Enforced out

With fighting down in the NHL, some of the game's toughest players are finding it difficult to remain at hockey's highest levels

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Five years after he last played in the American Hockey League, Paul Bissonnette is back in a familiar place, riding the bus between cities on nobody’s bucket list and staying in budget hotels. However, the similarities end there.

Hockey is evolving and transitioning away from physicality and toward skill and skating. Bissonnette is one of several players whose forte is fighting and who are trying to prove they still have a place in the game.

When training camps opened in September, Bissonnette, a veteran of six NHL seasons, found himself on the outside looking in. He was without a guaranteed contract and in a bind.

Bissonnette, 29, looks the part of an enforcer, standing a hulking 6-foot-2 and 219 pounds, with a crooked nose and a sleeve of tattoos on his left arm. Despite playing a traditionally unheralded role as a grinder and fighter, he became one of the most popular NHL players on Twitter, with more than 600,000 followers thanks to his easy wit and occasionally biting opinions. Like many celebrities, Bissonnette this summer made a video of himself taking the Ice Bucket Challenge to raise awareness and funds for the ALS Association; unlike most celebrities, Bissonnette’s took place in a Speedo, on a mountaintop, with glacier water dropped by a helicopter. “Don’t get stuck on the bench like Bissonnette,” the message warned as it encouraged viewers to join the fight against ALS.

He found his way to St. Louis Blues camp on a tryout but was released just over two weeks later. Three weeks passed, and with the phone not ringing, a real concern began to set in.

“I will say this, it was very stressful,” said Bissonnette, who has seven goals and 340 penalty minutes in 202 games spent primarily with the Arizona Coyotes. “I don’t know what I want to do after hockey.”

He admits his time with the Blues was an eye-opening experience.  While at camp, he was battling with veterans Colin Fraser and Joakim Lindstrom for a roster spot. Fraser, who is listed at 6-foot-1, played a role on three clubs that won the Stanley Cup. Lindstrom, the smallest of the three at 6-feet, appeared in 97 NHL games over five seasons before playing in Sweden for three years. But at the end of camp, Lindstrom wound up on the Blues’ third line, while Fraser landed with St. Louis’ AHL affiliate.

“I was surprised,“ admitted Bissonnette. “I didn’t really realize that when he got to camp that a guy that’s won three Stanley cups and played a lot of good hockey in his day couldn’t even find a one-way (contract) for this season, so it just goes to show how tough times are in the NHL.”

* * *

Ken Holland doesn’t have anything against enforcers. He just doesn’t employ any.

Holland has guided the Red Wings to 17 straight playoff appearances since taking over as the club’s general manager in July 1997. Detroit has won three Stanley Cups under Holland’s leadership. The Red Wings have also finished with the fewest fighting majors in the league in eight of the past nine seasons, according to HockeyFights.com.

“It appears those, what I call them, one dimensional players that all they can really do is fight, those types of players now are … becoming past-tense,” Holland recently said.

Spurred by changes to rules, culture and tactics after the NHL’s two most recent lockouts, fighting has been on the decline over the past decade. The league saw 789 bouts in 1,230 games during the 2003-04 season, a rate of 0.64 per game, according to the HockeyFights.com database. Forty-one percent of games had more than one fight.

After a lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season, the league’s fighting rate nearly halved in 2005-06 — 466 in 1,230 games, or 0.38 per game — before rising back to 734 fights during the 2008-09 season (0.6 per game). But the numbers have again declined since, and there were 469 bouts last season, a rate of 0.38 per game. Those numbers have slightly decreased this season, as fights happened every 0.34 games through play Tuesday. There was more than one fight in 30 percent of games.

“'It appears those, what I call them, one dimensional players that all they can really do is fight, those types of players now are ... becoming past-tense,' says Ken Holland”

In part, these changes are stylistic; teams have begun to value puck possession more than physicality, and whereas a team might carry an enforcer on its fourth line five or 10 years ago, now, general managers like Holland are more inclined to keep a more skilled player.

“You’ve got to play,” Holland said. “The game is fast. Nobody wants to take penalties. It’s a hard league to score in. You hope to get a few goals out of your fourth line. You hope they can eat some minutes off your top forwards just to rest them.”

Holland, 59, played junior hockey in an era when fights were commonplace.

“I’m not against fighting. We prioritize that on our fourth line, we wanted hockey players versus one-dimensional players,” Holland said. “Fighting is in the game. I grew up in an era as a minor league goaltender where, in the Western Hockey League with the Medicine Hat Tigers, where there was lots of fighting. I don’t have anything against fighting, I just want the guys that fight on my team, to be able to play. If you can fight, and you can’t play, we don’t have room for you.”

Paul Bissonnette (AP Photo)

After he was cut by the Blues, Bissonnette was in the process of packing up and heading overseas to play in Cardiff, Wales –where he spent part of the 2012-13 lockout playing.

