary ban on large-scale public events, including sports. Kunlun Red Star’s game against Dinamo Riga on Feb. 24, originally scheduled for Beijing, will now take place in Novosibirsk, Russia. Kunlun’s playoff games will also likely be played on the road, the league said.
- Making the rounds: Anton Stralman was expected to play his 800th game on Monday night, suiting up for the Florida Panthers — his fifth NHL stop — against the team that gave him his start: the Maple Leafs. “It’s special coming here,” the 33-year-old defenceman said, “with Mats (Sundin) being a role model for me growing up, and I had a chance to play with him for a year.” Though the Leafs showed little patience with Stralman at the time, trading him to Calgary for veteran Wayne Primeau in 2009, the blue-liner is an example of the talents of European scout Thommie Bergman. Bergman typically handles the last pick in the draft for the Leafs and chose Stralman in the seventh round in 2005. Other seventh-rounders from Sweden: Carl Gunnarsson (2007), Andreas Johnsson (2013) and Pierre Engvall (2014).
- Polak on Babcock: Former Leafs defenceman Roman Polak said he had a great relationship with ex-coach Mike Babcock in Toronto. “I still think he’s a great coach,” said Polak, now with the Dallas Stars. “Whatever happens, happens. I had no problems with him.” Polak added that there was give and take in his time with Babcock, and suggested other players should have talked back to the coach more often: “Maybe that’s what he needed. He just needed that feedback.”
- Bobbing for wins: Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was Florida’s big free-agent signing over the summer, with the Panthers committing $70 million (U.S.) over seven years to the Russian. They’d certainly hoped for a better record than 19-13-4 with a 3.26 goals-against average and .897 save percentage through Sunday — but they expect that to change. “He’s trending in a good direction,” said Panthers coach Joel Quenneville. “As the games get deeper, the saves become more important. He seems to have been in the right place at the right time. He’s had a real good stretch at home. He’s won some big games for us recently on the road as well. So we think there’s real progress to his game, and we know that down the stretch here we’re going to be relying on him.”
- Stats pack: Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray is 6-0-0 since Dec. 28 with a 2.63 goals-against average and .922 save mark … Columbus has points in eight straight games (7-0-1) … At age 21, Canucks forward Elias Pettersson is the seventh Swedish-born player in NHL history to reach 50 regular-season goals in 124 games or fewer … Edmonton forward Leon Draisaitl has an 11-game points streak (seven goals, 15 assists) and is the first player to eclipse the 80-point mark this season — 83 and counting, after a four-assist performance in Saturday’s win over the Flames.