This is The Tribune Mailbag, a new series in which athletes answer questions directly sent from our readers. Our first edition featured The Captain himself, who delivered a surprising response to the question of whether he had thought about starting a Twitter account.
Next up, we feature an athlete that most hockey fans (and those on Twitter) recognize as none other than “BizNasty.” Paul Bissonnette spent five seasons as an enforcer for the Phoenix Coyotes, while also maintaining one of the funniest accounts on Twitter. This past June, he hoisted the Calder Cup as a member of the Manchester Monarchs.
How can you describe the feeling you get after a fight that pumps up your team or changes the outcome of a game? -Nick
Most of the time, when that’s the case, you won the fight. And that’s a very natural high. It’s pretty tough to describe to someone who’s never been in a legal fight. It’s not quite the same as winning a bar fight because you’re not worried about law enforcement, which is kind of nice.
I think if you do it for the right reasons, like sticking up for a teammate, it feels even better than if you and the other guy just have an ego thing and want to scrap. Like most things in life, hockey fights are best won for the right reasons.
Which player would you most like to fight and why? -Nina
This is the kind of question that earlier in my career I would have had a better answer for you. When you’re younger, you’re much more insecure and take on this “me against the world” attitude as an enforcer.
There’s no one I really want to go after and beat up. And I’d say that’s the hardest part about my job now, just the fact that it is a job. I don’t like necessarily beating people up or getting beat up, but it’s what keeps me in the game.
To be honest, there’s nothing more I’d rather do after a fight than go to the bar to share a pint of beer with the other guy and just shoot the shit. There’s nothing more enjoyable than sharing a drink with someone who has a mutual respect for you. Just like rugby, hockey is a hooligans game played by gentlemen.
Well, gentlemen might be pushing it.
Do you find that most of the guys you fight have a tough persona off of the ice as well? -Doug
For the most part, no.
Take a guy like Jody Shelley. I’m sure people think he’s a complete meathead because of the role he played and how he played it. He’s one of the scariest guys I’ve ever fought against because he truly put on a mask to become a different person on the ice.
But when I met him off the ice, he couldn’t have been any more different. He’s such a great guy. He’s articulate, he’s funny and he’s very intelligent. And there are a lot of similar examples. Guys like Kevin Westgarth, who went to Princeton. Same goes for George Parros.
Obviously, we’re dumb enough to accept a role that requires us to take a pounding in the head. But at the same time, we’re smart enough to adapt to make it to the NHL. Most fighters dreamed of being skill players at some point, but there’s something to be said for being able to honestly evaluate yourself and realize you need to change the way you play in order to make it. I don’t think that’s dumb at all.
I grew up loving grinders like Bob Probert and Darren McCarty. I’ve always wondered, when it comes to contract talks, how do you value yourself to come up with terms? I’d assume the metrics are different than a player like Steven Stamkos. -Carson
Probert was a 20-goal scorer, and he happened to be the most feared guy in an era when fights were happening every night, so I’m sure that helped him in contract negotiations.
But in general, there isn’t much negotiation when it comes to contracts for enforcers. It’s closer to, “Here’s what we have left to give you (which is probably the league minimum), take it or leave it.” If you say no, they know they can just go out and find another guy.
That being said, for the amount of ice time I got and what I contributed offensively, I think what I got paid was fair. If you go in a locker room a see the guys playing 20 minutes a night, it’s clear that what they’re doing is even more physically taxing than what we do.
Who is the toughest non-enforcer you’ve ever come across, or scrapped with? -Jason
I don’t think I was ever a good enough player for non-enforcer types to ever engage with me. I don’t recall a time when a guy said, “Let’s fuckin’ go!” and I was taken aback. I pretty much only fought guys like me. I’ll have to review my profile on HockeyFights.com and get back to you.
How do you feel about opening faceoff brawls? (I.e: Canucks-Flames last season, Rangers-Devils a few years back.) How does it set the tone around the locker room? -Christian
Things like that are few and far between these days because of coaches getting fined. I don’t think I’ve ever had a fight in the NHL off the opening faceoff. I’ve had ones that were pretty much scheduled for the first shift. That kind of thing will happen more often when you’re facing a rival and there’s some animosity over what happened during the previous game.
But for me as a player, if it were to happen, it’s nice knowing that other guys on the team who aren’t physical get to have that stuff over with so they can focus on the game.
Can you name a teammate that you got pissed at for instigating something that forced you into a fight? E.g. they delivered a cheap shot but wouldn’t answer the bell themselves…? Did they acknowledge and/or thank you for doing so? -Justin
I would never get pissed at a teammate for getting me in a fight. Most of the time, when that happens, the guy is just trying to compete and maybe even get under somebody’s skin to help us win. If a big guy is bullying him and he shoves him back, I don’t expect my teammate to fight the big guy. That’s my job. I appreciate when a teammate sets the table for me to fight someone, because it means he’s being aggressive. I want to play with guys like that. And I want to be the one to take care of things so my teammate can score.
Besides, everyone in the room always appreciates when you cover for them in a fight. And for me, it’s one of the most gratifying feelings I get from playing hockey. There’s no way to describe that feeling of coming into the locker room at the end of a period when you’ve fought for a teammate. Everyone tells you how much they appreciate what you’ve done. It’s the satisfaction of a job well done.
