Seven minutes into the recent Capitals-St. Louis Blues game, two pairs of hockey gloves went flying and bare-fisted Alan Haworth of the Capitals and the Blues' Brian Sutter flew at each other, locking in an embrace anything but sweet.
This was no dance, you could tell by the hammerlocks. One might have thought -- ah ha, this is a hockey fight. But appearances can deceive, says the National Hockey League. Officially, in the league's lexicon, this was "roughing" by Haworth and "roughing" and "slashing" by Sutter or, in the words of an NHL official, an "altercation" or an "incident." Somehow, it looked like a fight.
Fighting, under any name, has always been part of hockey. Even the legends, such as Gordie Howe, could throw a wicked right hand. In one of the most celebrated punches outside a boxing ring, in 1959, Howe dropped Lou Fontinato with a right that not only broke the Rangers tough guy's nose but that whole team's spirit for an entire season. Go back another 20 years and the Rangers' Muzz Patrick -- Patrick being a hallowed name in the game -- made enough of a mess of the Bruins' Eddie Shore's face that it got put on a national magazine cover. Shore, an avenging angel who needed no added notoriety, later sent Patrick a note: "Thanks for making me famous. Your buddy, Eddie."
But if there was one fight that sharply altered a simplistic view of an earlier era that boys will be boys and that violence is an inseparable part of hockey, it was the 1969 battle between Terrible Teddy Green of the Bruins and Wayne Maki of St. Louis. It was a stick-swinging fight that resulted in Green suffering a fractured skull; during three hours of surgery, a permanent plate was inserted into Green's head. As a result, NHL officials were instructed to "rule with an iron hand."
That "iron hand," both present and absent in subsequent years, has been notably missing as another NHL season begins. To wit:
*In the Capitals' exhibition opener against Philadelphia, the teams' bitter rivalry erased any chance of a cleanly played game as fights repeatedly broke out -- five in all.
*In a Capitals-Flyers rookie scrimmage that afternoon, a free-for-all erupted that forced an early end to the second period; at one point, players who were lined up for a faceoff began swinging at one another, benches cleared, two Flyers who had previously been ordered to the dressing room returned to battle and even rival assistant coachs mixed it up.
*In another exhibition game between the Flyers and Rangers, matters got so out of control that 22 players had to be ejected and 506 penalty minutes assessed.
*In the Winnipeg-at-Calgary regular-season opener, a bench-clearing brawl took place, resulting in a total of $7,600 in fines, but the only suspension was that of a Jets assistant coach who took a swing at a Calgary player and inadvertently struck a linesman.
*The height of recent outrages occurred three weeks ago when Montreal's Chris Nilan jammed the end of his stick into the mouth of Boston's Rick Middleton. For what was judged an unprovoked attack on Middleton, who had only six minutes in penalties last season, Nilan, who led the league last season with 358 penalty minutes and the season before with 338, was given a mere eight-game suspension.
Yet, take a poll of hockey players: Will fighting ever be eliminated from the game? The answer would be virtually unanimous. Never.
"Why come and talk to a sweet guy like me?" asked Bryan (Bugsy) Watson.
Fortunately, he was smiling.
When he retired in 1980 from the Washington Capitals and the National Hockey League, a veteran of six NHL teams, the tough-guy defenseman owned the all-time league record for penalty minutes -- 2,212. Now, he owns, along with an Alexandria pizzeria, an aptly named bar, the Penalty Box.
"I went out to win the game, however we won it," Watson said softly, matter-of-factly.
The game is reflected in Watson's face -- the hooded lids, the flat nose. He played the only way he knew, the only way so many hockey players have known, with an abandon bred into him as a boy playing in dim rinks and on frozen ponds of Canadian outposts like Bancroft, Ontario, his home. Your whole life, you're trained in a schizophrenic business that can find you in the NHL and at war with an opponent, then a couple of hours later calmly praising his courage in postgame interviews, even being that opponent's friend off the ice. In his 17-year career Watson said, "I was harder on my friends than I was on ordinary guys."
Hockey can have its fighters like Watson -- he was considered more "scrapper" than bully because of his size, 5 feet 10, 170 pounds, "a flyweight," he said -- who out of the penalty box can be honored men of the community, as was Watson, once recipient of a major award for his work with Special Olympics.
On the walls of his Penalty Box Watson has hung large photos of familiar faces, many of them stitched. Even the game's stars can fight, Watson said. Gordie Howe, for instance. To Watson, Howe was, besides a brilliant shooter and scorer and one of the greatest players ever, big and strong, fearless, and a dealer of punishment in the manner it was dealt him. "If you wanted trouble, you'd get it," Watson said. "He'd use his stick. He was very intense, as easygoing as he was. He just didn't fool around. He was dirty in a way, only if you were after him."
And Chicago's Bobby Hull. Watson, then with Detroit, gained some fame in the 1965-66 playoffs for shadowing Hull and limiting him to two goals in the six-game semifinal series, won by Detroit. Reminders on the wall include a picture of Hull and Watson in a penalty box, and a separate shot of Watson, with a black eye, courtesy of Hull. "Twenty-three stitches," said Watson. "We had been going at it a long time. It didn't just come up."
Watson considers onetime teammate Howe his friend but not Hull. "He didn't like me then and he still doesn't. At least he's consistent." A man Watson much admires is big John Ferguson, former teammate at Montreal, in Watson's words, "a policeman type."
"He'd score 20 goals," said Watson, "but . . . he was the first real tough guy before Schultz." Schultz was Philadelphia's '70s terror, Dave Schultz, who led the league in penalty minutes four seasons, including a never-approached 472 minutes in 1974-75. Not surprisingly, Schultz broke Watson's career penalty-minutes record. There were fighters, like Watson, and then there was Schultz.
