Special DElivery: Tootoo a telling distraction

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By Darren Eliot - 

It has been a long time since a Red Wing player has earned the in-the-moment adulation of the Joe Louis Arena faithful for dropping the gloves like Jordan Tootoo has in his short tenure here in Detroit. That’s because the Red Wings have long eschewed fisticuffs as productive, while they were setting the standard for relevance across the NHL over the past two decades.

Tootoo has gone toe-to-toe four times in his first nine games – three times at the Joe in his first five home tilts. None of his bouts have been of the tug-o-war, wrestling variety, either. They have been full-throttle throw downs to the point that even when Tootoo got his nose bloodied against Steve Begin of the Calgary Flames, his punch count and landed blows total left the impression of not losing even when it was clear that he didn’t win. And of course, the locals stand and cheer Tootoo – his effort, energy and willingness to bare knuckles brawl on their behalf.

Despite having little in the way of pugilism in its recent past, Red Wings’ fans identify with guys who fight. Maybe it is part of being an Original Six market that has seen the NHL from its earliest incarnation. Maybe it is part of the working class, survivor spirit that has long defined Michiganders. Maybe it is just the titillation of watching two grown men square off in a dangerous, politically-incorrect manner that seemingly has less and less to do with the outcome of the game than ever before. Whatever the reason, fighting remains a visceral vice for many who remember when fighting was truly part of the game’s culture and  it becomes a guilty pleasure for those newer fans who look on in disbelief because such bad behavior is taboo everywhere else these days – except maybe reality shows.

Jordin Tootoo has brought an element to the Red Wings' line-up that hasn't been seen in quite a while. (Tom Turrill/MiHockey)

After all, sporting events are the original and ultimate form of reality viewing. At rinks, arenas and stadiums everywhere, fans even get to participate by standing, cheering, booing and singing (Can I get a, “…Born and Raised in South Detroit…”). Nothing gets a more all-inclusive, stand-on-your-feet, cheer-at-the-top-of-your-lungs response than a fight. Still does. Tootoo proves it. Even after all the years of not being part of the Red Wings’ master plan. Nothing wrong with it. In fact, I wrote here last spring about fighting in hockey on one hand and my personal perspective on the other.

This isn’t about that. This is more about our Red Wings in a year of transition. We knew this was coming, but no one knew what form it might take, or when it might arrive. It’s awkward and it’s here now. The it I speak of is an Identity Crisis. What defines this Red Wings team? Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are marvelous players. Johan Franzen is hot right now. Damien Brunner is off to a nice start as a first-year NHL’r. Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson are NHL defensemen. Jimmy Howard is solid in net. Brendan Smith was making nice progress before injuring his shoulder and Darren Helm is a non-factor due to debilitating back pain.

I haven’t listed everyone, but I’ve named enough names. The point is, the team no longer has enough top-flight players to execute their long-held self-brand as a puck-possession team. The special teams – again, for so long loaded with dedicated skill players that made the difference many nights, especially on the road – is two seasons in decline, with holes on both sides of the equation. The balanced four-line attack is a faded memory, as the “third and fourth line” players have produced exactly one assist through nine games (an assist by Patrick Eaves on a rare power-play appearance). The blue line – forever the envy of everyone and the motor that powered the team’s fortunes – is in disarray, decimated by injuries and thus woefully inconsistent.

So, here we witness: a team no longer able to pass the puck around opponents all night long; a group unable to wait for that critical power play knowing the GWG is less than two minutes away and not built size-wise or production-wise to grind out offense. Jimmy Howard said, “We’re not really used to it yet.” He was referring to the team’s reaction to Jordin Tootoo taking matters into his own hands – literally and figuratively – after his two-fight night at the Joe against the Dallas Stars. Howard could have just as easily been talking about all of us getting used to seeing our Red Wings scratch and claw for every point until they get better, get healthy and define who they are.

In the meantime, we can turn back the way-back machine and cheer a Tootoo bout today like we did a Joey Kocur, Bob Probert, or Darren McCarty fight years ago. Let the spontaneous spectacle suspend the overriding reality: Hockeytown is under construction.