What We Mean When We Say We Love Chris Neil

USA TODAY Sports

The Ottawa Senators have always been comfortable employing a certain type of player. Goons, fighters, or enforcers; for some they're just plan dirty. When the Sens joined the league the hockey landscape was different than today. In an era when boxing was still relevant, fighting was much more common than it is in today's NHL. It was a period in which Don Cherry's Rock'em Sock'em Hockey VHS series was still new and fighters like Tie Domi, Rob Ray and Stu Grimson were routinely among the league leaders in fights. Joe Louis Arena was home to heavyweight Bob Probert, a former NHL All-Star who had 29 goals and 398 PIM when he was 22 years-old and continued to play with the same edge. In the season before the Sens joined the league, 46 players had 10 or more fights - three had over 30 fights that year.

And yet, in some ways the NHL was cleaning-up. The heyday of the enforcer - the 1990s - came as the insanity of the 1970s and 1980s drew to a close. While the NHL has always had players willing to fight, the 70s and 80s were characterized by line brawls, bench-clearing incidents and infamous scenes in which the violence spread to the stands and inspired (and may have been inspired by) the movie Slap Shot. However, as the NHL tried to reduce the bad press created by the brawling of the previous era, prize fights were encouraged. The evolution of physicality in the NHL in the late 1980s and 1990s was defined by the enforcer. This was the era of the Chuck Norris division, the nickname given to the Norris division because every team boasted big-name enforcers (Bob Probert and Joey Kocur in Detroit, Mike Peluso and Bob Probert for the Blackhawks, Basil McRae and Shane Churla in Minnesota, Kelly Chase and Basil McRae for the Blues, and John Kordic, Ken Baumgartner and Tie Domi for the Maple Leafs). Divisional playoff matches served to push these hatreds beyond their boiling points.

You could argue that rapid expansion in both eras contributed to short-term talent decreases and provided opportunities for less skilled players who were willing to do anything to help the team. In the 1970s this was exacerbated by the success of the WHA. The 1990s were punctuated by two expansion cycles: the early 90s saw the San Jose Sharks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Senators, Anaheim Mighty Ducks, and Florida Panthers join the league in quick succession and by the end of the decade the Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers, Minnesota Wild, and Columbus Blue Jackets were also added. Numbers swelled, clutch-and-grab dominated, scoring decreased and fighting was celebrated.

This is the era in which the Senators' first generation of fans grew up. Ten-year-olds who greeted the announcement of an expansion team in Ottawa with glee may not have been familiar with all of the names on the inaugural team sheet but were familiar with the relationship between hockey and fighting if they had followed the game at all. If you're around my age (late 20s) you spent your childhood Saturday nights seeing at least a couple fights each week punctuated with HNIC's intermissions and Don Cherry's pontifications in support of the enforcer.

***

I hate fighting. In life and in hockey.

This should be made clear before I go any further. I understand the arguments for its inclusion in the sport, I simply do not agree with them. From a sporting perspective, I watch hockey for hockey. The aspects of the game that make hockey great in my opinion (the crazy mixture of skill, speed, and strength needed in addition to being able to skate) don't have anything to do with fighting. I want to see great goals and glove-saves but never bare knuckles. I want my team's roster to be filled with skilled players who make highlight-reel plays instead of pugilists who can't contribute to the offensive or defensive game.

Moreover, I hate fighting because I don't want to watch someone die.

I hate blindside hits and hits to the head for the same reason. Ruining someone's quality of life is not entertainment. If you want to watch fighting there's UFC and boxing is still sort of a thing. Even those sports realize if someone goes down for the count, landing on a mat is preferable. I never want to see a guy's skull hit the ice.

I hate what happens to a crowd when a fight breaks out on the ice. Everyone jumps up, emotions rise, and some enjoy it a little too much. The mixture of adrenaline and alcohol in the crowd is amplified when a fight breaks out and sometimes the results aren't pretty. We all saw what happened to Dave Dziurzynski last week. For many of us it was a worrying scene: a player knocked-out and lying motionless on the ice, the result of a punch. Yet for some inside the Air Canada Centre it was a moment of revelry; chants of "Go Leafs Go" clearly audible on the TSN broadcast as an injured Dziurzynski was helped off the ice. It's not just Leafs fans; any NHL crowd is prone to such an outburst following a fight.

