Fighting in the Elite Ice Hockey League: Part Two

By Ed Kimberley
Coventry, England

index2What does this mean for the EIHL fighting mix? Teams need tough guys but they need to be able to do something more than be an out and out fighter. Just as an example I will use the Coventry Blaze from 04/05 then 05/06. In 04/05 they won everything, and had a lot of fights with Payette, Wade Belak etc. year after they employed Graham Belak who like his brother was a big fighter with a lot of AHL experience that never quite made the NHL and Dave Kaczowka. Both had NHL contracts at some point in their career. Kaczowka was quickly cut and although Belak carried on, he injured his back and didn’t look as imposing as his brother despite this fight with one of the toughest ever players Mel Angelstad:

Jeff Hutchins (now coach of the Dundee Stars) made his EIHL debut for the Blaze that year and had 16 scraps. Now looking at it from my point of view, Graham Belak who played D despite chalking up most of his career as a Forward was an experiment that didn’t work. Although he could clear the crease, it was clear he didn’t have the defensive talents of his brother. Kaczwoka couldn’t do much else but fight and even then the only win he chalked up in the EIHL was vs Shawn Maltby of Sheffield, not known for his pugilistic talents. He lasted all of 3 regular season games and both Kaczowka and Belak would have commanded quite a wage bill. Although Kaczowka was replaced by pacey winger Dan Welch it seemed too many cooks spoilt the broth. Did the Blaze need to spend that much on Belak? Later the Blaze would sign Jason Robinson who split that year between London and Sheffield, if they hadn’t had signed Kaczowka, hypothetically got the cheaper Robinson for Belak they could have had enough money to sign another scorer who could’ve made a difference while Hutchins and Robinson carried the fighting load.

Players that come to the EIHL can generally get a new lease of life as a player, enforcer or not. Brian McMillin comes to the Blaze this year following a career where he was pigeonholed to be a checking 3rdliner. Last season he led the Allen Americans to the playoff championship, and won playoff MVP with 12 goals in 19 games. This year the Blaze want him to carry offensive responsibility. Also Hull Stingrays star forward Jereme Tendler came into the league after a 30pts in 60games season with the Corpus Christie Ice Rayz and he scored the most goals in the EIHL last year (43). In regards to tough guys there is no better case in point is Brad Voth, who was one of the most talked about players in his time with the Cardiff Devils. Every other team wanted to sign him year after year but he stuck with Cardiff. He came to the UK in 05/06 for his skills with gloves off and despite this racked up 220pts in 322 games. Not bad for a guy signed as an out and out fighter. A conclusion for me is that if a team in the EIHL are singing a tough guy, he needs to be able to do something else other that fight.

Bissonnette with Cardiff. (Photo credit: algooldphoto.com)
Bissonnette with Cardiff. (Photo credit: algooldphoto.com)

My example would be Paul Bisonnette who ices for the Phoenix Coyotes and iced for the Cardiff Devils during the latest lockout. I tried to find the chirp but it seems its been deleted where a “fan” told him he wasn’t very good and should quit. To which Bisonnette replied he had been a scorer up until under16 level and then still went to represent Canada at the WJC-18’s. No matter what the level, you don’t represent your country if all you can do is scrap. Albeit the difference in level was obviously a factor, BizNasty posted 21pts from 11games at EIHL level, now comparing this to Anthony Stewart, a 1st Rounder and a guy expected to put up numbers only hit 11pts from 20games. Was this simply because Stewart didn’t really care? Well Nottingham won the championship last year so even if his team mates were carrying Stewart he still would have theoretically been at least a 1.00ppg average. Meanwhile Cardiff wasn’t really setting the league alight, but an NHL 4th liner doubled what a 3rd/2nd line power forward was getting in half the game. In the NHL Stewart has scored 5x the points in double the games Bisonnette has played.

There have been some good success stories for enforcers that have played in the UK other that the above where players have found new roles and utilised their ice time increasing their stocks as players and I will quickly have a look at them now. Firstly Big Bad Brett Clouthier who iced for the Manchester Phoenix and the Sheffield Steelers, he came to the EIHL straight out of the AHL with Binghamton.

His OHL stats were massively impressive scoring 118pts in 197games with 658pims, he even went in the 2nd round to New Jersey because he could hit fight and score goals, then he was misused and became an out and out enforcer, it wasn’t until he came to the EIHL where we went back up to a 0.56ppg average (compared to a 0.60 in the OHL) from 0.35pg in the ECHL and a lowly 0.09 in the AHL. He proved he was still useful as a player and after returning to NA got a chance with Providence before ending his career, back in the tough guy role with Rio Grande of the CHL. His stock as tough winger was so great in the UK the Blaze tried to bring him back a couple of seasons ago before he gave the CHL one final go. My favourite story is of Ex Belfast Giant Bobby Robins. His blog is always a good read and this post describes his story very well: http://www.bobbyrobins.com/2/post/2013/03/zen-and-the-art-of-reinventing-yourself.html

Robins came to the EIHL as a power-forward. To score points but to fight and protect the team, he came young and hungry with ECHL and AHL experience, and having put good numbers up in the NCAA (yet went undrafted). Robins (fight card: http://dropyourgloves.com/Players/Player.aspx?Player=16463) relished the icetime in Belfast he had a career year before heading to Austria and finally back to NA where after proving his worth by being able to fight AND put up numbers from the 3rd line has been awarded a 2year deal with the Boston Bruins.

It’s not just about fighting to win games in the EIHL by protecting superstars and letting them do their jobs, it’s about fighting to get fans to the rink and get attention. Coventry Blaze first preseason game was against Cardiff on Wednesday and the highlight for many was seeing new faces Kevin Harvey (Blaze) and Brad Plumton (Devils) go toe to toe in what looked like a really good fight:

Generally fighting is all the majority of British people know about hockey, especially the case in towns with no rink for example I now live in Norwich, we have a rink but its been abandoned for a year and before that wasn’t big enough to sustain anything higher then recreational hockey. When I mentioned to my colleagues that I used to play and indeed still watch hockey they said that “I must be f****** crazy to play (hockey) all they do is smash each other and fight, have you been in any fights?” I was quick to point out it was much more than that and on my next business trip to a town with a rink it is agreed I will take my colleagues to a pro-game. Despite this view tough guys are often the most approachable and friendly guys who spend a lot of time posing for pictures/signing autographs with fans (particularly kids) as they are people to look up to. Sure they fight but it’s a chivalrous thing 99.9% of the time what happens on the ice stays on the ice. I’ve seen guys really go at it with each other than 30mins later are in the bar sharing a beer.

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