NEWARK, N.J. — It was December 28, 2013, when Ryane Clowe delivered a simple, clean body check to New York Islanders defenseman Brian Strait.
Before Strait could discard his broken stick, teammate Matt Carkner “came to his teammate’s defense,” as they say, and asked Clowe to fight. Clowe obliged, and he and Carkner tangled in a brief fight that was mostly unremarkable but one that Clowe knew immediately was unnecessary for him.
“I think that one, I went in and finished a hit on his ‘D’ partner, and it was a good hit, a clean hit, and he thought it was probably dirty and came over and challenged me,” Clowe said. “In that situation, I even thought, ‘What are you doing? It’s a clean hit. It’s part of the game.’ ”
"It's part of the game" seems like a silly foundation on which to build a house of logic for fighting someone, for putting one's career on the line, yet that's not how Clowe saw it in the moment.
On the ice, when the blood is pumping and the adrenaline is flowing, it’s a different story.
Not only is fighting part of the game, but it's also part of his game.
“At the other end of it, I played with Carks for a couple years, and I’m the same way,” said Clowe, who was teammates with Carkner for four seasons spanning the AHL and NHL. “You stick up for your teammates. I’ve been on his side many times, and I didn’t want to turn him down. You kind of respect him sticking up for his teammates. In situations like that, you’re not looking for a fight; it just comes to you.
“It’s tough to say no.”
Consider all the reasons, sound ones, Clowe had on his side for saying no to Carkner.
One, Clowe is a top-six forward with the New Jersey Devils, averaging a touch more than 16 minutes per game last season. The 32-year-old was in the first year of a five-year, $24.25 million contract that is guaranteed whether he fights zero times or 100 times over its duration, yet he dropped the gloves with Carkner, who finished 12th out of 12 Islanders defensemen in average ice time a year ago.
|Ryane Clowe Fight Card, 2013-14|
Second, and more important, Clowe was playing in his second game after returning from a two-month absence because of his third concussion in less than a year. The veteran decided to drop the gloves with one of the least valuable players on the Islanders roster over a clean hit, putting himself in a position to absorb punches from an opponent who knows how to throw them.
Clowe did not suffer a fourth concussion in that fight, but he did a few months later when he received a clean hit from Florida Panthers forward Quinton Howden. The symptoms from that concussion lingered into the offseason and left his status for the start of training camp in doubt. Clowe was cleared to take the ice but only after a battery of tests by a neurologist just before the start of camp.
With the 2014-15 season drawing near, Clowe has a clean bill of health, but he’s walking a razor’s edge with his concussion history. None of the four concussions that Clowe has endured over the past 15 months was the result of a fight, but he is now in a situation that dictates he exercise more caution about the blows to the head he receives. He knows his next concussion could end his career or change his life forever.
After only practicing since the start of training camp, Clowe will make his preseason debut Thursday night against Carkner and the Islanders at Prudential Center.
No one in the NHL has greater incentive and fewer reasons to fight than Clowe.
Yet to hear him say it, despite all the evidence of which he is acutely aware, he very likely won't be giving up fighting cold turkey.
“I want to say that I’m going to try to pick my spots,” Clowe said. “I’d like to say yes, but to be honest, when someone’s standing in front of me, I don’t recall ever saying no to a fight. Maybe sometimes that’s what I’ll have to get in my mind, that I have to say no, say ‘another time’ maybe. It’s hard when you’re out there. A lot of it depends on how the game’s going; if a guy’s trying to get momentum on his side, it’s probably a good time to say no.
“I haven’t sat down and thought about it. I try not to because I feel like it might affect my game.”
Therein lies the quandary for players like Clowe, the ones who can play the game and don’t need to fight to stay in the league. They believe the willingness to fight is part of the fabric of their playing style and pulling that string could cause the entire game to unravel.
Clowe knows he's a top-six forward capable of 20 goals when he's healthy and that an unnecessary fight leading to a fifth concussion could end his career; yet, he can't escape the idea that the reason he's a top-six forward with 20-goal capabilities is because of the edge with which he plays.
If Clowe thinks about saying no to fighting, if he begins to think too much and react less, in his mind, it could hurt his overall game.
Concussions limited Clowe to 43 games last season, but he still put up seven goals and 26 points along with five fighting majors. When healthy, he is capable of 20 goals, and players who score that many goals a season need not drop the gloves to guarantee themselves a roster spot.
|Fighting in the NHL Since 2009-10|
|Season||Fighting majors||Clowe games||Clowe fights||Clowe goals|
|2013 (48 games)||691||40||5||3|
Clowe fought 32 times over three seasons between 2009 and 2012 and averaged 20 goals and 55 points with the San Jose Sharks.
While fighting is on the decline in the NHL—there were 1,423 fighting majors in 2009-10 and just 932 last season—Clowe is still averaging more than eight bouts per season over the past five seasons.
His concussions over the past two seasons have constrained him to 83 games, but he still dropped the gloves 10 times.
Again: Clowe is 32 years old, will receive about $20 million over the next four years whether he fights or not, is a top-six forward and a valuable piece of the puzzle to the Devils, who don’t want to see him miss half the season again.
If these things seem obvious, it’s because they are, even to Clowe and those around him.
“I think I’ve got more people close to me or around me that remind me of that,” Clowe said. “That’s probably something I should slack back a bit on. If I went out there and thought about that, it probably would still happen anyway because my fights a lot of times come off reaction: a teammate gets hit, a spur of the moment type of thing. I can’t recall too many fights where I lined up off the faceoff and squared off with the guy and fought. I don’t see the point of that. I’d rather be on the ice playing."
If you think Clowe is receiving pressure from a coach that believes fighting is necessary, think again.
“Ryane plays the game one way,” Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. “I don’t want him doing that, but at the same time, I know the type of player he is. That’s always probably going to be a part of his game.”
Charts and graphs showing fights don’t change momentum or do anything to help a team win are out there, but they won’t prompt change among certain players who have for years believed that fighting is a key component of their game. Clowe is well aware of the risks of fighting, as is his coach, but both seem to believe, and understandably so, that there’s nothing either can do to change now.
Clowe could say no to every fight offer after every clean hit and allow other Devils to do the police work, and even then a fifth concussion could still be in the cards.
“I’ll try to be a bit more cautious," Clowe said before offering an example of a fight where the combatants were of equal on-ice value. "I think the whole thing with that, last year I fought [Boston Bruins forward] Milan Lucic and he’s a top player in the league, and it’s not like I’m fighting someone who doesn’t play. You don’t want to fight a guy that’s not playing and takes you off the ice when he’s playing three minutes.
"I’ve been advised that I should watch it a bit; it’s hard when I’m out there and being competitive. I get fired up easy.”
If four concussions in 16 months isn't enough to get Clowe to drop fighting from his repertoire, perhaps nothing is.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.