We're not merely spectators. Our positive reactions as fans help perpetuate the typical narratives about the value of fighting. The role of fighting and enforcers has evolved over the past few decades, so too should our responses.

I hate fighting. But other people love it. For some fans it's the best part of the game.

What's more, fighting and the men who drop the gloves are important to a lot of Sens fans. At times a polarizing issue, fighting is nonetheless part of this team and its history and can't be ignored just because I hate it. If you've been kind enough to read my work in the past, you may have noticed that I am particularly interested in issues of history, identity and fandom in hockey. Fighting bridges these interests and defines them for some. At the very least, it's worth a look.

***

The Sens have always had fighters on the roster. In their inaugural season, there was Mike Peluso: a player who racked up 24 fighting majors in 1992-1993, second only to Warren Rychel in the whole league. Peluso chipped in offensively for the scoring deficient side - 15 goals and 25 points in 81 games, career highs for the player. His 318 penalty minutes recorded that season is still a team record, the next closest season total is more than 40 PIMs less.

On a team that was one of the worst in the history of the NHL, winning just 10 games and earning only 24 points, Peluso was a fan favourite. As the losses mounted there was little to get excited about at the Civic Centre except for the possibility of Peluso dropping the gloves. The team had no stars, no top draft picks, no statistically leaders except Peluso, the man willing to drop his gloves and sit in the box a record amount for a team of castoffs and journeymen. Some hockey fans wouldn't consider anyone on that 1992-1993 worth protecting but Peluso often did. As fellow Sens blogger (Black Aces) Jeremy Milks puts it:

"Think of that first year team - everyone thought the fan favourites would be the slick Sylvain Turgeon and Norm MacIver. Instead it was longhaired tough guy Mike Peluso who ended up with 318 penalty minutes (and dated Alanis [Morrisette] that year), as well as Darcy Loewen who was second with 145 PIM's. Loewen was actually similar to Neil in that he hustled non-stop, hit everything that moved and never backed down from a challenge. He was also only 5'10 and 185 pounds soaking wet and fans would chant his name when he started hitting three or four guys on one pinball-esque shift."

In those expansion era players, Peluso and Loewen, we see the blueprint for Chris Neil. While Peluso played just one season for the Senators, he was quickly replaced by Dennis Vial. Vial didn't contribute offensively like Peluso but he did drop his gloves just as frequently. With 22 fights in 1993-1994 and 30 fights in 1995-1996, including 8 fights with Rob Ray during Vial's first three seasons in Ottawa, Vial was one of Ottawa's most frequently-used goons.

Many fans looked to Peluso and Vial for a different identity.

Those early teams struggled mightily on the ice. Rather than be characterized by losing teams or controversial players, some Ottawa fans looked to enforcers, goons, and to players who would go down swinging. As losses mount, it's easier to see the effort from the players who throw punches and take hits, harder still to see the effort of those who don't. It makes sense that many fans loved Ottawa's enforcers.

The team's play in those first four seasons made rivalries difficult. The Sens played in the same division as their closest geographic rival the Montreal Canadiens, recent Cup-winners who focused divisional hatred on provincial rivals the Nordiques and traditional enemies from Boston. The Battle of Ontario didn't exist. The Sens played in the Adams division, the Leafs in the Norris. When divisions were renamed and conferences realigned, the Leafs were still a Western Conference team. It wasn't until 1998-1999 that Toronto would become a divisional rival. While the Battle of Ontario developed in large part because of successive playoff match-ups, those match-ups occurred as the two teams played each other significantly more during the regular season, which helped to maintain the rivalry year after year.

In this context, Ottawa's early fighters, enforcers, and goons helped foster the club's initial rivalries. Dennis Vial's frequent dust-ups with Rob Ray created divisional tension and interest at a time when there were few Sens talking points. And while Peluso and Vial didn't always win, their defence of teammates and the uniform appealed to many.

