Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.

Flyers Craig Berube represents rough edges hockey needs

Ice HockeyPhiladelphia FlyersNHLAmerican Hockey LeagueNBACleveland Cavaliers

Suppose Pocono Raceway announced it had found a way to positively guarantee that no one would crash in any future race. All the speed, noise, skillful driving and colorful cars would be the same next year, except that no crashes could possibly occur and nobody could possibly get a scratch.

How many do you suppose would show up to buy tickets?

My guess is that apart from Alan Alda and Phil Donahue, not a soul. Racing is a professional blood sport and it is the danger and ferocity that make it exciting. Take away the danger and it's less interesting than watching Route 22 traffic pass by for a couple of hours.

Take away the Craig Berube types from the National Hockey League and you will get pretty much the same thing. Professional ice hockey is more entertaining when it has a few rough edges.

I don't know if Berube will bring a deluge of victories to the Philadelphia Flyers as the new head coach, but I liked his style when he was on the ice in his playing days. The polite term for such players is "enforcer." More often, they're called "goons."

Berube's elevation from assistant to head coach was announced this week after the Flyers opened the season zero-for-three under Peter Laviolette, who is not exactly a shrinking violet. (The Flyers led the NHL in penalties under his stewardship.)

Still, Berube's sin bin credentials are even more impressive. When he was in action on the ice, he registered 3,149 penalty minutes as an enforcer for the Flyers and four other NHL teams. That put him in seventh place on the NHL's all-time tough-guy list.

Earlier, Berube was a figure of fisticuffs renown when he played in the 1980s for my favorite team at that time, the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. And before Philadelphia, he was head coach of the Flyers' AHL affiliate, the Adirondack, N.Y., Phantoms, the team that will play in Allentown when the new arena opens.

Apart from the entertainment value of on-ice pugilism, however, there is a rational reason to have goons on a hockey team.

Without them, with only a few exceptions, it's open season on a team's most skilled players. If victory could have been attained by having Wayne Gretzky carried off the ice on a stretcher, there is no way he would've lasted more than a period or two.

In Philadelphia's glory days in the 1970s, opposing players knew that if they took cheap shots at the Flyers' top talents, they'd have to deal with Dave Schultz, the most famous goon in NHL history. Say what you will about Schultz, I doubt the Flyers could have won the Stanley Cup without him.

Now there is increasing pressure to eliminate fighting from pro ice hockey.

Some television announcers cluck about how somebody might get hurt, or worse, so players who drop the gloves should be automatically ejected. The game will be just as popular, they say, because of the dazzling speed and puck-handling skills it requires.

Rubbish. As soon as there are no enforcers to exact paybacks, all the dazzling skaters will be in hospitals — unless, of course, the champions of wimpishness manage to also take checking out of what is now a dangerous (by design) contact sport.

We'd be left with a choice between dainty ice hockey and the equally exciting professional badminton.

"It's time for NHL to end fighting," screeched a headline in The Boston Globe this year. Before that, an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal called for "a ban on all forms of intentional head trauma, including fighting."

Nobody hopes for serious injuries or death, either in hockey, car racing or any other edgy sport. But risk is an essential element for any activity to be exciting.

I played hockey (very poorly, even for an amateur) in my younger days, and I admit I sometimes engaged in the rough stuff.

Hockey fights, however, are far less daunting than scrapes on a street or in a barroom, with which I also have had a little experience. In hockey fights, only the willing get involved face to face and officials break them up as soon as one gets the upper hand. (In a saloon, you always get clobbered by the guy behind you.)

In any case, risk is the spice of life in hockey, sky diving, mountain climbing, racing, or even romance.

In a somewhat related development, The Morning Call reported Thursday that criminal charges have been lodged in the case of a Perkasie swimming pool party that turned into a noisy and destructive riot.

The borough pool was rented in August to organizers of a party for an anticipated 100 fans of the National Basketball Association, with Cleveland Cavaliers player Dion Walters as the star attraction. When 700 showed up and banned booze began to flow, the party got out of hand. Problems ranged from noise complaints by neighbors to the stomping of a police car.

In August — with tongue in cheek and references to hockey culture as represented by the outrageously raucous movie "Slap Shot" — I wrote about "my fellow hockey fans, who obviously are much more refined than NBA fans and would never dream of getting drunk and rowdy."

If rowdiness is confined to the ice, the hardwoods or a race track, it is entertaining and the richly rewarded competitors face the risks willingly. Anywhere else, I welcome the criminal charges.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Comments
Loading