I’m the type of guy who would rather watch someone else score a game-winning goal than score it myself. I’m a selfless teammate, and it’s no coincidence that I’m also a great teammate. One of the ways I’ve stayed in hockey is by molding myself into that kind of player.
People who don’t play sports and write articles about fighting often miss the point. If you haven’t played, you don’t understand the emotions involved in a game of hockey. There’s no stat for sticking up for a teammate, but you bet your ass it can make the difference in the final outcome of the game. And that stuff will bring an entire locker room together and pay dividends down the road. It’s difficult to describe to people who only see the game in terms of box scores, but it’s the truth. Anyone who has played on a great team will tell you so.
What is your game-day preparation when you know the other team has a heavyweight you might be tangling with? -Ryan
It’s a lot of restlessness. It’s a lot of anxiety. It’s a lot of imagining the worst in your own head.
The lead-up to a fight is one of my least favorite things about this job.
It’s probably not so different than fighting in the UFC, where I’m sure they get nerves right before the fight or the night before. But the difference is they have one fight every few months, and we play through an 82-game season. That’s a lot of time thinking about getting hurt — and actually getting hurt.
The biggest thing I look forward to in retirement is no longer having that feeling of dread on game day.
As someone who throws your body around a lot, what’s the most painful injury you’ve ever suffered and how did you recover from it mentally? -Avi
I’m actually going through it right now after suffering a bilateral sports hernia. I had surgery for it this summer and I barely got to skate, as most of my focus was on rehab. So going into camp, I’m somewhat nervous about how I’ll react. Getting an injury like this late in a career is never something you want. If you’ve played professionally for this long, you kind of become a creature of habit. I’ve been preparing during the offseason the same way for such a long time that getting out of that cycle is troubling. I wish I could answer your question better, but I’m kind of in the middle of it right now.
Luke Gazdic recently came out saying that he’d have Connor McDavid’s back if someone goes after him. Do you think saying that publicly will deter enforcers from targeting Connor, or encourage them to test Gazdic? -Josh Pauls, Team USA sled hockey player
The NHL is such a competitive league and there’s money to be made, so guys are going to compete. I don’t think there are many conflicts that occur in the NHL out of a personal vendetta. The bigger culprit is that when a guy like McDavid has such a high skill level, the other team will try to do whatever it can to get him off of his game. Teams deploy guys like Antoine Roussell, who will do what he can to get under the skin of the other team’s star player. It’s not a personal thing, it’s in his job description. And Gazdic’s job is to keep Roussell in check — essentially serving as a distraction to the distraction. Gazdic’s job, an important one, is to neutralize Roussell so he can’t neutralize McDavid. It’s like really physical chess.
It seems that in recent years, more and more organizations are trying to get by without having an enforcer on the roster. What’s your response to in the rise of teams using advanced analytics as a key metric for putting a team together? -Mark
Half the teams in the league have pretty much said, “We’re done with the fighters and mutants,” under the assumption (or hope) that other teams will follow suit. But where this falls apart is when other teams have players who can both fight and play at a world-class level. That’s a clear advantage.
It’s interesting that the popular opinion on what type of roster you need to build in order to have a winning team seems to shift over time. When people saw Boston win the Cup, the model became to build big, tough, strong teams that could forecheck hard and wear opponents down. And then you start seeing teams like Tampa and Chicago have success, and suddenly teams start thinking they don’t need fighters in order to win, they just need four lines of guys who can skate and buzz around. Then L.A. wins it, and people notice that they got all these big mutants up front, and then other teams try to mimic that. Winning has such an impact on what people think, but there’s no perfect formula. Despite that, you have a bunch of organizations trying to conjure one.
So now you have all these bottom-feeder teams handing over boatloads of money and influence to analytics guys, and I don’t see the point. Now you’re just using stats to say how bad your team is when that’s apparent from just watching them play. These are guys who go, “Wow, Jonathan Toews has great puck possession.” Well no shit, he’s one of the best players in the world. I don’t need stats to tell me that.
Good teams generally have four great defensemen that advance the puck. So right there as a forward, you’re spending less time in your end and less time handling the puck. I find it hard to take a stat seriously when it’s mostly based off the performance of five other guys on the ice — from a struggling d-man, to a goalie who has trouble playing the puck, to a center that goes 3-for-10 on draws every night. Your advanced stats are generally more of a reflection of which lines you’re playing with and against.
Ultimately, teams don’t draft based on Corsi or possession numbers. You draft a player because you’ve watched how they perform on the ice and then consider their potential to improve.
But somehow they’re starting to use this bullshit in contract negotiations. You have teams saying, “Oh, wow, look at this player in Chicago who had a 60 percent possession number.” Well, yeah, because he’s an average player playing with Toews and Kane. So all of the sudden a team signs him for $3 million a year even though he’s a $1.5 million a year player, and they’re shocked when his possession isn’t as good. Are you kidding me?
In the end, the video tells the tale: Did you win your battles, did you execute your plays, did you capitalize?