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December, 2011:

Lets Get Physical, Physical…

“Hockey is a physical sport” a line used time and time and time again by both its promoters and its detractors. Be it by those defending an action on the ice or by those who feel there just isn’t enough action. But needless to say in a sport with such physical contact there are always going to be conversation inducing incidents.

In the last couple of weeks such incidents have dominated forums, press releases and blogs concerning my own team, the Belfast Giants. It was only a matter of weeks ago that a much watched hit between Benoit Doucet and Sam Zajac in Braehead took over pages and pages of debate across the league, many initially calling for a ban for the Belfast Giants forward. Subsequent slow motions and assessments caused opinions to change, to an extent, and the league itself saw fit not to impose a ban, but to expunge the penalty awarded by referee Moray Hanson on Doucet at the time from the Canadians disciplinary record.

As such a lot of talk about “retribution” circled last weekends return game between the two sides, but the outcome was one no one wanted.

I am not going into too much depth on the rights and wrongs of what took place other than to say my sympathies do fall with the linesmen who, despite undertaking what I see as correct initial action, due to Zajac being flat out on the ice from a Ryan Crane hit and Doucet moving toward him in that position, they became embroiled in an unfortunate sequences of events which has now led to the end of Doucet’s season through injury. There was no malice in the events and the loss of Doucet is certainly frustrating, but to point fingers at the linesmen who, in their correct initial actions, were doing a thankless job, is to ignore what can certainly also be deemed a “grey area”.

I am sorry for Doucet’s injury. And certainly wish him a speedy recovery. He has been an excellent servant to the Giants in his all too brief period in our shirt.

Since the incident the shouts have been about “let them fight” and “Linesmen never let the players do what is an important part of the game”. This has led to me thinking about the initial statement of this blog.

“Hockey is a physical sport”

Is it? Or is it a “Skilled sport with physical tactics”. No doubt folk will claim there is no difference but in my opinion there is. And it’s this difference that polarises the approach to the sport, not just by fans but by many in the wider media.

I make, nor have ever made, no bones about what I prefer in the sport. The beauty of a tic-tac-toe play, watching an offensive d-man picking a pin point pass to perfectly placed one-timer from an advancing forward, that perfectly timed poke-check when it looks like the breakaway forward is destined to score. But this isn’t to say I don’t appreciate the physicality employed in the sport. I adore a brilliantly executed hip check. Taking out a forward mid-ice because his head is down, perfect example of how physical tactics are part and parcel of the game.

And yes, fighting is certainly part of those tactics, but I do have issues in its application. There is a distinct difference between “Fighting for the Game” and “Fighting for the Grandstand”, examples of both have been seen at the Odyssey over the years gone by.

Physicality in the game is a tactic of intimidation. Putting the skilful players on their toes, looking over their shoulders and keeping out of the way of someone they feel may hurt or, worse, injure them.

The need to pay attention to the intimidation, and not to the game objective, goal scoring.

The fighting I wholly prefer in the game is that which spawns from the ongoing action of the match. The kick back from a skilful forward tired of being picked on. The enforcer sent on to change momentum and show support for his team mates is something that seems to have been lost in recent years from the Elite League. The arrival of the so-called “Sherriff” Sean McMorrow was a sad turn down the road of ‘fighting for fighting sake’.

The repetitive articles in the paper ‘calling out’ forthcoming opposition tough guys like Voth and Knight got tiresome. The grandstanding like David Haye in order to goad a fight became nothing but tiresome. In this there was no real tactic. The player didn’t have that in him. Empty threats of player intimidation in the press were never fulfilled. It was lost on me what he brought to the game outside of a “fight a night” promise, further ammunition to the anti-hockey elements of the media and beyond who saw us not as sportsfans, but as those who wave foam fingers at WWE style ‘Sports Entertainment’.

This caused immense amounts of frustration to those of us who had seen the job of an enforcer/fighter/tough guy taken to it’s zenith on Odyssey ice by the likes of Paxton Schulte and Paul Kruse. Two players who could intimidate the opposition, put pucks in the net and also stick up for their team mates when they needed to. But if I was to name one of the toughest players to wear the Giants shirt, Paul Ferone would be among Kruse and Schulte without a doubt.

A player who demonstrated that sometimes size doesn’t matter. He’d throw in a late hit, a slash behind the play and agitate like few others, but would also surprise, that when the gloves hit the floor he’d probably be one of the favourites to take the tilt. Fist waving furiously he knew that his actions needed backing up, and he had that ability.