During a trip to Phoenix to collect some of his belongings, he reconnected with Coyotes general manager Don Maloney. Bissonnette was able to secure a professional tryout with the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate in Portland, Maine. Even there, however, he was caught up in the push toward a new paradigm.

“It’s developed quite a bit especially with a few of the rule changes,” Bissonnette said. “Structure-wise, it’s a lot better than when I played last. The game is very, very coached now and a lot of video is used so it’s definitely a bit different and a lot harder to score goals.”

Bissonnette, who hadn’t played in the AHL since the 2008-09 season, was released on Dec. 8 after eight games in which he failed to register a point or a fight. He was carrying a minus-1 rating.

He quickly found work, signing another professional tryout this time with the Manchester Monarchs, the minor-league affiliate of the L.A. Kings, on Dec. 9. The deal came about mainly because of the organization’s familiarity with Bissonnette. Michael Futa, the Kings’ vice president of hockey operations and director of player personnel, and Mike Stothers, the Monarchs’ head coach, knew Bissonnette from his junior days. Stothers was Bissonnette’s head coach for 35 games with the Owen Sound Attack in 2004-05.

Futa told LA Kings Insider that the organization was looking for a player who was “going to accept his role as a fourth-line grinder, who has played in the National Hockey League who’s going to be a real positive role model.”

“He’s a guy that provides great leadership,” Futa said. He added: “Biz is a really fit guy. He’s a really fun guy in the dressing room.”

Futa did not mention Bissonnette’s fighting skill.

The deal was not without its restrictions. Bissonnette, at the request of Kings GM Dean Lombardi, was to stay off social media. The only tweets Bissonnette sent so far in December were a series thanking the fire department in Welland, Ontario, after his parents’ house caught on fire.

“Tweet-free, just go down and be a role model,” Futa said. “Biz is a special kid. He’s excited about (the chance to play) and hopefully, he can turn it into more than that.”

Bissonnette is not alone in his struggles to find work as a professional hockey player in North America. Many of the game’s tough guys have been forced from NHL rosters as the game has evolved where players are able to stick up for themselves. Enforcers who stick in the league can play significant minutes and contribute on the scoresheet.

Krys Barch, Rich Clune and Zenon Konopka are without NHL jobs. All three finished in the Top 10 in fighting majors last season. In Toronto, the Leafs waived enforcers Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren in October and assigned both to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.

Orr, 32, has 116 career NHL fighting majors and 12 goals in 231 games. McLaren, meanwhile, fought 21 times in 62 games. Due to injuries and the AHL veteran rule, which limits the number of players who have played over 260 professional games, Orr and McLaren have 12 combined AHL appearances this season. Add to that the fact that both players are currently on expiring contracts, and their future in the game is in serious jeopardy.

“When you look at the number of fights and the kind of guys that are looked to do that, numbers are down dramatically. That’s just the way the game has evolved and everyone kind of adjusts accordingly,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “There’s definitely been some change. I think teams just want to make sure that if fighting is down …  they might need something else.”

Renowned heavyweight George Parros announced his retirement in early December after he failed to catch on with a club. At 6-foot-5, 205-pounds, Parros was one of the toughest players of his time, but also the definition of a one-dimensional player. In 474 NHL games over nine seasons, he scored 18 goals and collected 158 fighting majors.

Parros, who was an economics major at Princeton, missed a month during his final NHL season when he suffered a concussion while falling face-first to the ice at the end of a bout with Orr.

“I’ve had a long career, and to stretch it out and go down to the minors, and kind of take that step backwards, I wasn’t prepared to do that, especially with young kids,” Parros told Yahoo! Sports after his retirement. “I’d rather just kind of get on with the rest of my life. I feel like I’ve got a future in hockey, and I’m excited to start that chapter and turn that page”

 * * *

While the number of fights per game is also on the decline, the type of player who fights is also changing. Instead of one player carrying the load as a fighter, teams have spread the responsibilities.

The Boston Bruins call themselves team-tough following the departures of Shawn Thornton and Johnny Boychuk. While the team lost a good deal of toughness, head coach Claude Julien said the team would not be bullied.

“We go out there and play the game and if it’s needed, it’s needed, but you’ve got to realize that we’ve lost a lot of those guys that were doing it before whether it’s the Thorntons and so on and so forth,” Julien said. “I think it’s just a matter of just playing the game. I can tell you one thing, if the opportunity happens, for whatever reason, we’re not going to back down from that stuff and that’s the way the game should be played.”

Bruins forward Milan Lucic, 26, is one of the game’s toughest players. He had 52 career fighting majors entering this season. Lucic, who carries a permanent scowl, is in his eighth season. Despite racking up more than 700 penalty minutes, he has the skill to log heavy minutes for the Bruins and in his career has scored 126 goals and 312 points in 514 games.

