How hockey fights work during a pandemic: A conversation with one of the NHL’s last enforcers


Nicolas Deslauriers rose from the ice, blood trickling down his face from a cut on the bridge of his nose.

He had thrown a flurry of right hands at San Jose Sharks forward Kurtis Gabriel before Gabriel threw him to the ice. It was the kind of spirited tussle that would have had Anaheim Ducks fans screaming in appreciation of Deslauriers’ efforts. But there were no fans at the Honda Center for this battle between division rivals. No cheap seats to play to after the fight. The only sounds the combatants heard were the ritualistic banging of sticks against the boards from their teammates, and the piped-in artificial crowd clatter that masks the emptiness of an NHL game during a pandemic.

“The people that work at the rink, they try to make fan noise. But it’s not the same. It’s night and day. It’s really, really different from last year, that’s for sure,” Deslauriers said.

No one in the NHL has fought more than Deslauriers in the past two seasons. His 14 fights last season were double that of the next highest brawler, Austin Watson of the Nashville Predators. He has five more fights this season, one fewer than Watson, who’s now with the Ottawa Senators.

Fighting is at one of its lowest ebbs in NHL history. Teams no longer put a premium on having players whose main contribution to the roster is dropping the gloves. Deslauriers, 30, is one of the few players in the league who proudly wears the sheriff’s badge of an enforcer.

“Oh yeah. I have that role. I think when you talk about Anaheim and you talk about skill guys, my name isn’t going to come up. I’m not going to score 50 [goals], that’s for sure. I’m also not an agitator. I don’t have a dirty mouth. I don’t chirp a lot on the ice. I’ve always been respectful to every player in the league,” he said. “I don’t have this big résumé of being a tough, tough guy. But I do fight a lot. And I’ll fight anybody.”

Even in a pandemic.

Deslauriers said there hasn’t been much discussion between the league’s brawlers about fighting in the time of COVID-19 or any of the safety concerns that could accompany it.

“I haven’t heard anything like that, to be honest. We have the staff to help us. We have the testers there. It’s been a rough go, to be sure, but they make our life easier. Taking our temperature every day, making sure you wash your hands, making sure you wear a mask. It’s a system in your head now. You go with it,” the Quebec native said.

“It’s been such a weird year with not having fans. But once you get inside the boards, you kind of forget everything outside of that world. We’re professionals. We get tested every day. We have team rules,” he continued. “Some teams have been unlucky with it. We’ve been really lucky with it. You have to take care of yourself and others. You can’t have one of those breakdowns where you’re like, ‘let’s just go out to dinner somewhere.'”

Deslauriers is 6-foot-1 and around 220 pounds. That’s not exactly a typical enforcer’s frame, but then Deslauriers isn’t a typical enforcer. It’s not even what he aspired to become. He grew up when hockey kaiju like the late Bob Probert and Stu “The Grim Reaper” Grimson were throwing haymakers on the ice. But he was more of a Bobby Orr guy, wanting to breaking into the NHL as an offensive defenseman.

That was Deslauriers’ role in the Los Angeles Kings‘ system. He was traded to the Buffalo Sabres, where he was moved to forward and had the occasional fight. “I don’t know if it’s a skill. It’s more the having the mindset of not being scared to fight anybody,” he said.

When he was traded to Montreal in October 2017, the Canadiens didn’t need him to fight. That was a different story when he was shipped to Anaheim in June 2019.

“Bigger division. Bigger bodies. It just fit me perfectly,” he said. “Having a great relationship with [coach] Dallas Eakins helped me. When there would be something that happened, like a cheap shot on somebody, I’d turn my head and have that confidence to ask Dallas to match me against [an opponent]. I love my job. I love what I do. There are just some nights where one big fight can change the game.”

Say, for example, when your team is playing an opponent for the seventh time in the regular season. That’s the situation in this 56-game season, with realigned teams playing intra-divisional schedules against the same opponents every few weeks.

Not that Deslauriers is complaining.

