For the first time in Little Caesar’s Arena’s infancy, it seemed alive. Even counting the raucus bursts of the Wings season opener, the venue has seemed mostly cold and cavernous since its open.
All it took was Luke Witkowski doing something wildly illegal in the NHL rulebook, likely costing him a lengthy suspension.
The Red Wings and its fanbase shouldn’t celebrate what he did last night.
In the 80’s and early 90’s, the Wings were widely considered to be the most entertaning team in hockey. Bob Probert and Joey Kocur could not only ragdoll any player in the league but were able to contribute offensively. They had value aside from their fists in an era where teams routinely carried two or three "policemen" who’d look wobbly at your local open skate. There was nuance to their game blending into a tapestry of skilled Red Wings who were a perinial threat in the old Norris Division.
By the end of the late 90’s, teams began to phase enforcers out. The biggest example was the Red Wings—aside from Kocur returning from beer league to be an extra forward (that could still pop in a beauty in big moments)—who had pretty much ditched fighting for power plays, pretty goals and finally, Stanley Cups.
Author’s Note: Yeah, yeah, "Fight Night at the Joe/McCarty vs. Lemiuex", I know. I saw that as something completely different than enforcers taking up roster spots to get more penalty minutes than ice time.
Witkowski’s actions were a callback to a dangerous era when players left the bench for fights. Choas broke out to the point where local police would have to get involved, fans would (try) to get involved or throw beer cups. In fringes this behavior was lauded but mostly it carved hockey’s niche path during a formative time in American sports.
The Broad Street Bully Flyers of the mid-70’s was a bloody spectacle of a team, but even they had three lines deep of 20 goal scorers and were eventually dethrowned by the grace of Guy LaFleur and the Montreal Canadiens. The cult film Slap Shot is one of my favorites but largely because it’s pointed satire. Majority of people were laughing or bewildered by the absurd violence in hockey, Slap Shot put it on the big screen. Yeah watching hockey fights on You Tube is fun but they’re in a vaccuum, often decades old.
You win hockey games by controlling the puck and scoring goals. You don’t win punching defenseless players or taking retalitory penalties off clean hits, then standing there stupidly trying to goad an opponent as he and the officials wait for you to get in the box.
You also cannot help your team win when you’re rightfully suspended 10 games. It appears Witkowski will be.
Why Blashill fed chum to the piranhas by praising Witkowski after the game, I don’t know. I’d figure you’d point out the Wings suddenly hot power play or the staggering production they’re getting from Larkin, Mantha and Athanasiou. What good is a player’s actions if it gets him suspended?
Are Larkin, Athanasiou, and Mantha actually any safer for having this on the ice? While the brawl was developing and Mantha was again risking his health fighting Travis Hamonic, it was actuallly Justin Abdelkader working to corral Larkin and AA to keep them protected. Justin Abdelkader.
Witkowski provided entertainment but it was a sideshow. That’s all it was. It wasn’t a rallying point. It was reckless. Simply put, it wasn’t hockey.