An element of physical play that over the seasons have been sparse from the Giants line up. Pat Bateman and more recently Daryl Lloyd have displayed elements that bring both energy to the team and entertainment to the crowd. While Adam Keefe this season has also proven that you don’t need a ‘fight a night’ to please the crowd with physical play.

So from that we come to those in the stands, and the entertainment that the physical tactics of the game bring. I’m not so naïve as to believe fighting has little role in the sport, its need is palpable when the conditions are correct and few things bring the crowd to their feet more readily than a punch up. But in a game dominated by persistent physical play the crowd can be taken and kept on the edge of their seat, waiting for the moment when one of the teams crack and lash out. And even if they don’t a feisty game can leave the punters happy, provided of course those tactics brought the win.

Can fighting be used as a “bums on seats” means? Most certainly, but can it keep them there? Slapshot is a great film, but is it really a means to educate the running of a hockey club? Not really. In my opinion the bums return to the seats due to success. While the fights may be the opening of the door, the skill and success of the game should be the means to hold that door ajar.

No doubt I’ll be taken as a ‘hockey snob’ and not for the first time. I don’t profess to be any authority in the sport, and not least the physical tactics of it. For that I bow to those who have experienced it first hand, or someone like Vic Silverwood in Cardiff who has studied it in depth. Nor do I claim to hide behind the defence of ‘It’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it’; I am certainly open to the debate on the forums or twitter.

The subject is such a widely written about one I feel I can’t do it any real justice in this modest blog.

I do feel however that sometimes the physicality aspect of the game is misunderstood to *be* the game.

And while it has its role within the plexi-glass walls, it is but a means to the objective.

Putting a vulcanised rubber disc through a rectangle of metal and ice, by fair means or, sometimes, foul.

Saddle Up My Horse

The so called “Sheriff” has mosied on, announcing last night that he has joined Marquis De Saguenay. This brings to an end an interesting period in the history of the Elite League. No doubt McMorrow brought some presence to these shores, but in what sense did he add to the game?

A brash, larger than life character who thrives on self promotion, I got the chance to interview him once last season over the phone and found him to be a publicists dream. Talked the talk, fired the sound bites out with ease and gave the baying masses fuel to feed off on forums and blogs from Murrayfield to Cardiff Bay.

But McMorrows ability to talk a good game was, unfortunately for him, not quite replicated on the ice. Many discussion boards prior to his arrival had a wealth of varying opinions. Some trying to understand what he would bring at all, while others believing he would have a Brad Voth style “points and punches” impact to the game.

The player who arrived in Belfast in a shower of publicity was one the Giants undoubtedly hoped would put bums on the cushioned blue seats of the Odyssey Arena; the modern day Paxton Schulte. What they got was maybe not quite what a lot of the fans expected.

McMorrows main attribute were arguably his fists. Every game was proceeded by planted, and probably ghosted, newspaper interviews “calling out” the next opposing teams “tough guy”. Game after game passed with the same patter emanating from the Belfast printed media. Yet game after game McMorrow would regularly fulfil what he had claimed he would achieve. The first few months had the new Giants forward take on the top tough guys in the league, usually within the first two minutes of the game and quite successfully.

But as time wore on the spiel grew tiresome and as injuries were incurred to key forwards like Brandon Benedict, it became quite apparent that McMorrows ability to influence a hockey game ended after the first 2 seconds had elapsed on the game clock.

A majority of his time in Belfast was spent warming the bench, his talk of “protecting the players” and “sticking up for my team” never materialised in any realistic form. He spent his time on the Giants bench kissing his “guns”, pretending to shoot the crowd with his hockey-stick as a mock rifle, or mouthing off across the benches to the opposition in a vain attempt to justify his position by gaining a fight with one of them.

Of course his constant habitation behind the boards on the Giants bench was mainly down to his coach Steve Thornton, as McMorrow wasn’t on a regular rolling line. But it goes a long way to show Thornton’s sparse faith in the little ability McMorrow had that he would tire out a short bench of Giants thanks to imports rather than put McMorrow on.

I was initially quite entertained by McMorrow, his antics came as a breath of fresh air in a league that had become stale due to the loss of significant personalities. The likes of Payette and Clouthier had departed leaving a vacant role as the leagues most potent character and McMorrow filled this with aplomb. However as the season went on McMorrow position became less tenable. While the Giants were a strong enough team to sustain a player who would be more suited to the likes of the AHL where a non playing clogger is common place, the import limit of the Elite League would deem such a player a luxury and they would be required to chip in with the tactical play more often than not. McMorrow didn’t have the ability to fulfil this role and it was very apparent when he was on the ice how little he saw of the puck.