“I think that’s what’s gotten me to this point in my career is that I’ve been able to play the game, as well, and play a big role on the team,” said Lucic. “I think that’s the most important part, obviously you want to still continue that part of the game. Being a guy that’s helping the team win and contributing to their success is, I think, the most important thing.”

Lucic recognizes the game has changed since he entered the league during the 2007-08 season. In his rookie campaign he had 13 fighting majors – his highest single-season total to date.

“When you look at a lineup now … it’s not like what it used to be,” he said.  “It is going in a bit of a different direction, but I still think that fighting has a place in the game because it allows the players to police themselves. It’s in the back of guys’ minds, if you’re going to cheap shot a guy, that there can still be consequence to that. I think that’s a good thing to have.”

Milan Lucic (Getty Images)

Bissonnette, not surprisingly, doesn’t believe the team-tough concept is ideal.

“You’ve seen it so far this year especially with people getting under (Lucic’s) skin,” Bissonnette said. “Where before maybe Shawn Thornton would deal with that for him, he wouldn’t have to worry about that, he could just focus on playing. Now, he’s got to kind of worry about protecting the guys as well as doing the rest of it.”

Even enforcers who still have NHL jobs are finding it hard to get on the ice.

Vancouver Canucks winger Tom Sestito led the league with 19 fighting majors last season.  He missed the first 10 games of the season as a healthy scratch, played in two games before being sidelined for 14 due to injury. Following a conditioning assignment in the AHL, he’s looking for his first game since Nov.2. In his absence Derek Dorsett has turned into a nice surprise.

Dorsett was 16th in the league with 10 fighting majors last season. He already has six this season but has four goals and 10 points in 27 games. He has surpassed the eight points he had in 51 games with the Rangers last season and is on pace to pass his career-best 12-goal, 20-point campaign he put together during the 2011-12 season while with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 27-year-old has seen a change in the enforcer role since he broke into the league with 12 fighting majors during the 2008-09 season.

“The game is changing. You don’t see as many staged fights and you don’t see many guys where (fighting) is just their role on the team,” he said. “Obviously, you’ve got to pick your spots, especially now the way things have evolved and the way penalties are being called and whatnot. You’ve always got to make sure you do it at the right times and you don’t want to put your team down.

“It’s a little bit more strategic now than when I first broke into the league.”

 * * *

Originally a fourth-round selection of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2003, Bissonnette bristles at the suggestion that he’s only good for fighting.

“I don’t think I’m one-dimensional. I believe I can play,” he said. “Last year my statistics weren’t horrible and I played at a high level most of my life, but saying that, I always knew I was a borderline guy.”

Bissonnette’s tryout contract allows him to play a maximum of 25 games. The minimum salary in the AHL is slightly more than $42,000, which is less than one-tenth of the NHL minimum of $550,000. He made $725,000 last season and has career earnings of more than $5 million, according to CapGeek.

His goal is to earn a contract for the season at the AHL level and try and work his way back to the NHL, but, if it doesn’t work out, he’s just as happy to return to Cardiff.

“Could I have signed a deal in the East Coast Hockey League? I’m sure, somewhere,” he said. “I’d rather go over (to Cardiff), play half the games and (go) to a place where I really enjoy myself. I love the game of hockey and I love trying to get better, but the last time I remember having fun playing hockey … it’s been a while.”

“'I always knew I was a borderline guy,' says Paul Bissonnette”

He had six goals and 19 points in 10 games while playing overseas in 2012-13.

Bissonnette admits while in North America, he’s playing just to not make mistakes.

“It’s a stressful job where you’re getting yelled at a lot. The money is great, there’s no denying that, but in Cardiff, if I made a mistake, I got to play the next shift and go out there,” he said. “That’s when hockey is fun. For me, a guy who is a fourth line guy, you’re basically playing not to make a mistake. I was playing 5-6 minutes a game in Phoenix. I loved my teammates, I loved playing hockey, and I loved my coaches, too, but that was my role. When you’re going out there playing just to … make sure you don’t get scored on and playing not to make mistakes, it’s not really fun.”

Many of Bissonnette’s colleagues are already looking for work after hockey. He said he was approached to do some television work while waiting for a contract this season.

“I got some phone calls on maybe doing some media, on the hockey side of things, but I don’t know if I want to be bashing guys on television who I played with or against, who were better than me,” said Bissonnette. “I don’t know if that’s me. I was really close with the guys that I played with; I don’t want to be on (television) critiquing their game.

“I don’t really want to walk that fine line of being a sellout.”

If the AHL route doesn’t work out for Bissonnette this season, it appears he’ll head back overseas. He’s not ready to give up hockey.

“It’s hard when you’ve invested your whole life into one thing. I didn’t go to school so I don’t have an education to fall back on,” he said. “Do I think the connections I’ve made and me being a people person has helped me? Of course.

“But saying that, it’s a short life, you want to do something that you’re passionate about. Other than hockey, I don’t really know what that is right now.”