Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Colton Orr Fighting John Scott: Explaining why people should appreciate what happened

Last night, the Toronto Maple Leafs lost 2-1 to the Buffalo Sabres in the blue and white's home opener. Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller played extremely well, registering 34 saves and stopping all but one shot that came his way -- a Nazem Kadri power-play goal late in the third period -- helping lead the way for the Sabres. While the game wasn't entirely entertaining, the crowd at the Air Canada Centre was quiet throughout the night, with there being only two instances where you could hear fans make any noise: one was near the end of the game, after Kadri cut the deficit to one, giving the Leafs an opportunity to tie it. The other was three minutes into the game, which leads me to what this column is all about. 

Around this time a year ago, the infamous "Rats" press conference held by former Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke took place, where he announced that tough guy Colton Orr was going to be sent down to their minor-league affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. The once feared enforcer of the NHL, Orr had slowed down progressively after a concussion sustained in a fight against George Parros two years ago, which many people in the hockey circles thought would end his career early. Multiple sources and people close to the situation said the 30-year-old was wearing sunglasses all the time, and was still struggling with things like his memory, sensitivity to light, and living a normal life. After a slow recovery, Orr eventually became healthy enough to re-join the Leafs, and made their 2011-12 roster. But, with the addition of a few players, along with Orr continuing to regress, his role on the club was diminished, as he only played five games with Toronto. And, on January 5th, 2012, after clearing waivers, Orr was sent down to the minors. 

Read this feature from a few weeks ago by TSN Leafs reporter Jonas Siegel, who profiled Orr and discussed with him his path back to an NHL training camp. 

Time progressed, and Orr not only got himself in better shape, but improved his game with his gloves on, giving him the opportunity to have a spot on the Leafs training camp roster. To the surprise of many, he made the team out of camp, and was in the lineup for their opener against Montreal. Fans and those who covered the team were shocked, as the former league leader in fighting majors made his way back into the NHL.

Now, the reason why I wrote this column, and why Colton Orr has been such a fixation of mine since the day he signed in Toronto, is that I admire the kind of player he is. I know that the majority of Leafs fans think he's a dinosaur, and a player like him has become irrelevant in today's NHL. And to an extent, they're right. The role of a fourth line tough guy has become so small, that most teams don't even carry a guy like that on their roster. The "new tough guy" is someone who can contribute in other ways, like penalty-killing and defensive responsibility. Middleweights are taking over (Brandon Prust, Aaron Asham, Mike Brown, etc.). But, as someone who has grown up around hockey, and has been able to appreciate just how important fighting is to the game, guys like Orr have always held a special spot in my love of the sport. 

Whether you like it or not, a fight in a game has an impact, no matter who it involves, or when it takes place. Now, that impact could be very small and just be a bump in the road (which the majority of researchers and analysts seem to believe); that same impact could also have huge ramifications on the final outcome, and how the two teams play the rest of the game. Fighting isn't something that can be measured in statistical analysis like corsi or fenwick; the energy-boost and adrenaline-rush that comes after a scrap can push a team to play more urgently, and has the ability to give them extra pep in their step. It sounds pre-historic, and many of you who are reading this will probably roll your eyes, but it's just a fact. We as fans, who don't spend everyday playing hockey at the highest level possible, along with not living with 20 other guys over the course of six to eight months, cannot begin to fathom what goes on in a locker-room. 

So when Colton Orr, who had gone through hell and back to get back into the Leafs lineup, who recovered from a potentially career-ending concussion, who completely reshaped both his game and his body, dropped the gloves and fought John Scott, his teammates took notice. Orr knew he had to fight Scott in that game. He knew it the entire day. He knew it lying awake in bed the night before. He knew it when the team was prepping for the home opener. Hell, he probably knew it the moment the schedule came out, and he saw that the Buffalo Sabres were the second game of the season. Yes, his job is to fight, and no one is debating that. And if anyone was going to take on Scott, the only real candidate on the Leafs would have been Orr. But after everything he went through, and to show up to the party without any hesitation -- you have to admire that. Nobody can argue that, and don't even try. When Orr engaged Scott in a fight, throwing and taking punches, that alone was enough to motivate his teammates and cheer him on as a temporary audience. But delivering the KO by way of a body-shot: that was the icing on the cake. The roar from the crowd, the "Down goes Scott!!!" call from announcer Joe Bowen, that stuff is real. That emotion is real. The players getting jacked up from the bench is real. The players banging their sticks and yelling "Atta boy Orrzy" is real. It shows that the Leafs came to play. It shows that they aren't going to be bullied tonight. It shows that, instead of just showing up and playing 60 minutes, they're going to (literally) punch you in the mouth and come in ready to go. And for that, no matter what happens this season and in the future, I will always admire what Colton Orr does for the game. 

If you don't like fighting, that's fine. But don't try to say that fighting is irrelevant and meaningless, and that it adds nothing to the game of hockey. The 700 people who play it for a living will disagree.

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