"Hockey toughness" is not about an individual player's physical strength or fighting prowess. It's about teammates protecting and defending one another, preserving together through adversity and pain. It's not about a lack of fear but, rather, a willingness to face it head on.
The players who sacrifice themselves to create operating room and safety for their teammates are often misunderstood by hockey's critics - and even by some of its fans, who mistakenly believe that fight "wins" and "losses" are what resonate within a team - but are appreciated by their teammates. In fact, a player need not even fight regularly to be a genuine tough guy. It's all situational.
On Thursday, as part of the season-long celebration of 50 years of Philadelphia Flyers hockey, the Flyers will hold a special Heritage Night to honor the Tough Guys throughout team history, including Dave "the Hammer" Schultz, Dave Brown, high-scoring power forward Rick Tocchet and Ian Laperriere.
"Within the dynamic of any successful team, there have always been guys who set a tone from a physical standpoint. It may not show up in terms of personal statistics but it does show up in team success players. If you look at our teams from the 80s, we were really more than the sum of our parts. Guys like Brownie and Tocchet or Scottie Mellanby, they were absolutely an important part of that," former Flyers captain Dave Poulin said in a 2009 interview for Philadelphiaflyers.com.
Symbolically, the players being honored for Tough Guys Night and others in similar roles represent how there are many different types of toughness, and the Flyers have forged an identity that goes beyond fisticuffs. At its essence, the Flyers' "tough guy" heritage is a combination of physical and mental toughness.
Mental toughness is rooted in dealing with some type pain and strife but pressing onward even knowing there's an element of risk. It's not an absence of fear but, rather, a refusal to be enslaved by it.
The Flyers have been steeped in mentally tough players through the years. Bob Clarke was the ultimate example but there have been dozens of other players who embodied those qualities: Ed Van Impe, Gary Dornhoefer, Barry Ashbee, Paul Holmgren, Dave Poulin, Brad Marsh, Ron Sutter, Rick Tocchet, Ron Hextall, Rod Brind'Amour, Eric Desjardins, Derian Hatcher, Ian Laperriere, Danny Briere, Kimmo Timonen and Wayne Simmonds are but a few of the many who represent this sort of toughness. Not all were fighters in the physical sense, but all were fierce competitors willing to pay any price for victory.
In terms of the more traditional "tough guy" role. the reason why it has been so misunderstood is that the role was every bit as much steeped in mental toughness as in fighting technique and physical strength. It really should not be a surprise that there's been such a high attrition rate, because the challenges those guys face are never ending ones so long as they playing.
Fundamentally, it's not really all that different than getting buy-in for backchecking or shot blocking or any other unglamorous part of the game. Coaches can preach these things until their faces turn blue but the words aren't until there are on-ice leaders who exemplify these traits and inspire teammates to do likewise.
The tough guys who gain longevity and the respect of their teammates and opponents alike are the ones who understand all of these things.
For example, was Laperriere ever the "best" or most frequent fighter in the NHL? Far from it but he was most certainly one of the toughest players of his era. No one was more willing to pay any price to win whether it was blocking a shot, killing a penalty, giving or taking a check even from a behemoth opponent or dropping the gloves either to energize the team or to stand up for a teammate or himself. He did consistently, game in and game out and year after year. That's the epitome of hockey toughness.
Among those who specialized in playing the traditional fighter's role, the ultimate testament to Craig Berube's toughness and effective in his role was not in his "fight card" per se in fact that he played over 1,000 games in the NHL. Dave Brown took it personally when a teammate would get run; it was his dedication to his teammates as much as the left-handed bombs he threw that made him one of his best in his role.
Something else to keep in mind when considering toughness: look at the guys who are ones who kept striving for improvement in their total game.
Paul Holmgren was one of the NHL's best conditioned athletes of his era, had a tireless work ethic and made himself into a 30-goal scorer in the NHL. Look at Tocchet's career arc. In more recent times, look at Wayne Simmonds' path from Junior A hockey and going undrafted as an 18-year-old to his prominence as an NHL power forward.
In hockey, the concept of team toughness is every bit as important, and arguably even more than having a couple of individually tough players. Teammates have to have one another's backs. That's a given, but someone has to display leadership and take pride in that regard and then others have to buy in.
Above all, these are the traits that made Dave "the Hammer" Schultz a valuable player during his four seasons as a Flyer. Schultz, who has owned up many times to having had to deal with constant anxiety in his role yet never shrank back from it. Instead, he channeled anxiety into ferocity, especially when going into hostile buildings.
Schultz had help, of course. Andre "Moose" Dupont, Bob "the Hound" Kelly and Don "Big Bird" Saleski combined to create a legacy that was particularly valuable when the Flyers played on the road. Together, the entire team skated taller and played with jam.
It is much harder to go into a hostile building and play with snarl and tenacity that it is in front of the home crowd. As dominant as the Flyers were on home ice - a tradition that has marked the majority of team history - it was the team's fearlessness and even audacity on the road that made the Flyers a breed apart from other teams.
In the years after the Broad Street Bullies heyday, new generations of players policed the ice and protected their teammates: Holmgren, Jack McIlhargey, Dave Hoyda, Mel Bridgman, Mike Busniuk, Behn Wilson, Glen Cochrane, Dave Brown, Craig Berube, Jeff Chychrun, Ryan McGill, Shawn Antoski, the "Dan Line" trio of Dan Kordic, Daniel Lacroix and Scott Daniels, Sandy McCarthy, Donald Brashear, Todd Fedoruk, Riley Cote and Jody Shelley to name just a few.
During the franchise's earliest days, the Flyers did not yet embody the sort of team toughness that became a hallmark in subsequent years. Nevertheless, players such as Forbes Kennedy, Larry "the Rock" Zeidel, Earl Heiskala and Rosaire Paiement were never shy about physical play or dropping the gloves.