Former NHL player Jim Peplinski has a 16-year-old son and as 16-year-olds are wont to do, he was recently on YouTube, where he watched his dad fight Bob Probert, one of the most feared and accomplished scrappers of all time. What, pray tell, was his father doing, exchanging blows with Probert? Bob Probert?
“I told him, ‘I was just trying to survive,’ ” said Peplinski, with a laugh. “But on a deeper note, when I got into a fight, I was not prepared to hit the other guy 10 times and let him hit me nine and then think I had won. I had a style that looked awful, but I never ever got tagged or knocked out. Ever. Because I thought it was important not to get hit.
“I talked to [NHL enforcer]Brian McGrattan when he was in Calgary. I really liked Brian but I said, ‘My gawd, do you ever think about not exchanging blow for blow? This is not The Flintstones.’ But the way guys fight now, my gawd, I have trouble watching. I think, ‘That’s not good for anybody.’ ”
Peplinski’s perspective on the suddenly hot-button issue of fighting is interesting because as a player, he had a foot in both camps. In an NHL career that lasted 711 games over 11 seasons, Peplinski fought dozens of fights, but he was also a quality player. He has a 30-goal season on his resume, plus 424 career points and he was co-captain of the Calgary Flames’ 1989 Stanley Cup team.
Peplinski, who said his distaste for fighting was a contributing factor in his decision to retire prematurely from the NHL, noted: “I never enjoyed fighting. My son always says, ‘Did you ever get mad?’ Just in the moment.
“I never held any intentional premeditation that there was going to be a fight. Sometimes, it happened. What I see today is different than that. I would prefer today, with the way the game has gone, to see fighting completely eliminated.
“I think most fights – 90 per cent – add nothing to the game and in fact, they take away from the beauty of the game. It’s in that category of mixed martial arts or WWE, and the players risk serious injury.”
Nashville Predators general manager David Poile, who was with the Flames when Peplinski first turned pro, characterizes himself as a dove, not a hawk in the fighting discussion, thinks staged fights are slowly evolving out of the game. Poile’s team employed Wade Belak last season, but noted that Belak only dressed for a handful of games (15) last year.
“That’s the number of times we felt that role was beneficial in a season,” Poile said. “What we want and what everybody really wants is to have a Milan Lucic in your lineup – meaning one of the toughest, if not the toughest forwards on your team, but someone who can play on the top two lines. That’s what we want.
“So can we develop more top, tough players? If we can, then I think staged fights will fall by the wayside.”
Referring specifically to his own Predators team, Poile noted that the Predators play the Detroit Red Wings, a perennial powerhouse, six times a year in the NHL’s Central Division. “We’ve been chasing them since the day we got into the NHL. They’ve had a little bit of the toughness, with Probert and [Darren]McCarty, but as the years go by, it’s become less and less important. You can’t intimidate Detroit and they just out-skill you. You try to play tough against them, but their players are just too good.”
Peplinski joined the NHL for the 1980-81 season and retired six games into the first post-Stanley Cup championship year in Calgary, when the team asked him to take a greater physical role. He briefly tried a comeback four years later, but ultimately decided not to pursue it.
According to Peplinski, the decade he played in the NHL, “when a fight occurred, it took place as an emotional response to somebody overstepping their bounds – and when the fight was over, it was over.
“There was no patting each other on the back after the fight. I see that now and think, ‘What is that?’ Maybe I’m missing something, but I’ve never understood that. There was a place for fighting when it took place in the emotion of the game, and not as a separate attraction.”