I vividly remember the first hockey fight I ever saw in person.
It was April 29, 2003 and I was in the stands for Game 3 of the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Minnesota Wild were playing the Vancouver Canucks (the Wild would eventually take the series in seven games to advance to the Western Conference Final.) The tension had been building between the two teams throughout the season and ran over into the playoffs. Minnesota enforcer Matt Johnson and Vancouver pest Brad May had spent the pre-game skate eyeing each other, occasionally exchanging words. The ref dropped the puck for the opening face off and seven seconds later the two players dropped their gloves. The crowd, already high on the surprising success of the Wild and excitement of the playoffs, gasped and roared with every punch thrown.
The role of enforcer can be traced throughout the NHL, with plenty of debate following it. The role of fighting in hockey has been questioned and the usefulness of "goons" put under a microscope. The Minnesota Wild have seen a fluctuation of team scrappiness throughout their brief history, but always had a top fighter. But this off-season, the team said goodbye to a heavyweight and one of the top fighters currently in the NHL in Derek Boogaard, seemingly leaving them without an enforcer for one of the first times in franchise history.
Johnson didn't stay in the NHL after the 2004-2005 lockout season, but he was with the Wild from the team's start. He had 61 regular season fights over four seasons with the Wild, according to hockeyfights.com. He was also a leader on the team, serving as captain in 2002 under Jacques Lemaire's rotating captaincy system. While Johnson isn't a storied name in the history of NHL brawlers, he held his own and played his role well for the Wild. His career in Minnesota carved out the enforcer role for the team, leaving it in the rather large fists of a player fans know well, Derek Boogaard.
Everything about Boogaard fits the two-folded enforcer/fan favorite role. He's big: listed at 6'8'' and 257 pounds. His fists: see Todd Fedoruk's face. His name: the Boogeyman fits the ominous role he plays while fans love to chant "Booooogaard." His personality: he dominates opponents, but off the ice Boogaard's friendliness a teddy bear-like demeanor had fans warming up to him immediately.
He made the team in the 2005-2006 season, playing 65 games, scoring two goals and racking up 158 penalty minutes. In his rookie season, he had 16 fights, according to hockeyfights.com. Boogaard soon became a premiere NHL heavyweight, proving that he could exchange punches with the best.
But as he became more well known, he also became more feared on the ice. Fewer players wanted to fight him and Boogaard's presence became more of an intimidation factor than anything. The 65 games he played with the Wild in 2005-2006 were the most he would ever play with the team in one season. Same with goals, points and penalty minutes. Boogaard hasn't scored a goal since that season. With no players wanting to fight him, a lack of point production and some injuries, Boogaard's playing time continued to shrink. Todd Richards' faster, more energetic system highlighted a need for quick skaters and point production from the lower lines. Boogaard just didn't fit in anymore.
On July 1, Boogaard signed a four-year, $1.65 million deal with the New York Rangers. While Wild fans have gotten used to always having Boogaard around, he had become more of a safety net - not playing very much but there in case we ever need him, giving us comfort that if anyone messed with out skilled guys, there was someone who could deal with it. As Bryan summed up on this blog after the signing, Boogaard's a good guy and we're happy that he got a nice contract, we're just glad the Wild won't be the ones paying him. Wild fans will still love Boogaard for everything he did for the team and being the nice guy who we could feel protected by, even though we weren't the ones on the ice.
Boogaard's spot on the Wild will be taken next season by someone else, but not someone with the same enforcer status. The toughness will have to be shared among the players and we'll find out how that works for them. Although, depending on his play, the brunt of the fighting may fall upon new Wild member Brad Staubitz, formerly of the San Jose Sharks. Staubitz has bounced in between the Sharks and their AHL affiliate for the past two seasons, playing 35 and 47 games respectively. His point production isn't amazing, but he has been a steady defenseman, posting an even +/- during his time in the NHL.
Along with Staubitz, players like Clayton Stoner, Cal Clutterbuck and Eric Nystrom have all fought before, and even Brent Burns has been in a few scraps (everyone remember the 2007 playoffs?) While the shadow of the Boogeyman is no longer hanging over opponents' heads when they play the Wild, it doesn't mean that all of a sudden there will be cheap shots galore.
While the Wild are now without a heavyweight enforcer, they'll be okay. They have a few guys who can drop the gloves, and a player who can put some points on the board will be more valuable in the new Wild system than someone who is either sitting on the bench most of the game of in the press box.