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Fists of Fury

by Daniel Bordignon / Vancouver Canucks
"Anybody who says they don't like fighting in the NHL has to be out of their mind."

Don Cherry wouldn’t have had to look far to find a hockey fan that would agree with his statement Saturday night, as there were 18,630 present at GM Place to witness an Oilers attempt to intimidate the hometown Canucks.

Edmonton tried to run Vancouver off the ice by stepping up the physicality that resulted in a total of 193 penalty minutes in the game, with a recorded 14 fighting majors and eight misconducts.

Often criticized for their team toughness, the Vancouver Canucks answered the bell by squaring off toe-to-toe with their divisional rivals. The team proved that they are tough enough to stand up for themselves with players by the likes of Mike Weaver and Trevor Linden dropping the mitts, with others including Ryan Shannon and Mason Raymond getting into shoving matches.

The age old formula for delivering championship teams includes great goaltending and physical domination. The hockey world watched last year as the big bad Ducks, who led the league with 71 fighting majors (22 more than the next closet club), steamrolled their opposition to claim Lord Stanley with these two ingredients.

While offensive talent is also crucial in delivering success, the ability to continually perform in lieu of being beat up, banged up, and roughed up is essential. Although the Canucks offence is sporadically successful, they certainly have the defensive core and a world class goaltender that has the potential to deliver Vancouver’s first championship. While the Canucks convincingly proved they also have the heart and ability to stand stall, the question remains: is the team tough enough?

“Look at Saturday night’s game,” said an agitated Ryan Kesler when he was asked this very question. “That [Saturday] basically defines it [how tough the team is]. Anybody that wants to step up to us we got each others backs.”

His agitation must arise from the fact that this aspect of Vancouver’s game has been criticized for years. The organization has held fast to the notion that a contracted goon is a waste of a roster spot in today’s NHL which stands in stark contrast to the Minnesota Wild’s of the league who regularly dole out an average of 3:54 minutes a game to the likes of Derek Boogaard (who has only played in 25 games).

Is this what fans want? A boxer on ice? A player that takes up a roster spot and his only contribution is to go and mix it up after the game is out of reach; without a doubt no player of this ilk would play when a game is on the line over-top of a talented and capable teammate.

Craig MacTavish raved about what a wonderful game Zack Stortini had against the Canucks this past Saturday. He suggested that it was one of the best games he has seen Stortini play. Stortini finished the night a plus-1. That’s right. A great performance from this contracted goon was registering a plus-1 that only requires him to be on the ice when another teammate scores.

Is there a need for this type of player on the Vancouver roster? That all depends on how you define team toughness.

“I don’t know if it’s [team toughness] meant to send a message,” said goaltender Roberto Luongo. “We’re a proud team and we’re not going to get pushed around, especially on our home ice, and our guys will respond well to any physical challenge.”

Alex Burrows looks to Saturday night as a picture-perfect definition of team toughness.

“That’s the best example,” said Burrows. “[Teams that try] to run us out of the building will see that our guys really stick together and compete hard together, and we will responded well.”

Within the Canuck dressing room being tough involves standing up when you’re called out, something they have done very well in the past couple of weeks. Their characterization coincides impeccably with a standard definition of toughness that is having or showing firm resolve when faced with a physical or mental challenge. It is also suggested that being tough is a state of mind which fluctuates with an individual’s belief in self-preservation; an area in which Vancouver does not fall short.

To make up for their lack of brute strength, the Canucks are laced with overwhelming grit and hard-nosed talent. Players by the likes of Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Nathan McIver, Luc Bourdon, Byron Ritchie, and Brad Isbister all play a hard-nosed style that requires them to drop the gloves frequently, and when challenge not one shies away.

In the Canucks last ten games they have been credited with 23 fighting majors; impressive compared to the mere three they registered in the ten games before this stretch. The willingness of each player to stand up for the team exemplifies team toughness in itself, as witnessed when Brad Isbister went after Edmonton’s Matt Greene after the Oiler leveled Ryan Kesler with a blatant elbow to the head.

The confidence that every player in the Vancouver dressing room holds inspires a convincing belief in one another, the team, and their current make-up.

“We’ve handled that aspect of the game extremely well throughout the year,” said Coach Alain Vigneault. “Our team is one of the teams that have the most majors in the NHL; we come to play [for ourselves and for one another].”

The current Vancouver Canucks may not roll over opponents or have the ability to win by physically intimidating other teams, but they do possess an asset that is lost in many professional sport organizations, team unity. Every individual battle for one another and for the team; holding a conviction as strong as this will provide enough toughness and heart to match-up against any physical challenge.

With the trade deadline fast approaching, some people may be on the edge of their seats waiting for the arrival of a contracted goon. Well, don’t count on it. This team is tough enough and every one from the general manager to the stick boy believes that this team has what it takes; if you would like to tell them otherwise you better be willing to drop the gloves over it, because you can bet they sure will.

193 - Total Penalty Minutes vs. Edmonton
- Total Fighting Majors
(2007 / 2008 Season)

27 - Total Fighting Majors
(2006 / 2007 Season)
- Total Fighting Majors
Last 10 games
  8 - Seasons in which a Canuck team recorded more than 50 fights

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