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Inside the fight game in the NHL

Columbus Blue Jackets v Chicago Blackhawks

Columbus Blue Jackets v Chicago Blackhawks

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Updated: April 12, 2013 6:04AM

I  t’s early in the second period March 25, and Kings center Jordan Nolan drives his right shoulder into Marcus Kruger’s left shoulder,
plastering Kruger — four inches shorter and nearly 50 pounds lighter — into the boards a moment after he had pushed the puck forward.

Brandon Bollig is standing a few feet away. Bollig sees it. Bollig doesn’t like it. Bollig does something about it.He skates up to Nolan, stares him down, shoves him in the chest and says something along the lines of, ‘‘Let’s go.’’

And with that, the bizarre dance of the hockey fight began anew, its steps, its rhythm and its rules as ingrained in the culture of the sport as banana blades and hockey hair. Many bemoan the barbaric, archaic ritual as a relic of a bygone era, particularly the prearranged, staged fights at the drop of a puck, particularly in the era of concussions. But as Blackhawks defenseman Sheldon Brookbank pointed out, few stay in their seats when the gloves drop.

‘‘I loved watching fights growing up,’’ said Brookbank, who has earned nearly four dozen fighting majors in his NHL career. ‘‘I can see where people are coming from with the staged fights being kind of meaningless. But you’d be hard-pressed to find 10 percent of the fans in the building sitting down when someone’s fighting, even a staged fight.’’

There aren’t many pure goons left in the league. Bollig, the Hawks’ primary enforcer, made a name for himself in the NHL with his fists, but he’s staying in the NHL with his rapidly improving two-way skills. Brookbank has been a solid defenseman for the Hawks, while adding the physical presence the more finesse-oriented team needed.

But while goons are going the way of the dodo, hockey fights aren’t going anywhere.

‘‘There’s still a purpose to it,’’ Brookbank said. ‘‘It holds guys accountable. Some people can’t see that, but to those of us that have played this game our whole lives, facts are facts. We’ve seen it our whole career. You have guys out there that will call you out if you do something dirty or cheap to their team. So it definitely still has a place.’’

Nolan immediately agrees to the fight, and it’s on. The two take a step back, remove their gloves, then their helmets. Gentleman’s rules: No visors or plastic, just knuckles and skulls. Bollig rolls up his sleeves. Nolan bends at the waist to stretch a moment. This is a heavyweight tilt — 450 pounds between them. Then they lock up, right hands grasping each other’s sweaters, left hands free to swing. Here we go.

Scorers scout goalies. Defensemen scout forwards. Centers scout faceoff opponents. Goalies scout shootout specialists. And fighters scout fighters.

‘‘You have to know who’s a lefty and who’s a righty,’’ Bollig said. ‘‘We’ll talk about that before a game. We know who’ll probably be fighting if there’s a fight and how they fight.’’

Staged fights are easier, of course. You pick your opponent, you call him out from the bench — as Jamal Mayers did in his bout with the Coyotes’ Raffi Torres this season — and you prepare accordingly. Spur-of-the-moment fights, such as the one Bryan Bickell found himself in when the Ducks’ Ryan Staubitz jumped him from behind after Bickell laid out Ryan
Getzlaf with a hit Feb. 12,
are different. That’s when the clutching, grabbing and slow-dancing at the outset of a fight come in handy: It gives a fighter a moment to process the who and how.

‘‘I knew it was Staubitz after he threw the first left and hit me in the back of the head,’’ Bickell said of his old junior-league teammate. ‘‘I didn’t really want to go lefts to rights against him because I knew I probably wouldn’t win. So I just held on and didn’t take any beatings, so it was good.’’

And afterward?

‘‘While we were laying on the ice, I told him, ‘What are you doing jumping me?’ ’’ Bickell said. ‘‘He said, ‘You hit Getzlaf.’ I said, ‘No, I mean, why are you still on the ice when Getzlaf’s line is? Get back on the fourth line.’ ’’

About 10 seconds in, Bollig finally lands a left uppercut and follows it with an overhand left. They slow-dance some more, each hitting a few lefts, until they finally get some separation. Bollig then unloads three lefts to the temple, but the force is so great it drives Nolan back far enough to allow him to switch hands and free his stronger right hand. After a moment to gather himself, Nolan rallies, unleashing two monster haymakers — one to Bollig’s left eye socket, one to his jaw. The scorecards are evening up.

You don’t feel the punches. Not right away, at least.

‘‘It’s all heat-of-the-moment; you’ve got adrenaline going,’’ Bickell said. ‘‘If you get hit, you don’t even feel it until 10 minutes after. It’s just a fight. Just hit him.’’

But it’s dangerous stuff. Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro had his face caved in last season by Penguins goalie Brent Johnson. Bickell once broke his thumb when it got caught on his opponent’s jersey. Brookbank’s legs turned to jelly and he collapsed to the ice when he was drilled in the temple during his minor-league days.

So even for a crafty veteran of the fight game, even for a guy who gets pleasure out of pounding on another man’s unprotected cranium, dropping the gloves doesn’t come easily and isn’t taken lightly.

You don’t want to get beaten. You don’t want to get hurt. And you don’t want to get humiliated.

‘‘It’s kind of a nerve-racking feeling when you know it’s coming, when it’s not a heat-of-the-moment fight,’’ Brookbank said. ‘‘I’m pretty sure 99 percent of the guys get a little bit of nerves before a fight. It doesn’t matter how tough you are or how big you are, there’s always a chance that you could lose and be embarrassed in front of everyone. Once you get it done, you’re glad it’s over.’’

Bollig shakes off the Nolan rally and goes back to work. The combination of a punch by Bollig and a miss by Nolan nearly causes Nolan to fall, but Bollig’s not done with him just yet and stands him back up. At that point, Nolan is gassed. He calmly says to Bollig, ‘‘I’m done.’’ Bollig relaxes, lets the refs come in to break it up, pats Nolan on the back of the head with his left hand and skates off to the penalty box. As he leaves, he exhorts the fans for more cheers, then bangs his hands on the glass as both benches tap their sticks on the boards in approval. The dance is done.

Bollig could have kept pounding Nolan — who already was at the end of his shift, compounding his fatigue — into submission. But that’s not how it works. That’s not The Code.

‘‘He verbally said, ‘I’m done,’ ’’ Bollig said. ‘‘And I’m going to respect that. . . . Usually when a guy’s willing to go out there and essentially get hurt at any moment during a fight, you’ve got to respect that, and I can’t see myself not respecting his wish to end it. You’ve got to respect that code.’’

Was there a purpose served by the scrap? Well, Bollig won it, but the Kings got the momentum boost players claim fights provide, scoring two goals in the next four minutes and going on to win 5-4. Back in Phoenix on Feb. 7, Mayers challenging Torres — retribution for Torres’ concussive hit on Marian Hossa in the playoffs last season — was followed by four quick Hawks goals.The Hawks deferred all the credit to Mayers, who wasn’t on the ice for any of them.

Usually, though, it’s just a reason to wake up a sleepy crowd or a sleepwalking team. Usually, it’s two players who don’t factor into the outcome of many games. Usually, it happens in the first two periods, not when the game is on the line. And unless someone is the clear instigator or keeps his visor on during a fight, it usually negates itself. Matching fighting majors don’t even lead to 4-on-4 play; it’s like it never happened.

But the dance continues. The Code endures. Fighters fight on.

‘‘It’s a heated sport,’’ Bickell said. ‘‘If the momentum’s going against you and a coach gives you a tap on the back to change the momentum, you go out and do it. If a guy does something to one of your teammates that you don’t like, you do something about it. It’s just part of the game.’’

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