Fight club: Preds go from weaklings to nasty boys
From left, Preds' tough guys Tomas Kloucek, Wade Brookbank, Robert Schnabel, Jordin Tootoo, Jamie Allison, Jim McKenzie.
Predators right wing Jordin Tootoo, left, and Blues center Mike Danton drop their gloves to fight.
In the span of a few months, Nashville's previously warm-and-fuzzy felines have turned into the rough-and-ready Predators.
The same team that routinely had sand kicked in its face over the years is, hard as it may be to believe, looking a lot more like the boardwalk bully this season.
Heading into tonight's home game against Vancouver, the Predators have already amassed an NHL-high 22 fighting majors, one shy of last season's total.
Sure, last week's nine-fight brawl with the Detroit Red Wings contributed mightily to the cause. But take all nine scraps away and the Predators still would have the second-most fights in the league.
The sudden flood of fisticuffs is much more surprising given that enforcer Jim McKenzie, signed in the summer to provide a physical presence, has yet to play a game because of a knee injury.
That hasn't stopped the rest of the Predators, who have appeared willing to drop the gloves at the drop of a hat.
''I think it's definitely been good for this team because it creates a certain bond and togetherness,'' Predators captain Greg Johnson said. ''You can say what you want about fighting, and I'm certainly not a proponent of violence, especially with kids watching the game. But at the same time, you have to understand that intimidation and aggression are a part of this game.''
So how exactly does a team go from collecting 11.8 penalty minutes per game — 27th out of 30 teams last season — to a league-leading 26 minutes per contest this season?
The answer probably lies in the Predators' off-season moves. They added more beef than Hardee's hamburgers since the end of last season.
McKenzie, a 6-4, 230-pound left wing, was the most notable acquisition. He was joined by the likes of 6-4, 219-pound Wade Brookbank; 6-3, 230-pound Tomas Kloucek; and 6-6, 232-pound Robert Schnabel — all defensemen who spent most of last season in the minors. Also added were two veterans — 6-1, 210-pound defenseman Jamie Allison, 6-1 and 215-pound forward Jeremy Stevenson — and a tank-like rookie forward named Jordin Tootoo, a rock-solid 5-8 and 198 pounds.
Throw in a couple of surly forwards from seasons past in Scott Hartnell and Scott Walker, and you've got the makings of a pretty imposing lineup.
''When we looked at last season, I think we knew we needed to add some grit and some size,'' Predators coach Barry Trotz said. ''We've looked for some more edgy players, and with their styles, it was also important to get guys like McKenzie to give them a little protection.''
The Predators gave an indication of what kind of club they'd be in the season opener, when Brookbank tangled twice with Anaheim heavyweight Garrett Burnett and Walker exchanged haymakers with Todd Simpson.
In the 10 games since then, the Predators have fought at least once in seven, and are averaging a pair of scraps per contest. Brookbank (five fights), Allison (three), Walker (three) and Stevenson (three) lead a group of nine Nashville players who've joined this season's fight club.
The team's smaller and more skilled players say they appreciate the work of their bigger brethren.
''It's definitely the toughest group we've ever had, and that's a good sign for guys like me,'' said defenseman Kimmo Timonen, a 5-10, 196-pound defenseman. ''If something's going on out there, I know someone will be there to back me up.''
Predators general manager David Poile believes the team's increased fighting frequency can also serve to jump-start a sluggish squad or a somber crowd.
''If you have the ability, it's much better to set the tone than to react,'' Poile said. ''With our youth and inexperience, we've often felt our way into games. We decided we had to do more to combat the opposition.''
There are downsides to the increased fighting as well.
Stevenson, for instance, suffered a fractured cheekbone during a fight in Sunday's loss to Dallas and is expected to miss two to three weeks following surgery. Allison, Hartnell and Walker are some of the players who have needed stitches to close bleeding cuts.
''It's no fun to get beat up,'' Hartnell said. ''But you win some, you lose some. It's all part of hockey.''
There's also the tricky challenge of explaining to some fans why hockey players fight at all, let alone so many times. Most other sports automatically eject fighters, while hockey merely hands out five-minute penalties to combatants.
''It's simply a part of the game, at least the way it's played at that level,'' said McKenzie, who's playing in his 15th NHL season. ''In football, you might have Jevon Kearse hammering a quarterback and knocking him out of the game, or in baseball, it might be Roger Clemens drilling a batter who's too close to the plate.
''These are kids' games, but when they're played by adults, the intensity level goes up. Guys are very competitive and they play to win because they know if they don't get results, they'll be gone soon enough.''
The Predators are certainly hoping for some different results this season.
They hope that switching from pacificism to pugilism helps the team's playoff push.
''I think we've got a different identity,'' Johnson said. ''I think we're more hard-nosed and gritty, and we're stirring up some more emotion. Ultimately, we hope it helps us win.''
By the numbers
The Predators have amassed a league-high 22 fighting majors in 11 games this season, leaving them just one fighting major short of their 82-game total from last season. Here's a closer look:
NHL Fighting Majors 2003-04
TEAM NUMBER OF FIGHTING MAJORS
San Jose 12
Predators Fighting Majors By Season
YEAR GAMES NUMBER OF FIGHTING MAJORS
1998-99 82 68
1999-00 82 34
2000-01 82 27
2001-02 82 35
2002-03 82 23
2003-04 11 22*
*11-game total projects to 164 for an 82-game season
Predators Individual Fighting Major Leaders By Season
YEAR NAME NUMBER OF FIGHTING MAJORS
1998-99 Patrick Cote 30
1999-00 Patrick Cote 12
2000-01 Jeremy Stevenson 5
2001-02 Nathan Perrott 9
2002-03 Reid Simpson 8
2003-04 Wade Brookbank 5*
Méschda Hoschbess holy
Brawls. Blood. Mayhem. Philly style. You want it - we got it!
"We drink all their beer, win the game, beat them up and no one go to jail. Good times, eh?"