The death knell on my support for McMorrow’s antics was sounded at Cardiff Bay during the Challenge Cup Semi Final. Suffering heavily from a short bench and 2 goals down to the Devils, McMorrow had seen little action. His talk in the press was of his protective instinct, his domination of Voth ‘toe to toe’ earlier in the season and how the likes of Finnerty wouldn’t have the chance to take liberties with ‘the Sheriff on patrol’.

McMorrow’s only physical action in the entire game was a fight with Devils coach Gerad Adams, and this was only after Giants forward Jeff Szwez opened proceedings with a superb haymaker on Ryan Finnerty due to the Devils forward taking a shot on Murphys goal after the buzzer had sounded and celebrating like he’d scored. The Devils had run riot in that game, Peacock, Phillips and Faubert all taking the physical play behind the refs back. The Giants were bullied out of a game as the ‘enforcer’ looked on, his coach, rightly, showing no faith in his hockey ability as the team tried to claw their way back into a cup semi-final. McMorrow proceeded to dance to YMCA and entertain the Devils faithful who were enjoying the victory as well as the clown.

That’s not to say McMorrow didn’t have his moments. I still have in pride of place the gamesheet from the Giants trip to Whitley Bay which reads that McMorrow had 1 Goal, 1 Assist and 0 Penalty Minutes. His only goal at the Odyssey Arena was celebrated in a very entertaining manner, throwing his glove in the air and ‘shot’ at it with his stick. The adoration for his off ice persona was prevalent throughout the league, none more so than in Nottingham who were highly entertained by his antics and enjoyed his character in the bars after the game. He was a well loved player regardless.

His work for the Giants was also admirable, he was the first for working with the kids, promoting the team and the sport. He had countless visits to schools and was considered an all round humanitarian. A PR dream for the Giants and the league alike.

McMorrow’s fighting ability allowed him to defeat practically everyone who was man enough to face him, but usually no more than once per player as when that had taken place he was by and large ignored. His game lacked speed, his hands lacked skill and his time on the ice as a hockey player was usually punctuated with a clear raising of the stick as he pointed out which man he was watching in the play. 

I had hoped he would come into the team as a one man wrecking ball, checking players through the boards, be it young brit or big import defenceman alike. However his speed on skates meant by the time he had the chance to line up a hit, the player had long gone and McMorrow was kissing plexi himself, most notably in Cardiff when Jay Latullipe had time to look over his shoulder and laugh at the stranded McMorrow.

His inability to protect his team mates due to a lack of speed and ability meant that a lot of those fans who initially supported him became more and more frustrated with his play.

The Giants greatest success of the season came without McMorrow in the side. The playoff title achieved while he was successfully defending his name against charges of drugs smuggling. How the lack of McMorrow in the side affected the Giants progress to the title is another discussion entirely. I would be intrigued to know, however, if he received a medal.

The Giants did not retain the services of McMorrow this season, instead opting for Mike Hoffman, an AHL tough guy with superior on ice ability. Hoffman wasn’t shy to stick the boot into his predecessor either, sighting the achievement of medals and trophies as greater than “an imaginary heavyweight belt” so repeatedly crowed about by McMorrow.

McMorrow himself was signed up by Dundee, a franchise who no doubt wanted to capitalise on the big name characters profile to draw in fans to the burgeoning EIHL teams barn. But while the Belfast Giants were a strong enough team to sustain a “non-playing import”, Dundee, in contrast, were not. McMorrow was subsequently released from his contract.

In the meantime McMorrow has, reportedly, offered his wares to many an EIHL team. It could be argued that it was “The McMorrow Factor” that led the EIHL to extend the import limit and allow a hardman type character into the league for each team, but no existing team saw what McMorrow had to offer as fitting to their set up.

Rumours abound that he was on the verge of an EPL contract. But surely a player whose worth in the EIHL was questionable would suffer greater hardship proving such worth in a league with a tighter import limit?

And so the “Sheriff” has saddled up his horse and rode into the sunset, with only his fictitious ‘Heavyweight title’ in his saddlebag. He will certainly return to a league where his ability is of more desire and greater use than here in the UK.

The Elite League had never seen a man like Sean McMorrow and maybe never will again. His brash personality meant that his name filled forums and divided opinions right across the league. While as a toe to toe fighter and a one man PR machine he will most certainly be missed.

As a hockey player…. Not so much.

I wish him luck.