A weird thing happened over the weekend: Don Cherry, that great defender of toughness in hockey, actually called the Canucks tough. I’m not joking. It actually happened.
The main (and only) reason that this is significant is that Cherry is the king of the surface-level observation. He seems to look at something once, get an impression, and immediately have a take. If Cherry’s first impression is that the Canucks are a tougher team and that “Boston’s not going to push them around any more” that is a positive for the Canucks, because that means that other teams are getting that same impression. If “toughness” and “Canucks” can be put together in people’s minds more often, that can only benefit the team.
Mike Gillis and Alain Vigneault have repeatedly talked about not changing their style of play for one opponent, but they did seem to make a concerted effort in the off-season of improving the size and toughness of their fourth line, claiming Dale Weise off waivers, signing Steve Pinizzotto and Byron Bitz, and keeping Aaron Volpatti with the team after training camp.
But the biggest change has come from Maxim Lapierre, who has been criticized throughout his career of not backing up his mouth. Lapierre is the consummate agitator, who has used smack talk, cheap shots, and diving in the past to get under the skin of his opponents and provoke penalties, but he has been vilified for not dropping the gloves when the opportunity arose. Before this season, his career-high in fights was 4 back in 2008-09, but that included a scrum where he received a fighting major and his supposed opponent, Milan Lucic, didn’t.
This season, Lapierre already has 7 fights, tied for the team lead with Dale Weise. It’s not just that he’s fighting; he’s clearly been encouraged to do so. In the process, he’s losing the “rat” label; you’ll notice that Lapierre is one of the players that Cherry mentions as being a sign of the Canucks’ toughness.
Is Lapierre a good fighter? Nope. Not in the slightest. But the Canucks had a PR problem: they were being seen as a soft, diving team. In order to change that impression, they needed to show the typical trope of toughness: fighting. The Canucks have 34 fighting majors so far this season, which is already 5 more than they had all of last year. They are second in the Western Conference in fights and sixth in the league.
Here’s the kicker, though: the Canucks have increased their number of fights without sacrificing any skill. Aaron Volpatti was arguably the only player that the Canucks added to the lineup strictly for toughness rather than talent, but he wasn’t a scrub either. Bitz immediately put up points when he was called up, to the point that he spent time alongside the Sedins. Weise has been defensively responsible as a consistent winger for Lapierre and Malhotra. The first priority has still been the ability to play hockey and not the ability to fight.
Here are the Top 5 Fights so far this season. You’ll be able to tell that the fighting talent isn’t exactly prime, but the willingness and gumption are there.
Honourable mention: Aaron Volpatti vs. Brad Winchester, September 29, 2011 (preseason)
While this doesn’t make the cut since it was from the preseason, it’s still impressive. Aaron Volpatti made the team out of training camp essentially on the basis of this one punch. Taking on Brad Winchester, an experienced pugilist with 10 fights in each of his last two seasons, Volpatti caught him with a hard right to the jaw, dropping him immediately. Winchester was still able to earn a contract with the Sharks a few days later and the two had a re-match on November 26th in which Winchester fared much better.
5) Byron Bitz vs. Cody McLeod, February 4, 2012
This is the closest you will see to a heavyweight bout on this list, as Byron Bitz takes on Cody McLeod in his first game with the Canucks. While it’s mostly a wrestling match (though not as much as their fight a few games later), the few punches that land are significant, including one that opens a large cut over McLeod’s left eyebrow. It was a taste of what Bitz can bring to the table…when he’s healthy.
4) Aaron Volpatti vs. Andy Sutton, October 15, 2011
This is a quick fight, but it’s a doozy, as Volpatti loses his balance early, but recover quickly to knock down the larger Sutton not once, but twice. Volpatti’s punching power was impressive, but I have to admit that the main reason I like this one is that it led me to watch the much smaller Rick Rypien’s fight with Sutton, resulting in a trip down memory lane as I watched some of Rypien’s best, including his David and Goliath tilt with Hal Gill.
3) Keith Ballard vs. Colin Fraser, January 17, 2012
This one gets by on the sheer entertainment value of seeing Ballard’s head completely swaddled by his jersey. And yet, Ballard kept throwing punches and ultimately won the fight, despite looking like he was invited to a Halloween part at the last minute and threw together a lame elephant costume. Kudos as well to Ballard for removing his visored helmet prior to the fight.
2) Dale Weise vs. Nathan Horton, January 7, 2012
This bout gets extra credit for being the only actual fight to result from the line brawl in the hard-fought game against the Boston Bruins. It’s a wild and woolly one that lasts nearly a full minute, with plenty of punches thrown. There was a lot of emotion in this fight, which isn’t too surprising for Horton, who was likely none too pleased about being knocked out of the Stanley Cup Final, but is a bit surprising for Weise, who wasn’t even on the team at the time.
1) Kevin Bieksa vs. Jamal Mayers, November 6, 2011
This is an absolutely frenetic fight. At times, Bieksa and Mayers look like sped-up stop-motion animation. They both threw some big punches and both seemed to connect, but it’s Bieksa who scores the takedown against the more experienced Mayers. Those who claim that Bieksa picks his spots and doesn’t fight tough players can look to this as a counter-example: Mayers is 6’2″ and has a lot of NHL fights under his belt, but Bieksa more than holds his own.
Tags: Ballard, Bieksa, Blogs are for lists, Byron Bitz, fight fight fight, fighting, Hockey fights, The YouTubes, volpatti, weise