They say you never forget your first….First car (mine was a 1989 Oldsmobile Delta 88 that probably should be forgotten), first love (believe it or not my loving wife), first hockey fight (against a guy by the name of Lyon in Upstate New York-I soon after made it a rule never to fight anyone who shared a name with the King Of The Jungle and I will explain why later in this post), we remember them all, some more fondly than others. As I watched the mayhem that was 60 minutes of Pens-Flyers Game 3 unfold yesterday, I was at one point taken back to my very first hockey fight about 15 years ago. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Letang manhandling Timonen or Crosby wrestling with Giroux that sparked the memory, it was actually Craig Adams grabbing a handful of Scott Hartnell's hair.
If you watched the game with any sound, you couldn’t have missed the act as Pierre Mcguire spent no fewer then 15 seconds ranting about Adams “sacrilegious act” as he had latched on to Hartnell’s obnoxious mane. Listen, any hockey player will tell you there is no room for intentional hair pulling during hand to hand combat, but in the heat of the moment in a game like that with adrenaline at an all time high, there are times an accidental tug almost can’t be avoided, particularly if there is eight inches of hair between your grip and the jersey you are trying to clamp on to.
With all of that said, back to that fateful summer day in Syracuse, New York when my short and dubious fighting career began. I was 16 years old and attending a Junior Hockey tryout over a 3 day weekend. The camp would be filled with players older and tougher then I was, so I didn’t exactly intend on storming in and showing my worth to the powers that be with my fists. That said, I also understood the importance of being able to do whatever it took to separate yourself from the pack and to defend yourself if need be. I was fortunate to have a few coaches in my hometown who had played the game at a pretty high level and were always willing to help. By the time I arrived at the tryout, I had been given plenty of lessons in protecting myself and felt I would be ready if and when the time came to fight.
“Keep your head up. That may mean you have to take a punch or two but the moment you tuck your head down you will be in trouble.”
“If he gets the jersey over your head, keep throwing. If you can’t see but still have a hold of his sleeve or collar, just aim a few inches north of that hand.”
“If you end up in real trouble and bent over, try and find the cuffs of his pant legs and pull him down that way as a last resort.”
Perfect! I had all of the tools I needed to get my butt kicked! Years later, I just wish in all of that advice someone had taken the time to teach me how to throw a punch or go on the offensive to help avoid any or all of the above mentioned situations. Seriously, it was like trying to drive a car after taking countless defensive driving courses but never having been shown where or how to use the gas or brake. Nobody was going to be better at getting beat up than me.
The second day of the tryout I was lined up across from the aforementioned big winger on the inside hash in my defensive zone. His centerman won the draw, he pulled my skates out, and proceeded to walk to the net untouched to screen my goaltender who made a glove save to force another face-off. This time I was determined I would stand my ground and not let the bigger, more experienced winger get by. When the puck was dropped, I whacked his stick to the side to ensure I wouldn’t be tripped up again and that was about all of the invite he needed to begin his assault on my previously unblemished face.
Within about three seconds, everything I had “learned” was coming in handy. I kept my head up just long enough for him to land 3-4 jabs and get my jersey over my head. I continued to swing wildly as advised once I could no longer see. And once his uppercuts started landing routinely, I searched for those pant cuffs I had heard about that would save me during desperate times, to no avail. Eventually the jersey came off far enough that I still couldn’t see but managed to get back upright and my left arm came free enough that I could hope to latch on to one of the two arms that had been beating me mercilessly for the past few seconds.
Unfortunately, in my blinded and disoriented state, I came up with a fistful of hair which only further enraged my more than willing opponent. While he was more then gracious in victory and was plenty kind to me throughout the rest of the camp, as soon as I mistakenly grabbed on he shouted something to the effect of “Let go of my (expletive) hair.” He had grown tired of the beating at this point and the refs finally entered the picture just in time to hear me reply with about the only thing I could think of after hearing his plea….”I will just as soon as you stop punching my (expletive) nose!”
There is no place for hair pulling in the game of hockey, but it happens, and rarely does it happen with malicious intent. Lets call the Adams-Hartnell fight what it was, a spirited battle between two tough and willing combatants and cut Adams some slack for coming up with hair instead of jersey in the heat of the moment. Regardless, Game 4 should once again be a must see for fans everywhere.