BUFFALO, N.Y. — During Ted Nolan’s first stint with the Buffalo Sabres all his team did was fight. This time around he’s actively discouraging his players from doing it.
In the eyes of the 56-year-old coach, the game has changed to the point where there simply isn’t much room for fisticuffs. While he can tolerate one of his players occasionally defending a teammate, he has absolutely no time for pre-arranged or staged fights.
“People are always questioning whether I’ve softened,” Nolan said before Friday’s pre-season game against Toronto. “I’ve never softened. I don’t like bullies, I’ve never liked bullies and I don’t think there’s a place for them. And sometimes when bullies are out there you have to defend yourself; that’s what happened in the past (but) they’re not as relevant now.”
The change in philosophy was evident right from the moment he took over for Ron Rolston last November.
The Sabres were assessed just 19 fighting majors in 62 games under Nolan after racking up 17 in the opening 20 games of the season. His message was received loud and clear inside the home dressing room at First Niagara Center.
It’s a far cry from his go-round in this city.
The 1995-96 Sabres featured Matthew Barnaby and Rob Ray — not to mention Sportsnet’s own Brad May — and amassed a whopping 103 fights, according to hockeyfights.com. That was 15 more than any other NHL team. The following season under Nolan saw them finish second in the league with 89 fights.
Buffalo let John Scott and Zenon Konopka walk away in free agency over the summer and shouldn’t be anywhere near the league leaders this year (although Cody McCormick and Mike Weber can still handle the fighting duties).
Attitudes around fighting in hockey have slowly shifted over time, but there still isn’t anything approaching consensus in the NHL. The Calgary Flames, for example, devoted a portion of their practice on Thursday to showing players what to do when they drop the gloves.
“We’re just trying to teach the kids to defend themselves,” explained coach Bob Hartley.
The Leafs, meanwhile, have led the league in fighting majors the past two seasons but are likely to start the year without a designated enforcer on the roster for the first time during Randy Carlyle’s tenure with the team.
Earlier this week, he indicated that he would be “comfortable” if that happened and relayed exactly how the message surrounding physical play has changed.
“The one thing that we’ve asked … is there’s a different degree of toughness,” said Carlyle. “If you look at our hockey club, we believe that toughness is an aspect of blocking a shot, taking a check to make a play. Team toughness.”
For Nolan, it’s all part of the evolution of the sport.
From a purely tactical standpoint he doesn’t want to let the opposing team dictate any aspect of how a game will be played.
“We do everything in our power to stop an offensive guy from scoring goals,” said Nolan. “We do things to break a system, yet when we have fighters on another team we want to fight him? I don’t know why. …
“There’s a purpose for aggressive play, but there has to be a purpose (for fighting) — without it there’s no reason to do it.”