***

From the beginning there was always media support for this type of hockey in the capital. In 1992 there were no Sens blogs, Sportsnet didn't exist and sports radio wouldn't arrive until the late 90s. Sens fans relied on print media - the Ottawa Citizen and Ottawa Sun - for team-related discussion. Sens reporters Bruce Garrioch and Don Brennan have been there since Day One. The pair have consistently advocated for teams comprised of physical players and fighters, in which "team toughness" is a trait that wins hockey games, especially in the playoffs.

Their early hold on the Sens reading public has undoubtedly shaped the minds and opinions of many Sens fans. Their celebration of tough guys and fighters continues, and their more recent support of players like Zenon Konopka and Matt Carkner is just a continuation of the support Neil has enjoyed throughout his career.

Whatever I might think about their opinions and analysis, Garrioch and Brennan are prominent popular voices in the Ottawa sports scene and have always had a wide circulation.

***

But why should this still be the case?

In the intervening years, sports media options have multiplied; blogs and podcasts now compete with traditional print media, sports radio, and increased television coverage for fans' attentions. Correspondingly, there has been an increase of perspectives on what makes a hockey team successful.

The Sens teams of the past 15 years have been a mixture of dominating and heartbreaking but have not lacked for story lines. In the midst of a mini-rebuild, several worthy narratives have emerged. Why would you cheer for someone to drop the gloves when you can anticipate Erik Karlsson's return, revel in the greatest goaltending performances this franchise has ever seen, or reflection on the twilight of Daniel Alfredsson's career?

If toughness and fighting provided the team's initial identity in a challenging expansion period, surely that identity should have been shed years ago? Just as the team evolved and matured, so, too, should its fans.

***

Neil is undoubtedly Ottawa's most successful enforcer. He's been in Ottawa the longest, made the biggest impact on the team, and evolved into one of the team's elder statesmen. Yet in some ways, his ability to stay in the Sens lineup through organizational change and the evolution of the game presented a greater challenged than those faced by the fighters of the 1990s, entrenched on bad teams steeped in a culture of enforcement and physical retribution. This ideological shift marks Neil as different; as Milks puts it:

"Chris Neil operates in a very different atmosphere than fighters that came before him in Ottawa, especially since the lockout. [...] The league is too good now to have a guy who can't skate well enough to forecheck in a modern system. "

Neil has certainly been a fighter throughout his career. He's reached double digits in fights in seven different seasons during his career, including 24 in 2003-2004, the third-highest total of in the NHL that season.

But he's not merely a fighter. On five separate occasions he's reached double-figures in goals and he's recorded more than 25 points in a season three times. He takes regular shifts. He plays on the powerplay. He's evolved as a player and matured, stepping into a leadership role with the club. His responsibilities have grown. He is most definitely a modern fighter - capable of playing the puck and dropping the gloves.

In some ways players like Neil are more relatable for the average fan. If we imagine ourselves suiting up for the Sens it's hard to imagine we have the skill of a player like Erik Karlsson or Jason Spezza, it's somewhat easier to imagine we would be a player like Neil: can chip in here and there, but will do anything for our teammates and team. Fights are often undertaken to get the crowd more involved in the game. In this sense, Neil has a more direct relationship with the fans than most players; his arm-waving pump-up after winning a tilt is a furthering of that interaction. I might hate it, but many roar when Neil encourages them.

***

What remains to be seen is why we defend Neil.

Celebrate him if you like his style of play. Recall his fights fondly and rejoice in his big hits. But why embrace his style of play and then becomes defensive when he is called out for it? Chris Neil is not without his faults.

Many teams have players like Neil. They skirt the line of what is acceptable and what is not; sometimes they play within the boundaries of the game, occasionally they do not. This is the reality across the league. This is what they do. Accept the bad if you want to enjoy the good players like Neil bring. While many Sens fans correctly point out that Neil has never been suspended - a testament to his ability to adapt his game to the changes in the game - he has several questionable hits on his record. While not illegal for the standards of the time, hits to Chris Drury, Mark Eaton, and Andy McDonald to name a few, are viewed as dirty by many.