“Actually, there have been a lot of fights for a shorter season. I think it’s seeing the same guys over and over again. There was a week when there were fights every day. It’s been great, to be honest,” he said.

The numbers bear that out. The realignment was made for player safety and cost savings purposes, but the assumption was that geographic rivalries would breed animosity. Entering Wednesday night’s games, there were 0.22 fights per game this season, per ESPN Stats & Information and That’s up from 2019-20 (0.18) and 2018-19 (0.18), and on par with 2017-18 (0.22).

The Ducks, thanks to Deslauriers, have led all teams in fights the past two seasons.

“People were saying that [fighting] might go away. But there is a place for this. There’s a meaning behind it. I don’t want to say it’s a ‘code.’ But if you hurt somebody, you have to respond for your acts,” Deslauriers said.

To fans of a bygone era, this probably reads like poetry. To fans of the current product, it might read like an anachronism, even in a season in which fighting has seen an uptick.

Deslauriers understands where the NHL is in 2021. He admits feeling out of step with the times. The game is fast and skilled. The league is young. It’s a place made for someone like Ducks rookie star Trevor Zegras more than it is for Nicolas Deslauriers.

But maybe someone like Trevor Zegas still needs someone like Nicolas Deslauriers. At least that’s what the enforcer told Zegras when he arrived in Anaheim.

“You do your thing,” Deslauriers told him. “And if someone pisses you off, you send that to me.”

Nicolas Deslauriers is always ready for a fight, even if there aren’t nearly as many as there used to be.

1. Try as did in my feature on the milestone, I don’t think the hockey world at large really appreciates how utterly hilarious it is that Patrick Marleau broke a Gordie Howe record.

Gordie led with his elbows. He was the best offensive player in the NHL and also his own enforcer. In the Thunderdome of olden days professional hockey, no one dared to take a liberty with him. Also, he was built like a factory chimney, so it wouldn’t even matter if they tried.

Through perception or reality, Patrick Marleau was his antithesis. He was considered “soft.” The apex of this criticism was Jeremy Roenick‘s constant mockery of Marleau, culminating with him calling him “gutless” on a 2011 NBCSN studio show. Marleau responded to that by having a rare fight against Kevin Bieksa of the Canucks in the following round of the playoffs. Bieksa ended up being criticized for “beating up a guy who can’t fight.”

It’s hard not to miss the symbolism here. Marleau was an NHL 2.0 player even before there was an NHL 2.0: speed over physicality, smarter than to put himself in situations where catastrophic injuries could have shortened his career. The sport moved towards Marleau as much as it moved away from the “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” types. It won’t be a surprise to see another “Patrick Marleau type” challenge this record, because that’s where the sport has gone.

It’s also hard not to chuckle at all the “Marleau is soft” talk now that he’s competed in more games than anyone else in NHL history. Playing 1,769 games and 900 in a row makes that refutation better than any showcase fight ever could.

2. Has he hung on for too long? Yeah, probably. He had four goals and four assists through 45 games with the San Jose Sharks this season, getting outscored by luminaries such as Dylan Gambrell and Rudolfs Balcers. But it’s not like he has played that much past his expiration date. Evolving Hockey tracks goals scored above average back to 2006-07, and this is the first time in that span that Marleau has been at sub-replacement level.

But can one overstay their welcome if a team is willing to have them on their roster? Whether GM Doug Wilson did it for the intangibles or out of a decades-long loyalty, he wanted Marleau back and the checks still clear.

You know who did hang on too long? Yeah, that would be Gordie Howe, who followed his six-year self-exile in the World Hockey Association with a season in Hartford where he was 51 years old, so he could play with his son Mark.

I had readers noting his 41 points in 80 games and to claim that he still “had it,” despite this being the greatest scorer of all-time producing at a third-line rate — in an offensive boom time, no less. The truth? Opponents were hands-off with Gordie in his final season, in deference to a legend. He was a novelty act, not a player. The same could never be said for Marleau this season.

