Perhaps no one understands the evolution of the role of the NHL tough guy more so than Tim Hunter.
His credentials as one are distinguished: eighth on the NHL’s all-time penalty minute leaders list at 3,142; two-time NHL single season penalty minute frontrunner.
He saw plenty of action in his 16-year career (1981-1997), and encountered hundreds of other tough guys who could never approach or eclipse his longevity. Look at it this way: his inaugural bout came against Glen Cochrane, December 28, 1981, and he wrapped up his fistic days with an April 19, 1997 scrap with Ken Baumgarter.
In between, there were approximately 199 fighting majors, and dozens of epic tussles.
“There are not too many guys who’ve had more fights in the game than I have,” says Tim Hunter, 52, assistant coach with the Washington Capitals.
When Hunter entered the league in 1981, the NHL could still prove to be a cauldron of bad blood, unbridled emotion spilling into bench clearing brawls and multiplayer melees.
His skills were soft, but his passion for survival was scorching.
“I was told in the Central Hockey League that in order to play, I had to be the best defenseman or the meanest son of a bitch in the league. I tried to be some of both. When I made it to the NHL, I really wasn’t capable of playing good hockey.”
Hunter evolved as a stronger skater and found his way; he laced up the skates in 947 NHL games, including more than 100 playoff competitions. The game allowed for that type of development back then.
“There’s no room for that type of player now,” says Hunter. “There is no room to evolve in today’s NHL. You have to be capable of playing and you have to win. You have to be capable of playing against any team and all players. There is less of a disparity between your first skater and twelfth skater now. You would be able to hide guys then – you can’t today.”
Limited role players don’t exactly thrive in today’s era, those multipurpose types who can be brutish, fight when needed, and even chip in the occasional goal.
“In my opinion, Shawn Thornton is the best today,” says Hunter. “He can play against anybody. He won’t dominate a guy like John Scott. But he won’t end up injured, either. Where Scott has trouble with the faster players, Thornton doesn’t. Fighting is still part of the entertainment package.”
Hunter’s first scrap in the league paired him up against veteran pugilist Glen Cochrane, of the Philadelphia Flyers.
“In reality, I wasn’t nervous,” says Hunter. “I fought every tough guy in the Central Hockey League and I had trained hard and prepared hard. Glen was a tough guy, probably around six-feet, four inches. I bumped him and he didn’t like it. I was always pretty well prepared. In my career, you can’t say that I was ever knocked down and left in a pool of my own blood.”
Hunter says that the majority, if not all, of his fights were spontaneous or related to the course of play. Very rarely, would he accept any premeditated invitations. Even though he was well-acquainted with rough elements, most of his battles, he says, were “spur of the moment.”
“I was never one of those guys who felt as if on the first shift you had to fight the other team’s tough guys,” says Hunter. “I never asked Cochrane, or Terry O’Reilly, or even Dave Semenko. I gave them no choice, or they gave me no choice. You know when it’s time. Later on, there were young guys who would want to fight right off of the faceoff, and I’d turn them down. I’d ask, ‘why are you here?’ Get out, play, do something, and give me a reason.”
Fighting has received a whopping black eye since the spate of deaths of NHL enforcers a few years ago. Looking for something to blame, many chose to attribute the stress of fighting for the off-ice problems of a few men who seemed to have a predisposition for danger.
“What troubles me,” says Hunter. “is that some people say that fighting was the cause of these deaths – Wade Belak, Rick Rypien – and that it was related to their job as a hockey player. Most tough guys lead normal lives, and I think that they would have had problems whether or not they worked at a gas station or were CEOs. I don’t believe it was hockey that did it to them. All players face pressure, even guys who score face pressure. What has happened is that fighting has been blamed, when it’s really been about addiction problems.”
Hunter has little or no sympathy for a player who embraced a role, signed a contract, received a paycheck, and then grumbles that hockey has scarred him for life.
“When I hear former tough guys complain, it makes me wonder why they didn’t just quit or get out of the game.”
Noted for his exceptional stamina and exceedingly long fights, Hunter was the NHL penalty-minute leader in 1986-87 (361 PIM’s in Calgary), and again with the Flames in 1988-89 (375 PIM); he is still the Calgary Flames career leader in penalty minutes, with 2,405. There are a few fights that poke through Hunter’s memory; a tussle with Kevin Maguire, his epic confrontations with archrival Dave Semenko; scraps with long-arm slinger Dave Brown; and encounters involving Nick Fotiu.
“Fighting in the playoffs was always more fun,” says Hunter.
In the first of his four fights with Edmonton Oilers’ Dave Semenko, in the playoffs, on April 17, 1983, Hunter tossed left after left against the wild-haired, helmetless enforcer. After the officials interceded, Semenko fired another shot. “Semenko suckered me over the top,” says Hunter. “I learned from that to protect myself at all times. There really is no code in fighting. If you drop your guard, you will get hurt. The code is a crock of shit – something that Don Cherry throws at people. Guys will do a lot of things, especially when you are dealing with a salary.”
“Nick Fotiu played in the 1970s,” continues Hunter. “I got into the game around the last part of that wild era. Fotiu was upset because I beat up Dan Maloney earlier in the period (on October 27, 1982), and Fotiu speared me with about seven seconds left. He hit me on the top of the head at the hairline, and my helmet just exploded.”
Years later, Hunter and Fotiu ended up as teammates in Calgary.
“Nick stepped in to fight Craig Coxe one night (on March 30, 1986),” says Hunter. “Nick hit Coxe and broke his orbital bone. Coxe just shakes his head and keeps fighting. I was shocked. I’ve never heard such an impact. It was amazing.”
Over the years, there were good nights, and, as the balance and law of averages dictates, not so good nights. But considering the amount of times he discarded the gloves and the escalating mass and size of the opposition he stood up to, he endured remarkably well, and incurred few injuries. There was one time in the early 1990s when he did break his ankle in a scrum against Buffalo. The Sabres’ were looking for revenge on Jamie Macoun, who had high-sticked Pat LaFontaine, in an earlier game. LaFontaine had lost bone and teeth and bled profusely from a severed facial artery. “Of all the guys to grab me, it was my ex-teammate Colin Patterson. I went down.”
Hunter’s policy on the ice was ordinarily an unpretentious cycle of battle, forgive, and then forget. The one exception to that rule was his relationship with Marty McSorley, who once had jumped Hunter and clawed at his face. The pair resolved their dispute with a second period grudge match, on October 10, 1991; McSorley was on the Los Angeles Kings and Hunter was a Flame then. Years later, the two tough guys ended up as his teammates in San Jose. “I’d sustained damage behind the eyeball once courtesy of Marty and his gouging,” says Hunter. “We had a pretty big fight in Los Angeles and I enjoyed that one. When we were in the locker room together, it was always in the back of my mind.”
Despite the fact that Hunter, who has more than 1,000 games to his credit in thirteen years as an assistant coach, will help to influence the composition of the Washington Capitals’ 2013-2014 roster, there is no guarantee he will reserve a spot for a player who is practical with his fists.
“Good tough guys are really hard to find today,” says Hunter.