"If I was playing," said Watson, recalling his Montreal days, "and Henri Richard was playing and somebody was after him, I would make damn sure . . .
"I changed a lot as I got older, my penalties went down a bit. You just can't do it any more. Somewhere along the way you've got to play hockey."
But Watson admired Ferguson for what he could do to keep rough guys and rough teams tamer than they might be when they went after the likes of Richard and other Montreal stars who were brilliant skaters but not fighters. Protecting another player was what Watson was doing, he says, when he slugged Chicago defenseman Keith Magnuson in 1976 and broke Magnuson's jaw. "I felt bad about it," said Watson.
But he didn't feel he should have been suspended 10 games, as he was. "Mr. (Clarence) Campbell was then the president of the league, and there was a crackdown on violence in sports. I was the first one to get into it after that, and he was showing he was going to be tough."
With that exception, Watson said, "I've never seen anybody hurt in fights. Fights for the sake of fights, no. But I think it is a good safety valve."
It's worse, he said, when players fight with sticks.
Fights arise, he said, "from frustration, when someone is being picked on, when a team is doing nothing" and needs stirring up. "But the days of fighting with a star player like (Wayne) Gretzky are over," Watson said. "What's he had, one fight in five years? And he probably picked it. There's a little rule, if you want to play around with Gretzky, they're going to play around with your best player."
The intimidator, or policeman, remains a visible force in the NHL. Philadelphia may no longer be the "Broad Street Bullies," but it has Dave Brown, 165 penalty minutes last season. Gretzky's bodyguard is Dave Semenko, in Watson's opinion, "the toughest modern-day player I've seen." To Watson, NHL-champion Edmonton has the perfect blend of skater-scorers and policemen, and he doesn't see the NHL ever doing away with the policemen.
As for himself, Watson plays in an over-40 league at Mount Vernon. He insists he's as mild-mannered on the ice as he is this moment, sipping a soda. A finesse player, perhaps? At any rate, he insists that no over-40 opponent has ever excused himself, suddenly remembering another appointment, upon realizing, My God, this is Bugsy Watson I'm up against.
"In the over-40 league," Watson said, "I've become a real goal-scorer."
"There's a distinction between fighting and brawling," said Montreal-based Brian O'Neill, NHL vice president and its disciplinarian. "We think we have brawling under control, 40 players waltzing around the ice. If you have two of those incidents a year it's quite unusual."
Fighting, one against one, is another story. Sociologists have explained it as part of the unwritten rules Watson referred to, it being an honorable response to "take on" an opponent as long as they are both squared off, face to face. No "cheap shots" from behind. No sticks. There's a Rodney Dangerfield aspect to hockey: One has to gain respect, and fighting is one way to do it. Example: The first guy big John Ferguson ever went after was Terrible Teddy Green.
To combat brawling, O'Neill cited game-misconduct penalties, given among other things to a third player on the ice joining a fight between two rivals, as "the advent to getting back to some sanity in our game."
Another rule O'Neill noted: a three-game suspension and a fine for the first player leaving the bench to join a fight.
But for one-against-one fighting and other offenses, officials' judgments are crucial. "Stiff penalties," one a "whole team is hurt by" can handle these situations, O'Neill said. But although all-out brawling has been reduced, critics still say officials' penalties are far from tough enough, and other rules are mere slaps on the wrist. Example: It takes three game-misconducts before a player is suspended one game.
The NHL is on record before Congress, no less, as saying that "spontaneous" fighting is a justifiable "outlet for the frustration in hockey."
O'Neill added, "The game is extremely emotional, extremely fast. There is a feeling that some form of fighting is an outlet in certain situations. It's the only professional sport where the player has a weapon in his hands."
That's how O'Neill answers critics who say any player dropping his gloves to fight should be ejected; it's the long-held conviction that if players don't fight with their hands, they'll carry sticks high and fight with them.
Yet even stricter penalties could be imposed for stick abuses than for fighting without gloves, tougher than eight-game suspensions. Many players who fight abhor stick fights. As Watson said, "The stick thing -- I don't think there's any place for that."
As it is, teams still feel compelled to stock their rosters with enforcers. It's no secret the Capitals, for one, have felt a need to "toughen up," and that accounts for the presence of defenseman Dwight Schofield. He was picked up just recently, from St. Louis, and does not shrink from his role as "policeman," which he defines as one "out there to make sure everybody is obeying the law . . . and not taking any cheap shots."
One team in particular the Capitals believe Schofield might be used against to advantage is Philadelphia. "Philadelphia," he said, "has tried, from what I hear, to intimidate this team." Predictably, in the first Capitals-Flyers regular-season game, Schofield and Dave Brown fought, each getting major penalties for fighting. Schofield figured it was the fourth time he's fought Brown. "I'm the kind of guy who'd feel terrible not showing up for a fight," Schofield said.
Yet under the unwritten rules, intimidation and enforcement remain a significant part of the game -- as does fighting. They detract from speed, stick-handling, clean defense and scoring.
"I certainly think they should eliminate fighting completely," said Muzz Patrick, who went on after his playing days to be coach and general manager of the Rangers. "I saw the Rangers-Philadelphia game on television. It was disgusting, a terrible, terrible spectacle. I turned the channel and 10 minutes later turned back and they were still at it.
"This is a very difficult problem. I've seen brother fight brother. I've seen fights in church leagues. You get hit by a stick, you don't know if it's accidental, you go see, and first thing you know you're into it.
"But these guys today are making a lot of money. It's time to hit them with serious fines. Fighting doesn't make any sense. Hockey is too good a game for this to go on."