As the use of advanced statistics becomes more and more common in hockey analysis, terms like "intangibles" are used to defend players like Neil. Neil's intangibles matter: many Sens fans admire the fact that he keeps his teammates accountable, whether it's with comments in a post-game interview or with a fight in practice. A large portion of the Ottawa fan base also appreciates his willingness to stand-up for any member of the team. I remember him stating at the Sens golf tournament in 2009 that if Dany Heatley didn't want to play for the team, the team didn't want him either. It was what many of us were feeling and most of us wanted to hear.

Yet why do his intangibles matter more than others? There's plenty of reason to question the merit of what he brings. Sometimes he's simply reckless and puts him team behind with penalties. Sometimes he fights for no reason. Often his tilts result in nothing but bloody knuckles. This is why people question his worth. I get why the things Neil brings to the team are appreciated by his teammates. Life is better when you have people on your side, when you have people who will stand up for you.

But I'm not his teammate.

Fans aren't in the dressing room or on the ice. I don't really care if I guy holds his teammates accountable in practice. But I do wonder how necessary it is. While the Sens are in the middle of a rebuild, they left key veterans in place. In addition, they hired a coach who excels at communicating and rewards players for execution. What's more, being "good in the room" is not a rare commodity; it's more rule than exception. Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson are good in the room. I'm sure Daniel Alfredsson is revered in the room. It takes more than that to be valuable to a hockey team. There is a perception among some fans that gritty players hold a monopoly on commitment and heart. I don't see it. Alfie and Andy showed plenty of emotion in last season's playoff loss to the Rangers.

Yes, Neil is a leader on this team. But it's not as if the Senators have a leadership vacuum. Does anyone really believe all that Daniel Alfredsson offers in terms of leadership is encapsulated in the "C"? Does anyone really think that the humble, middle-aged winger is not the heart and soul of this team; not, in fact, heart and soul guys like Neil? If we don't see everything Neil contributes to this team, we don't see everything Daniel Alfredsson does. The mentorship and guidance will serve players like Mika Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg far longer than Neil's methods of accountability. While Daniel Alfredsson is still the heart of this team, Erik Karlsson is unquestionably this team's on ice leader. Everything flows through him. The system is designed around him. He dictates the play of all others around him. While possession stats are giving hockey fans a better idea of just how dominant he is, we still don't have a full sense of Karlsson's ability.

***

For many, hockey is governed by a code. Enforcers fight other enforcers, teammates stick up for teammates. The NHLPA as a whole defends the role of fighting in the game. The NHL's player discipline continues to be ludicrously comical, but the code ensures justice is had, so the belief goes. That notion has been around for years.

But we didn't know then what we know now about fighting and brain trauma.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a devastating degenerative disease which has been most commonly found in boxers, football players, and hockey players - all people who experience repetitive brain trauma. Jo Innes, who writes "The Quiet Room" series for Backhand Shelf, puts it this way:

"The argument about whether or not fighting belongs in hockey aside, it's amazing that anyone is still questioning the effects repeated blows to the head have on long-term health. One look at a CTE brain next to a normal brain is all you need to see the very obvious evidence of structural change. Add in research linking concussion to depression and the sad examples of athlete suicide, violence, depression and addiction and any argument that fighting doesn't affect the fighter essentially equates to willful ignorance."

When it comes to health and quality of life, the code stops when the jerseys are off; the solidarity of the NHLPA brotherhood ends when a player hangs up his skates for good. The bottom line is, ending fighting in hockey means the end to a certain type of job and right now job security for enforcers, fighters, and goons is more important than what happens to those players when their careers end.

The problems created by fighting are well-known in today's NHL. The three untimely deaths that occurred in the summer of 2011 were only the most recent. Those losses reverberated throughout the hockey world, as well they should. But I wondered at the time and still wonder, if the impact was greater in places like Vancouver, Minnesota, Nashville, Toronto and New York. Places where Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, and Derek Boogaard played probably felt the losses more. Sens fans should remember them and other enforcers who have gone before their time when we look back with nostalgia to the days of Peluso and Vial or when we stand and cheer when Neil drops the gloves.

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