Imagine if the ice in front of an NHL net were a place where the rules of the game were different. Players could hack and whack like the old days, before the league decided a tug on a jersey was obstruction. Lightning coach Barry Melrose can only hope. "In today's game, anybody can go and stand there, and I don't think that's right," he said. "I don't want to see that leave the game, those areas of battles." Melrose, 52, is old school. He cheers the uptick in fighting the past few seasons, not for its own sake but because, "It's a tool. … It can change the mood of a game." Melrose, who had enforcer tendencies in his NHL career, does not want a return to the days of bench-clearing brawls. At the same time, he said, "I never want to get to the point in my life when cowards can play hockey."
How do you feel about the league's long-term crackdown on fighting?
I think toughness is leaving our game, and I hope that people realize it's wrong. I hate to mention this, but the fastest growing sport in the world is ultimate fighting. We've got that as part of our game. To act ashamed of that has been wrong of the NHL for a lot of years. You can say you don't like fighting or you love fighting, but it creates conversation. It creates energy and excitement.
And, as you see it, perhaps a strategic advantage.
It's a useful part of the game. It's a tool, and that's how coaches use fighting. It can change the mood of a game. It's like a big hit or a power-play goal or anything else.
It also can set boundaries between teams, correct?
If someone does something to (Steven) Stamkos, there have to be repercussions, and that's where fighting is still part of the game. Hockey is about bravery. I never want to get to the point in my life when cowards can play hockey.
You're not advocating a return to the bad old days, are you?
Of course not. I call that the dark ages. They were burning priests at the stake at the same time, I think. But hockey is a game of intimidation. If someone can walk into our building and intimidate us with hitting, with power plays, with fighting, then they're going a long way to winning the game, and it's part of the game.
How can you strike a balance between making the game more physical and the no-touch rules put in place to hike scoring?
I would love to see sort of a different set of rules in front of the net. You make like a key area in basketball where it becomes tougher to stand. In today's game, anybody can go and stand there, and I don't think that's right. I think that still should be very fought-over ice and an area with different rules. Such as …
The hacking and the whacking and the cross-checking, so the guy has to have some grit to get in there, where you can't go in there with no pads the way you basically can do it now. That should be an area of highly fought-over ice.
What do you think of enforcers?
I love them. They're my favorite guys on the team. I love them like I do superstars. They do the dirtiest job in the world for less money than the other guys. They're always the most popular guy on the team, and they never get the thanks they should. I love them. I ask them to do a terrible thing, and a tough thing, every night. I reward them. I hate taking them out of a lineup. It is much easier for me to take a skill guy out of the lineup than it is to take a tough guy out of the lineup.
Describe their job.
He's got to walk into Philadelphia in the third game of five nights on the road, and if somebody is going nuts, he still has to go over the boards and do it. It's still a job of proving it. It's the old gunfighter mentality that every year there are young guys that want to prove they're tougher, and that still happens. Not to the extent of the (Bob) Probert era, but when you're a tough guy in the NHL, there's always a young guy coming every year who thinks they are tougher.
Given the salary cap and the instigator rule, no team can afford a goon who can't play and is being paid to sit in the penalty box.
In a perfect scenario, he would be able to play regular. That's why a guy like Probert worked and (Marty) McSorley. Those guys were so great because they could do both. But realistically, they have to be so they don't hurt you. What I mean by that is a team's eyes don't light up when they step on the ice. Ideally, you want a kid who's tough enough to play regular and do the job.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.