April 23rd, 2024

Goalie fights, often a crowd favourite, have almost completely disappeared from the NHL

By Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press on March 1, 2024.

Watching fights between Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon and Ron Hextall and Felix Potvin in the 1990s, Martin Biron recalled, he always wanted to be the goaltender who could win a bout as the spunky underdog.

Then he got into one against Ray Emery and asked himself, “What were you thinking?”

Two decades since Robert Esche and Patrick Lalime went at it as part of the Philadelphia Flyers-Ottawa Senators brawl that set the NHL record for penalty minutes, goalie fighting has essentially disappeared from the league. There has not been one since before the pandemic, and only three have taken place over the past 10 years. The disappearance of two heavily padded goalies trading blows is due to the fact there are almost no teamwide slugfests anymore, prohibitive rules and fewer netminders willing to take the risks.

“I think goalies have gotten smarter and they’re like, no, there’s no reason to get in a fight,” Biron said. “Fighting is not as prevalent as it once was, and you don’t have the kind of brawls that we used to have sometimes where you’re like, “˜OK, I’m going to join in.'”

Biron and Emery in 2007 is one of just seven goalie vs. goalie fights since the 2004-05 lockout and 43 overall dating to 1954, according to HockeyFights.com (there are 141 other times where at least one goalie was involved in a tussle). The vast majority of these unusual crowd favourites came between the late ’70s and late ’90s during an era when masked men with an edge were all over the place, from Hextall, Potvin and Roy to Hall of Famer Billy Smith, Steve Shields and Sean Burke.

“There had to be at least 80 fights a year, so the opportunity was at least once a night for something to break out to extend beyond two guys fighting,” said retired goaltender Glen Hanlon, who got into five scraps in the NHL, including two against another goalie. “Back then, watching the two turtles race to centre ice to have a fight didn’t seem that crazy and it was a lot of excitement. There was a lot more squaring off, a lot more 5-on-5 fighting – just a bunch more situations.”

Not anymore. The most recent NHL goalie fight was between Edmonton’s Mike Smith and Calgary’s Cam Talbot on Feb. 1, 2020.

A couple of Stanley Cup winning-goalies, Jordan Binnington and Marc-Andre Fleury, tried to throw down during a game between St. Louis and Minnesota in March 2023, but officials prevented it from happening. Binnington was ejected and suspended two games for throwing a punch at a Wild forward.

“If you’re going for it, you’re going for it,” said Binnington, who lost $65,000 in salary as a result. “Last year was close. And I feel like the linesmen have been told to really not let it happen, which is understandable. They’re doing their job, and that’s what the NHL wants.”

It is an automatic ejection to cross the centre red line for a fight along with the potential for fines and suspensions. No team wants to lose a goalie over a fight.

After Emery skated the length of the rink to fight Braden Holtby during an early-season Washington blowout of Philadelphia in 2013, Commissioner Gary Bettman brought up the topic when he saw Emery at the White House for the celebration of Chicago’s championship the previous season.

“So just hypothetically, if there was a rule that said if you cross the red line to get into a fight with the other goaltender and you get a 10-game suspension, would you have done it?” Bettman asked Emery.

“What?” Emery replied. “Are you crazy?”

No such rule exists, but even the thought of being tossed from an important game and risking the consequences of an injury to your replacement is enough to dissuade goalies from fighting.

“There’s so much parity in the sport right now that every game matters so much,” Esche said. “It’s tough to put yourself in a position to have to fight as a goalie.”

Esche, now president of the American Hockey League’s Utica Comets, thinks there are plenty of goalies who would want to fight, if the opportunity existed. So many of them grew up watching Don Cherry’s “”˜Rock’Em Sock’em’ Hockey” videos or have checked out goalie fights on YouTube.

In his younger days, Darcy Kuemper would watch those videos before games to get pumped up. Fellow Capitals goalie Charlie Lindgren can rattle off some of the classics like they’re Ali-Frazier.

“They’re very memorable when you see goalies go at it,” Lindgren said. “Even going back to juniors, my junior partner got into a fight with our rival team. That was a full-out line brawl, and obviously sitting and watching that close was really cool. Certainly something I’ll never forget. When it happens, it’s exciting, and I’m sure all the fans love it, too.”

Parents? Not so much. Biron’s son, Jacob, is a 19-year-old goaltender who has worked on fighting techniques with teammates after practice – just in case, Dad – only to be met with a stern rebuke.

“I’m like: “˜Please don’t,'” Biron said. “You’re going to get either hurt by taking a punch or hurt by giving out a punch. And he laughs. But I’m like: “˜Do as I say, not what I did. Don’t even think about it.'”

That said, Biron acknowledges he would react differently if his teammate got caught with a dirty hit and a brawl broke out.

“The fierce competitor and the teammate and the person that’s like that in me would be like, “˜Look out, I’m coming in again,'” Biron said. “And that’s stupid, but I think if I was in that same situation, I’d probably do the same thing.”

Binnington, the Blues goalie, said he doesn’t think goalie fighting will ever become extinct. Neither does retired goalie Michael Leighton, whose fights were limited to juniors and the minor leagues.

“Goalies get intense, too,” he said. “Some guy takes an extra whack at you or there’s a bunch of guys fighting, you just get intense and fight once in a while.”


AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl

Share this story:

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments