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Dan Schwartz: Hockey’s rats, goons continue to thrive

A few years ago, two boys from my son’s lacrosse league were suspended for smashing each other over the head with their lacrosse sticks.

“I’m glad you don’t do anything like that,” I said.

There was a long pause. Then my son said, “I don’t get caught.”

I was about to register shock, anger and disbelief.

“Look, Dad. Today in sports you’re either a rat or a goon just to survive.”

For the less informed, “rats” are the instigators. They bend and break the rules. When the officials don’t appear to be watching, they take cheap shots at opponents. One of the most frustrating things about watching sports is the way refs tend to catch the retaliators, but not the instigators.

In hockey, the term “rat” is most closely associated with Ken “The Rat” Linseman, although there were many rats who predated him. Linseman played for the notorious Philadelphia Flyers of the 1970s, aka “the Broad Street Bullies.” The Flyers, in large part, inspired the George Roy Hill film, “Slap Shot,” starring Paul Newman. You could make a pretty strong case these “bullies” ratted and gooned the classier Buffalo Sabres out of the Stanley Cup Championship in 1975.

Part of the rat strategy is to get on the nerves and under the collars of opponents, thus saddling the retaliators with penalties. Even the usually classier Sabres have not always been blameless in this area. I recall the early days of the franchise when I admittedly enjoyed witnessing one of my favorite players, Eddie “the Entertainer” Shack harass Vancouver’s Rosaire Paiement to distraction. When Paiement finally tried to take a swing at Shack, in stepped the Sabres Reggie Fleming. Shack skated away laughing, while Fleming, the Sabres “goon” or “enforcer” left Paiement with a beating and an extra penalty.

In a recent scrimmage, my son got a big dose of bad-tasting medicine. He was repeatedly slashed, cross-checked and high-sticked. He also received lots of what hockey players call “chirping” (verbal abuse). There was only a single official, and most of it happened behind his back. Fed up, my kid uncharacteristically threw his stick at the glass and skated off the ice. Another win for the rats.

We discussed it, and besides never throwing a stick again, we concluded that cheating by others was unfortunately part of the admission price. We also concluded that winning feels even better when overcoming such obstacles.

You can find unsportsmanlike conduct in any sport. You could make a strong argument that similar things go on in business, law, education and politics. There are always “unwritten rules.”

The NHL has added a fourth official to catch more behind-the-play stuff. But the refs still miss many calls, and the rats and goons still thrive. These days it’s the Boston Bruins: Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Zdeno Chara and, until recently traded, the era’s biggest rat, Milan Lucic.

Recently I spoke with Todd Marchant, an NHL veteran of 17 seasons, who, along with his parents, runs the best sports camp I’ve observed. We were walking through the Northtown Center when a couple of “squirts” or “peewees” were heatedly arguing about the score of a game they’d just finished. Marchant interrupted, “Hey, hey! You know what the score was? It was fun to fun.” The boys seemed to get the message. A lot of the rest of us haven’t.