The dinosaur, the Trash-80, the AMC Pacer, the goon

If there’s as vivid a memory I have of fighting in hockey, it’s from 1991. John Kordic had just joined the Washington Capitals and took on Pittsburgh’s Jay Caulfield in one of the epic Penguins-Capitals games.  As Kordic was escorted off the ice in Landover, Md., he pumped his fists. He tossed equipment. He showboated and gloated on his way to the dressing room.

Kordic died a year later of heart and lung failure as a result of a drug overdose, but in his prime as an NHL tough guy, he was a poster child for the cause. Kordic died in 1992, before the proliferation of the Internet, of 24-hour sports programming, of Twitter, of camera phones, of blogging … elements that have magnified not only the game but its personalities. Kordic’s death did not receive the same attention or scrutiny as those of Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard and Wade Belak.

In 20 years, yes, the game has drastically changed.

But this week’s Sports Illustrated examined one particular change in the NHL:

The goon is going the way of the dinosaur, the Trash-80 and the AMC Pacer. Extinction. Dave Taylor, St. Louis’ director of player personnel, told SI as much:

“With the direction our game is going, I think that (player) is going to be a dying breed.”

And few in any front office will publicly admit it, but the game needs fighting. It needs it to keep the game honest and, yes, to keep the fans intrigued. You slow down when you see a car accident, don’t you?

In writing my senior thesis – a content analysis of how violence is portrayed in marketing by NHL teams and how it correlated with attendance and the growth of fan interest – I discovered this much: In the late 1990s, the NHL didn’t condone the use of fighting or violence as a marketing tool … but NHL teams wouldn’t hesitate to use the goons as a way to sell the product. Their ads for season ticket packages and televised games said as much.

But since that thesis was written, the scene around the game has changed. Enterprise Rent-A-Car ads have replaced Tip Top ads along the boards. Martinis and mixed drinks have replaced draft beer in the stands. Composite sticks have meant death to the old Christian “twig.” And the goon is being abandoned for the pest – a guy who can get under another player’s skin, but who also has the right amount of skills to carve out a career in the NHL. Think Daniel Carcillo, Matt Cooke, Alex Burrows, Sean Avery ….

Fighting will continue be a part of the game at the NHL level. But with the way the game has changed  – and the questions that now surround that role- who will be left to carry on that tradition?

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