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Drop 'Em

by Chris Errington / Tampa Bay Lightning

Ryan Malone isn’t ashamed or afraid to admit it – the boxing and kickboxing lessons he took after becoming a professional hockey player were as much about adding strength and agility to his game as they were a plan to just survive in the National Hockey League.

“The first couple of fights I was in, I remember having my head down a lot and getting fists in my face,” the first-year Tampa Bay left winger said. “It wasn’t a lot of fun. You don’t feel the punches right away because your adrenaline is pumping, but you definitely feel them the next day.”

Once a staple of hockey, to the point that they’d sometimes occur even before the first puck was dropped, fighting, like the game itself, has evolved. At one point, opponents of the game labeled hockey as “barbaric” and Sports Illustrated’s Nov. 17, 1975 cover showed a pair of players in a skirmish with the title “A Violent Sport Turns Vicious.”

However, rule changes designed to promote scoring and limit a goaltender’s place outside the crease were added to draw fans and quicken the game’s pace. Likewise, the NHL has attempted to somewhat remove itself from being a once almost pugilistic game dominated by physicality and highlighted by such groups as Philadelphia’s “Broad Street Bullies” into a sport viewable by the entire family.

And while fighting still occurs on a nightly basis, such as the three the Lightning found themselves in during their last home game against Buffalo, gone is the days of “goons” and “enforcers” whose main role was to intimidate the opposition and protect star teammates. It’s a game that’s often vastly different from the one Lightning Interim Head Coach Rick Tocchet knew as a player and which Malone remembers watching as a child.

“Back then, new guys were targeted and players were held accountable for their actions,” Malone said. Fighting “is definitely the biggest change to the game now, especially with the instigator penalty. Now you have a choice to fight or not.”

Tampa Bay may be one of the game’s best examples of this move from brawn to brain. For years, the Lightning were successful playing up-tempo hockey dependent on smaller, quicker offensive players who could move the puck around slower, bigger defenders. It may have been Tampa Bay’s success, including a Stanley Cup championship during the 2003-04 season, which proved to opponents that bigger isn’t always better.

“With the salary cap now, you can’t just have a fighter on your team,” Tocchet said. “A guy’s got to be able to play a little. He’s got to be able to shoot and play defense. “Fighting is still part of the game, but I think the days of two tough guys starting a fight at the beginning of the game are over.”

In the past, fights were usually dominated by a dropping of gloves, a grabbing of the opponent’s sweater, an attempt to dislodge his helmet and finally pulling the sweater over the opponent’s head in an effort to gain an indisputable edge. While much of that remains the same in today’s game, what may come as a surprise to fans is how these one-on-one battles often begin.

“A guy usually just asks you. He’ll say, ‘Let’s go,’ ” Malone said. “It’s kind of funny, because it’s almost polite.”

Singling out Malone, who at 6-foot-4, 224 pounds is one of the Lightning’s largest players, is risky enough for any opponent. Trading punches with Evgeny Artyukhin, considered one of Tampa Bay’s most intimidating players, is completely different. And while he says helping to remedy the team’s recent offensive slump is priority one, creating a physical advantage is always in the back of the 6-4, 254-pound right winger’s mind.

“If I’ve got to send a message, I’d definitely do it, because I think the team looks for me to stand up for us,” Artyukhin said. “If I do have to fight, I try not to think too much about anything. I just hit him with as many punches as possible.”

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