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NHL goons becoming a dying breed
By the Associated Press. Sun. Nov. 15, 1998.

All it took was a word or even a stare for the gloves to drop. Nearly five minutes later, the ice was covered with blood - as were many of the combatants.

It wasn't too long ago that the NHL was filled with players who punched their way into the league. Even the referees were afraid to break up brawls. Not anymore.

''Back then if a game got out of hand, you'd make a statement for the next game,'' said Buffalo's Rob Ray, one of the few so-called goons left in the NHL. ''Nowadays you just worry about the next game, but back then sometimes you went out and even tried to maim one of them so they wouldn't be able to play the next night.

''There are tough guys now, but not like a few years ago.''

Fighting has decreased by 33% over the past decade. Last season, more than half of the games didn't even have a fight.

''You don't see the brawls the way you did a few years ago,'' said Coyotes general manager Bobby Smith, a prolific scorer who played 15 years in the NHL. ''It seems to me they have diminished - and the stats prove it.'' Dave Brown, a 14-year veteran who retired in 1996 as perhaps the most feared fighter of the '80s, said one of the reasons for the decrease in fighting is that players are now more worried about suspensions.

And they should be. New league disciplinarian Colin Campbell has cracked down on violence, punishing headhunters and cheap-shot artists who hurt other players.

Less than two months into the season, at least a dozen players have already been suspended for a total of more than 30 games.

''The rules restrict what you can do,'' Brown said. ''A bench-clearing brawl would get you a game suspension. Now it gets you 10 games.''

Dave ''Tiger'' Williams, who left the game a decade ago as the most penalized player in NHL history (nearly 4,000 minutes in the box), said players' attitudes have changed.

''They were so much more mentally tough than kids today,'' Williams said. ''Guys didn't fight to look good on the video in the old days. It was all geared to winning the game, but now they do it for the fans - and themselves.''

Instead of fighters, teams now choose multitalented players who can handle themselves. Scuffles generally last less than a minute before being broken up by officials.

Philadelphia's Eric Lindros, the Coyotes' Keith Tkachuk and Edmonton's Bill Guerin fall into the new breed of hockey's tough guys. They're big and aren't afraid to drop the gloves - but they can still put the puck in the net.

Each has scored more than 18 goals each of the past three seasons and the three have been involved in more than 75 fights in that span.

''Those guys are great, tough players,'' Ray said. ''They stand up for themselves. Guys aren't going to mess with them - it's the guys that don't stand up for themselves that you've got to protect.''

Part of Ray's job is to protect goaltender Dominik Hasek, the league's two-time MVP. Ray is still considered one of the top heavyweights in the league, joining fellow veterans Tony Twist, Tie Domi, Bob Probert and Joey Kocur.

There are still a few up-and-comers, including New Jersey's Krzysztof Oliwa and Nashville's Patrick Cote, whose primary job is to go toe-to-toe with the other team's goon.

Veterans such as Probert and Twist and younger players like Oliwa are successful because they can do more than just punch on skates.

Probert once scored 29 goals in a season and Kocur had four in the playoffs last season for the Stanley Cup champion Red Wings.

''It's definitely changed,'' said Buffalo's Matthew Barnaby, who racked up 289 penalty minutes last season and has been in 61 fights over the past three years. ''We used to have guys who they'd just bring out to fight and that was their only job. You can't really carry a guy like that anymore. He has to be able to play the game and not be a liability.''

While there may be fewer goons in the NHL, a decent player who knows how to fight will always be able to slug his way onto the ice.

''There's still a spot for those guys,'' said Boston's Ray Bourque, the longest tenured player in the league. ''They make sure things don't get out of hand and have great work ethic. They bring more than just their fists to the table.''