Ernie McLean mourns loss of the NHL's old-time edge
At a time when renewed cries are being heard from all corners of the hockey world to rid the game of fighting, Ernie McLean can only chuckle. What else would you expect from a guy better known as “Punch”? It's not that the legendary junior hockey coach isn't concerned for the safety of players who drop their gloves; it's more the fact that the 76-year-old has been down this road too many times to count since he and his New Westminster Bruins teams of the mid-to-late 1970s were mixing hockey and mayhem on an almost nightly basis.
McLean, a true character and perhaps the closest thing Western Canada has to Don Cherry (without the garish wardrobe), is among those who thinks fighting has—and always should have—a place in the game. Since 21-year-old Don Sanderson died after hitting his head on the ice during a fight in a senior-league game in Ontario earlier this month, though, some are questioning that notion.
But even more than that, McLean is worried that the game he loves and has been involved with as a player and coach for more than 60 years is losing its edge. And he believes decision makers at all levels of hockey should be looking at ways to bring clean, hard physical contact back into the game, instead of legislating against aggression and clamping down on rough stuff.
“It's the do-gooders. That's what I call them,” McLean told the Straight with a laugh between periods at a recent Vancouver Canucks game at GM Place, where he's a press-box regular. “Every few years you hear the same thing. I've been hearing it for 25 years. And I'm sure I'll hear it again.”
McLean doesn't want the sport to revert to the way it was when bench-clearing brawls were a common occurrence, but he is fearful that the very elements that make hockey such a great game—speed, power, and body contact—are slowly being phased out. McLean says the game needs contact, but cautions that it will lead to the occasional confrontation. And that's why the 2006 B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee feels strongly that fighting should remain a part of hockey. Plus, as McLean fondly recalls from the years of coaching in front of full houses at New West's Queens Park Arena, he knows that the idea of two guys squaring off still resonates with most fans.
“Absolutely: you see it, I see it. Every time there's a fight, the fans are up,” he reasons. “There are no open-ice hits anymore, though. Half the time guys today are out there fishing and waving their stick at the puck with one hand instead of skating to hit a guy.”
McLean shudders at the way hockey's governing bodies jump to action every time someone gets hurt playing the game. He calls Sanderson's death “an accident”, but he doesn't believe the Ontario Hockey League's new rule forcing junior players to keep their helmets on during fights is necessary.
McLean, who played and coached before helmets were required, understands the intent of the rule; however, he says it's merely addressing one problem while creating another. He believes that hand injuries are bound to skyrocket, and the very players the new rule is designed to protect will be sidelined for long periods with broken bones and shredded skin from bouncing punches off of protective plastic.
He says it's just the latest attempt to improve the game that is likely to backfire.
“When they took the red line out, it was to speed up the game and score more goals,” McLean explains. “Now they dump the puck in; the defenceman gets it and hides behind the net while his team changes. Then that team goes down, dumps it in, and the other team does the same thing. That's no good for anyone.
“I was talking to Wayne Gretzky this morning, and he says there's no hitting no more and no toughness,” McLean adds, referring to his game-day chat with the Great One, whom he coached at the 1977 world junior hockey championship. “Here was the greatest finesse player of all time, and he's looking for toughness. I know there are lots of teams that tell their scouts to find them toughness. Why? Because the [NHL] teams still want that.”
Times change, and so do people's views on fighting. The NHL will surely keep tabs on the latest development at the junior level when it comes to dropping the gloves, but (quite sadly) it is quite likely to take more than the death of a senior-league player to bring about widespread change in the sport at the highest level. So McLean probably doesn't have to worry about fighting being abolished altogether—at least not this time around.
As for his fear about the disappearance of bodily contact, well, he may be on to something. Certainly it's a different game today than it was when his Bruins were running teams right out of the rink. On many nights at GM Place, the games McLean watches bear little resemblance to the ones he remembers from a few decades ago.
He's not thrilled with the direction hockey has gone over the years, but his lifelong love affair with the sport endures.
“I still enjoy the game. That will always be part of my life, and one of the biggest rewards is coming to these games, the [Vancouver] Giants games, and even the B.C. Hockey League games I go to, and seeing all the people I've gotten to know over the years,” he says. “But if they take hitting out of the game, maybe then I'll stop coming.”
For all involved, let's hope it doesn't ever come to that.
Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver's all-sports radio, Team 1040. E-mail him at email@example.com.