Colorado Avalanche: Let’s Keep Physicality in the NHL

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 23: Erik Johnson #6 of the Colorado Avalanche and Zac Rinaldo #34 of the Arizona Coyotes scuffle in front of the Avalanche bench during the second period at Gila River Arena on December 23, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 23: Erik Johnson #6 of the Colorado Avalanche and Zac Rinaldo #34 of the Arizona Coyotes scuffle in front of the Avalanche bench during the second period at Gila River Arena on December 23, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images) /

The Colorado Avalanche isn’t as physical a team as it once was. However, the Avs have a long history of playing physical hockey, which is just fine.

The Colorado Avalanche have a long history of being both a highly-skilled and highly-physical team. You only have to say the name “Claude Lemieux” to see the truth in that statement.

I grew up, hockey-wise, in the 1990s. That was the renowned clutch-and-grab era. As color announcer Peter McNab likes to point out, those were the days you could hook onto a player’s midsection and water ski down the ice without getting called.

Those were also the days when you saw the big bench-clearing brawls. You saw goalie fights. And yet you also saw the beauty of plays from the great players such as Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg and, of course, the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky.

In other words, the physicality didn’t prevent the skill players from doing their thing. Rather, it opened up space for them to do their thing.

That’s why, once you take out any head-hunting, I have zero problem with Tom Wilson’s game. The Washington Capitals forward is a throwback to the 1990s, and I refuse to think that’s a bad thing.

The Controversial Tom Wilson

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Few players in the NHL are as controversial as Tom Wilson. He is and always has been a physical player. He’s been known to be fine with hitting the head — and I’m not ok with that — but everything else about his game is fine with me.

Last night he earned ire yet again for a hit on Jonathan Marchessault:

It was a late hit. He earned a two-minute penalty for interference. Conversation should be over.

Instead, everyone outside of Caps Nations is howling for a suspension. Really? For a shoulder-to-shoulder hit on a player who needed to have his head up? If you’re Marchessault, you need to be aware when Wilson is on the ice. It’s the Stanley Cup Finals — kind of important game in the hockey sphere. You should expect someone like Wilson to bring out his best game — including the physicality. (And a goal — lost in the conversation is the fact that Wilson can score.)

Instead, Marchessault is stating his assurances that the Department of Player Safety will “take care of it:”

"“I saw the hit. I remember everything. It was a late hit. I don’t really need to talk more about it. I think the league will take care of it.”"

I repeat — really? How about the Department of Player Safety have a little convo with you, Jon, about keeping your damn head on a swivel when you’re playing in the Stanley Cup Finals instead of “admiring my pass?” You want to play sanitized hockey, tank your playoffs and compete at IIHF Worlds. Or do like the great Jaromir Jagr in the mid-2000s and fly away to the KHL.

Don’t act like you didn’t grow up playing Canadian hockey where the lower leagues are filled with big hits and big fights.

In this case, Tom Wilson has it right:

Here’s the full transcript of what Wilson said about the hit:

He’d probably say he shouldn’t admire his pass. I’m just finishing my check. I haven’t slowed it down. I’ve been told that we’re talking tenths [of a second] here. I think it’s game speed, and I delivered it in good time. I think he let up a little bit because he wasn’t aware I was there. I finished him through his body. He might have been a little bit surprised by it, but it wasn’t an aggressive hit. He looked fine at the end when he was yelling at me from the bench.

You always have your reputation. When you play my physical style, you’re going to have that reputation. I trust myself. I play the game hard. It’s my job to bring that energy, that physicality. Right after he got up, he said ‘good hit.’ It’s the Stanley Cup Final out there. There are going to be hits. It looked good to me.”

And if you really don’t like Tom Wilson’s style, get your own hitter. Oh, wait, the Vegas Golden Knights have — Ryan Reaves. He’s not even a top-line player like Wilson — strict fourth-line, enforcer-style player.

And I have no problem with that.

Enforcers in Hockey

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I don’t understand why it’s become so shunned to have an enforcer on the team. The “best” argument I’ve heard against having an enforcer on teams is that it takes a roster spot away from a skill player. The worst argument is “The fighting takes away from letting the talent show through.”

To the latter, I repeat the invitation I gave to Marchessault — go for international and European hockey. They’ve always been about all skill, little grit. North American hockey has always been about equal parts skill and grit. Take the grit away, and you no longer have something for everyone.

To the former argument, enforcers were never taking the place of a Peter Forsberg, Matt Duchene, or even Tyson Jost. You’d just slot, say, a Scott Parker or Cody McLeod in place of a Gabriel Bourque or Rocco Grimaldi.

Does a Bourque or Grimaldi really add so much more than a Parker of McLeod? Especially if the enforcers were making space for the real stars to shine rather than trying to plug in goals themselves — which they did with about the same frequency as Bourque and Grimaldi.

Keep Physicality in Hockey

Even if you don’t want to add enforcers back into hockey — or, rather, you want to keep them hidden as a Tom Wilson or, oh, A.J. Greer — the overall physicality needs to remain a part of the game.

The main style of defense in hockey is checking. Yes, you have poke checks and stick checks. However, when was the last time you were impressed by a poke check in a game except on the most cerebral of levels?

Conversely, how about the beauty of a well-executed hip check:

I suppose there’s still a fraction of Avs Nation that will enjoy watching Duchene go head over skates:

And everyone loves a huge, on-ice body check:

I’m all for protecting the head. I don’t want to see players winding up with multiple concussions that plague them for the rest of their lives because of dirty hits in hockey.

More from Mile High Sticking

All the other kinds of hitting, though? Bring it. Yes, players might get injured. But that’s what they signed up for when they decided to play in the NHL instead of the KHL or other European leagues

And, if we’re being honest, physicality in hockey is what we as fans signed up for, too. There’s basketball and soccer, which have some similarities to hockey in speed and objectives. There’s baseball if you want to get cerebral over physical.

But hockey is and always has been known for physicality. I’m glad we rarely see the type of action like Claude Lemieux smashing Kris Draper’s face into the boards — or Zdeno Chara doing the same to Max Pacioretty.

Tom Wilson’s late, open-ice hit on Jonathan Marchessault? Sorry — that’s not even Brayden McNabb-on-Alexander Kerfoot level in my book, much less Todd Bertuzzi-on-Steve Moore or, frankly, Matt Cooke-on-Tyson Barrie.

Next: Avs Need Tom Wilson

Color me unimpressed, in other words. And hopefully color Marchessault more aware when he and his buddy Tommy are playing in the most important games of their lives.