The Intimidation Factor
“The secret is that if you show the tiniest clue that you are intimidated or afraid, you are finished.” – Theo Fleury
For those of you who read my NHL season preview, there were numerous times when I mentioned teams possessing an intimidation factor, and that I felt this was a pro for a team more so than a con. I wanted to clarify what I meant by this, and why I’m a fan of the use of intimidation in hockey. Let me put it this way, if one were to step out onto the ice and already be fearful of tough, opposing players, then the opposing team already has the psychological upper hand in the game. There are certain times, and this goes right to the lowest level of house league hockey as I’ve personally witnessed it, that players will chat about players on the other team, and not about the top scorers, but about the tough guys, the ones protecting the scorers. One would need to keep their head up or take extra precaution to avoid getting on the bad side of a protector/intimidator. If one were to get on said bad side, it’s likely they would have a crushing body check coming their way, or possibly have to drop the mitts for their actions.
In a sense, having a protector or intimidator on a team is almost like possessing an atom bomb. It keeps the opposition on their toes, and though they’re usually there strictly as a deterrent, there are instances where they will be they will be called to action and become part of the play.
There are numerous instances of historical precedent that showcase the value of having a protector/intimidator, and how they can not only strike fear into an opposing team, but provide a confidence boost to their own team as well. The most obvious example would be of the Great One, Wayne Gretzky. Throughout most of his time in Edmonton and Los Angeles, Gretzky had either Dave Semenko or Marty McSorley as his “bodyguards.” These two were two of the most feared fighters in hockey history, and though Gretzky’s offensive success isn’t attributed solely to these two, having them as a deterrent was effective, as players knew if they messed with Wayne, they would have to deal with Semenko or McSorley. Theo Fleury had this to say in his book, Playing With Fire, “Why did so few guys go after Gretz? Well, would you want to fight Dave Semenko or Marty McSorley?” The same type of situation occurred in Detroit. Throughout the late 1980s/early 90s, Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman was protected by the “Bruise Brothers,” Bob Probert and Joey Kocur. Again, these two aren’t the main reasons for Yzerman’s success, but having Probert and Kocur gave Yzerman some extra room to skate, not having to worry about cheap shots or other altercations. In “Playing With Fire,” Fleury specifically mentions how having a protector/intimidator helped his game in junior in the WHL. He states that while playing on a line with Mike Keane, “I felt ten feet taller. Nobody messed with Keaner, which meant nobody messed with me.”
There are countless examples of the intimidator enforcing fear/boosting player and/or team confidence in hockey history, but with the way the game has changed in terms of rules and style of play, is there still a role for the intimidator in today’s game?
A few months ago, I asked former OHL scout for the Guelph Storm and Sarnia Sting, Jim Bricknell, his opinion on the matter. His answer was that there was no doubt in his mind the intimidator still plays a valuable role. He told me that when he was with Guelph in 2003-04, they were a good team, bur their players were being pushed around a lot. He then proceeded to advise the GM to trade for the most feared player in the league at the time: Cam Janssen. The GM made the move, and in his first game, Janssen skated over to centre ice during warm up and said to the opposition, “you mess with any of our guys, you have to deal with me.” The result was similar to what happened with Theo Fleury in the WHL. Bricknell told me the players found new life; it was as if their confidence had grown 100%. Also, recently I was chatting about this topic with my good friend Joe McLellan, former player for the Junior-C Uxbridge Bruins from 2009 to 2010. He was telling me that although the league may be small, every team has an intimidator to play a role, that to being protect/stand up for his team. This example from Joe tells us that 1) there is still an important role for the intimidator in hockey today and 2) that is corresponds with my atom bomb comparison from earlier. Every team has one, they don’t want to have to use it, but if there is a need for it, it’s going to come into play.
Joe and I also examined how the role of the intimidator has evolved over time. Sure, fighting and protecting is still a part of that role, but there’s almost a new breed of intimidator, one who can not only fight, but contribute offensively as well. These players are the ultimate weapons. Not only are good intimidators of today capable of racking up major points, but they can hit, play aggressively in the corners, and if need be, they can fight. It’s possessing players like these that can really make a team complete, and are a part of, but not the entire reason, why I think the Boston Bruins are probably the most well rounded team in hockey. Not only do they have an excellent goalie in Tuukka Rask, solid defense, some of the best faceoff men in the game, and a classic fighter (Shawn Thornton), but they also have an abundance of these “hybrid” intimidators. Both Jarome Iginla and Milan Lucic can score and fight with the best of them, Brad Marchand may be small, but he’s a feisty, physical agitator, and then there’s captain Zdeno Chara. Is there anyone more intimidating in the game today than Chara? Not only can he be effective on the PP and shutdown an opposing offense with ease, but at 6’9, 255 lbs., he’s possibly the scariest figure to step onto the ice in NHL history. He can crush you with a devastating body check, and though he doesn’t do it often, he’s one of the most feared fighters in the game due to his size and strength (remember what he did to McCabe?). There is no doubt in my mind that having these players will not only help directly, but indirectly as well, by providing that confidence boost to the strictly offensive threats such as Patrice Bergeron and Loui Eriksson.
There you have it folks, my thoughts on intimidation in hockey, not just fighting, but intimidation in general. Agree or disagree? Feel free to comment below with you thoughts!