The dinosaurs of the NHL aren't dead

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI

, Last Updated: 9:37 AM ET

The dinosaurs are pleased to announce that news of their death has been greatly exaggerated.

National Hockey League beat cops had one foot in the grave when this season began and it had been widely accepted that another year in the kinder, gentler and faster post-lockout era would be the end of them for good.

Well, you might want to hold off on the dirt and shovels. Turns out the Tough Guy and Enforcer's Union is still kicking. Or, at least punching.

In just the last two weeks alone, Buffalo and Ottawa illustrated unequivocally the value (not to mention the overwhelming popularity) of a tough guy taking care of business.

And the NHL, in a useless, but nevertheless symbolic gesture, eased its stance on cumulative instigator penalties. Why, if there's no place in the game for a heavyweight, was the NHL's marquee team so bent on getting Georges Laraque?

Stars being abused

"They didn't come and get me for my points, or because I'm plus-7," said the left-handed, 245-pound bruiser, acquired by Pittsburgh at the trade deadline. "They got me because they have a lot of young stars who are being abused and they need to address it before anything else happens."

By address, he means punch people in the face. It's the kind of frontier justice that, according to some media milksops - their frightened souls still stinging from those elementary school dodgeball welts - no longer has a place in hockey.

But according to the people who play the game and buy the tickets, it does.

"You ask the skill players and almost to a man they want to eliminate the instigator rule completely," said Marty McSorley, who had a big hand in keeping the Edmonton Oilers safe and secure on their way to Stanley Cup titles in 1987 and 1988.

"The enforcers don't bother them, they look after them, and the instigator penalty makes that harder to do."

Still relevant

But he says Laraque in Pittsburgh is every bit as relevant today as Dave Semenko was in 1980s Edmonton, or John Ferguson was in 1960s Montreal.

"It's a big necessity. It's imperative," said McSorley. "You can't have third-line players going on the ice to try and bring Sidney Crosby's talent level down. Your great players can't get beat up for 82 games. You just can't let it happen.

"I know that's what the new rules are supposed to do, but let's not kid ourselves - the rules can't govern the game totally."

Not when one of the most dangerous elements in the NHL today, one that's sent more players to the infirmary than anything else, is the perfectly legal hit.

Players are bigger and stronger and faster than they were a decade ago.

And many of them, thanks to the instigator rule and a post-lockout decline in enforcers, spend entire shifts ignoring the puck and hitting to hurt.

In the old days they called it "running around" and enforcers were there to make sure it stopped.

Now, teams are scraping players off the ice every week, and there is nothing the league can do about it. It's pale consolation when you lose someone to a legal head shot instead of a cheap shot.

Pens GM Ray Shero calls the Laraque deal a preemptive strike.

"Laraque is the toughest guy in the league," he said. "And he'll bring instant credibility to our team."

Death of the dinosaur? Wayne Gretzky says they're as vital now as they ever were.

"The guys who've become the most dangerous are the guys who aren't really tough," the Phoenix coach told TSN.

"With Georges Laraque on your team, they're not going to take those extra liberties with Sidney Crosby.

"Sure, the tough guys are still going to play them physical, and the guys who show up every day and play hard are still going to do that, but what Georges Laraque eliminates are the guys who aren't tough taking runs at players like Sidney Crosby."


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