3. Is Patrick Marleau a Hall of Famer? That’s a complicated question.

My Hall of Fame would not have him enshrined, because my Hall of Fame only inducts generational talents and/or the five greatest players from each era. Were I given “UNLIMITED POWWWWWER!” I would take a jackhammer to the wall of plaques and eject, like, 65% of the players currently enshrined. I truly do not care if you happened to be the eighth best guy on a Canadiens Cup dynasty team. The Hockey Hall of Fame makes the WWE Hall of Fame look like Mount Rushmore by comparison of exclusivity. And yet Alex Mogilny still can’t get in for some reason.

But forgetting my stringent standards and focusing on the actual Hockey Hall of Fame: Yeah, of course Marleau gets in. If he retired tomorrow, he’d be 23rd all-time in goals scored (566). Every player ahead of him is in, or will be in, the Hall. You have to go 10 players behind him before you find one that isn’t in the Hall (Keith Tkachuk). His point total is barely in the top 50 (1,196), but only four retired players ahead of him aren’t in the Hall. He’s got double Olympic gold. Most importantly, he now has a record that his peers are frankly in awe of him breaking, given the injurious and violent nature of the sport.

Plus he’s a mild-mannered father from a farm in Saskatchewan and he has kind eyebrows, which are really the only criteria the selection committee goes on anyway.

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: New Jersey Devils

The Devils aren’t winning much these days. But they should win your respect with a clear, concise and impassioned statement after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter by a jury Tuesday for his role in the murder of George Floyd last May. It’s a team that plays in Newark, New Jersey, and obviously one that understands what this moment meant for that community.

Loser: NHL

It’s naïve to think the NHL didn’t coordinate with its teams on messaging after the jury verdict, providing at least a framework on what to say. Yet the difference in tone was striking between the statements from teams — the Devils, Penguins and Sabres among them — and that of the league itself. The NHL left direct references to the murder of George Floyd to its teams, and offered this amorphous pile of mush on its social media feed. The result is a benign sentiment that gives credence to those who were skeptical about last summer’s playoff bubble messaging, who worried the videos and signs about “Black Lives Matter” and social injustice were performative aesthetics rather than a principled stance from the NHL.

Winner: Robin Lehner

Even if some of the details have been refuted, the spirit of what Robin Lehner was getting at in his speech on Wednesday is important. As players get vaccinated, what is the path towards easing restrictions for the NHL and the NHLPA, seeing that other sports have them?

But most of all, Lehner and the Canucks’ J.T. Miller remind us that players have a platform and a voice to talk about the frustrations of playing through this pandemic. They should use them.

Loser: Women’s hockey

Absolutely crushing news this week that the IIHF women’s world championship was canceled due to health concerns in Nova Scotia. This comes after the 2020 tournament was scuttled for the COVID pandemic, too.

As Marisa Ingemi noted, the women’s hockey calendar has been devastated in the last year and a half: No 4 Nations Cup, no worlds last year or this year, only one full NWHL and NCAA season, and only one full PHWPA Dream Gap tour with the national team players for the U.S. and Canada. Meanwhile, there have been two IIHF men’s tournaments played during the pandemic — and the world under-18 championship coming in May, in Texas — while none of have been resurrected for the women’s players, which is extremely frustrating. The silver lining is that the IIHF is hoping to reschedule the event in the summer, but time will tell.

Winner: Braden Holtby

The Vancouver Canucks were written off after returning from their extended COVID absence, and Holtby goes out and defeats the Toronto Maple Leafs in two straight games with a .936 save percentage. This sport, man ….

Loser: Grammar

Look, I hate being the “you had one job” guy … but you had one job and it was not to embroider “1,768th games” onto Patrick Marleau’s fancy commemorative gloves. Or to use the Maple Leafs logo he never wore while playing there. What’s next, accidentally engraving his name on the Stanley Cup?

Puck headlines

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Scroll down for Emily Kaplan’s reporting on the NHL and its follow-up to the “social justice promises” that it made last year.

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