I went to a hockey game, and a fight didn't break out ...
When it comes to winter thrills, nothing beats the new and improved NHL. What's not to love? The game has finally transcended the numbingly dull neutral zone trap, skilled players can once again create in space, the shootouts are downright thrilling, and most importantly, the Sabres are winning ... but I miss my goons. You know, the enforcers, the policemen ... the Marty McSorleys ...
Every once in a while, my work in TV sports gives me a chance to get up close and personal with professional athletes. A few too many moons ago, I laced up my skates and shot a segment for Fox network with some LA Kings, most notably McSorley, a player best known as Wayne Gretzky's bodyguard. Marty played the game with skill, but he thrived under a simple premise that he embraced admirably: You messed with the Great One, Marty's haymaker messed up your face.
Marty couldn't have been more accommodating - NHL players are by far the most affable, playful athletes in the pro arena. So we're kidding around, trash talking, and at the end of the segment, the plan was to have Marty "rough me up a bit," which in TV talk means pull your punches and for god's sake not the face - my beauty is my fortune.
Next thing I know, I'm up against the boards being tossed around like a rag doll. I have never felt less in control of my destiny - and that includes an adult life spent auditioning for casting director's assistants. Don't get me wrong, Marty wasn't even going quarter speed, and it's not like I got hurt. The man just didn't know his own strength. Most of my focus went toward not wetting myself.
It made for great TV, but I left with the realization that messing with professional muscle, even for a goofy TV show, is like getting out of your car on a jungle safari. You're thinking, "Oh, those lions - they're so adorable, I have to pet them." Next thing you know, you're lunch.
Alas, irony never takes a holiday, and as I write this in 2006, hockey's fighters are now lunch.
In the time-honored tradition of professional wrestling, the key to good box office has been based on two essential characters: Pretty boys and bad guys, or, in WWF parlance, "Baby Faces" and "Heels." The same has always been true about the NHL. Every hockey town loves its scoring star and its penalty minute leader above all the rest.
I was there for the dawn of Sabre hockey, sitting in the Aud rafters, screaming my lungs out in defiance of my unfinished math homework. Much love was sent Roger Crozier's way for standing on his head in goal while toiling behind the earnest-yet-wanting defensive efforts of Jumbo Jim Watson. But the true object of our affection was a Hall of Fame baby face by name of Gilbert Perreault.
The only other Sabre who generated excitement on the original expansion roster was a rugged journeyman named Reg Fleming. He was a classic NHL tough guy whose lone year here yielded a stat line that speaks volumes: 6 goals, 159 penalty minutes. What can you say about a guy who spent 1956-1958 playing in the QHL for a team called "The Shawinigan Falls Cataracts"? How about "Please don't hit me"?
The original Sabre policeman was followed by numerous players with the requisite toughs. I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for King Kong Korab. I'll never forget how hard-nosed Lindy Ruff was in his playing days. Then there's Rob Ray, the alpha dog whose knuckles and jersey-off fighting technique not only provoked an NHL ban, but rode shotgun to a generation of Sabre baby faces, from Turgeon to LaFontaine and Mogilny, all the way through Satan. (Only Buffalo could have a baby face named "Satan.")
There was even a glorious time when the Sabres lineup was a veritable murderers row, as Ray, Brad May and the irrepressible Matthew Barnaby took turns making plays and kicking ass.
Cut to today: Resident Sabre tough guy Andrew Peters is a healthy scratch most nights. The new game rocks, but apparently it no longer has room for a good fight, and that stings.
Oh, for the delicious tension when the coaches sent the Razor and Tie Domi onto the rink at the same time ... and the mutual respect in their battles.
I miss the days when the refs would just "let them go," until arms were too heavy to lift. I miss Sandy McCarthy standing on the bench, pointing to his huge biceps, then pointing to his intended victim.
I miss the vernacular of the game's dark side. The penalty box was "the sin bin," spilled teeth were "Chicklets," and only the few and proud achieved a "Gordie Howe" - a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game.
For young players with marginal skills, playing tough used to be the express train to the big leagues, and that always had a film noir feel to me. Think Sterling Hayden in "The Asphalt Jungle."
Picture yourself coming up through the ranks. You're good, then you're just OK, and then there's that moment when you realize you aren't gonna make the show unless you rethink your value. Welcome to the house of pain.
Who among us can't relate to that?
We look to our sports heroes to do the things we can only dream of. In my book, that includes sheer toughness, and an acceptance of your role, however difficult it may be.
Maybe that's why what I miss the most are the moments when the enforcers scored a goal. Imagine what it takes to have soft scoring hands after a thousand fights. Always got the loudest cheers, and deservedly so.
Buffalo native and "King of Queens" consulting producer Nick Bakay has a weekly segment Friday and Saturday on the NFL Network show "Total Access."