I grew up in Calgary and went to a lot of Calgary Flames games at the then-Olympic Saddledome through my childhood. Quite often, games between the Flames and their Smythe Division rivals devolved into line brawls and often my father and I found ourselves sitting in Section J2 laughing at the absurdity of it all.
When news broke on Thursday that Travis Hamonic would miss some time with a facial fracture suffered in a fight, I couldn’t help but think about the absurdity of the situation he was placed in.
The context of the sport
The role of fighting in hockey has definitively changed. While line brawls and general acts of thuggery were relatively common in the ’80s and ’90s, the combination of increased awareness of brain injuries and increased competitive balance led to some changes.
Back in “the day,” teams might have a couple guys there just for fighting. Eventually that became one per team. Then it was one on every other team. Now what The Athletic’s Kent Wilson half-jokingly termed “dancing bears” are found primarily in the minor leagues. While concerns about concussions and brain injuries are definitely part of the shift, the simpler answer is hockey is just too damn competitive now to be able to waste roster spots on guys that can’t play actual hockey.
The Flames context
The trend in recent years – especially given the success Vegas saw running four productive lines – is for teams to skew towards what Kent termed “functional toughness” and not have weak spots in their lineups. Now instead of having somebody like Kevin Westgarth or Brian McGrattan around to just scare guys away from hitting Johnny Gaudreau, the Flames rely on having players like James Neal, Matthew Tkachuk, Michael Stone and Hamonic that can play a regular shift and bring a physical element if needed.
The Flames used to be defined as a team whose skilled players weren’t particularly big and whose big players weren’t particularly skilled. While they’ve added some players who can bring a physical element while playing a skill game – Tkachuk and Sam Bennett can do both – they still skew towards a team filed with agitators rather than being large enough physical presences to ward off trouble. They can make other teams angry, but not scared.
That said, there are two ways for teams to make their opponents scared of crossing “the line”: imposing physicality, or insane skill. As the Flames pivot towards being playoff hopefuls, they don’t have spots to hide “scary” physical players and they haven’t yet accumulated enough skill throughout their lineup to have “scary” offense. So they’re stuck, for now, in the mushy middle, and aren’t chock full of enough of either kind of scariness to be considered “hard to play against.”
The Hamonic context
And finally, Hamonic himself is coming off a year where he transitioned from Long Island to Calgary and had to adjust to a new system and playing style. He was a high-profile acquisition – added in exchange for a first round pick and a pair of second rounders – and had an okay season on a team that performed well below expectations. He and TJ Brodie definitely had their struggles as a pairing.
Hamonic plays on a team that was criticized for being easy to play against last season – both in terms of not being physical or mean and not being scary good – and is one of a handful of players that is thought to be able to bring physicality. While it’s commendable that he stood up for one of his teammates, it’s unclear what else he could’ve done in the situation.
A few years ago in the same situation, the Flames would’ve had a designated fighter on the roster. A few years from now in the same situation, the Flames might be stacked offensively. Either might have been enough to deter late hits from happening to their rookies, or at least might’ve resulted in Hamonic not needing to fight.
But for where the game is, where the Flames are, and where Hamonic is right now in his tenure with the Flames, his hands were basically tied. That’s the absurdity of the situation. Wednesday night was a perfect storm of challenging circumstances, and that storm cost the Flames a skilled player for a few weeks.