Freddie Roach Breaks Down The Season’s Best Hockey Fight

The world’s greatest boxing trainer talks goon technique.

Everyone knows that hockey players like to make with the punching. But are they actually good at it? We asked Freddie Roach — Manny Pacquiao’s trainer, a five-time boxing trainer of the year, and a Bruins fan — to break down the season’s most explosive fight thus far, between Toronto’s Colton Orr and Pittsburgh’s Deryk Engelland on Jan. 23.

A Massachusetts native, Roach’s favorite player was Bobby Orr (no relation to Colton Orr) — “He was everybody in Boston’s favorite player,” says Roach — but he remembers appreciating the work of tough guy Wayne Cashman. Roach was never much of a hockey fighter himself, though: “I wasn’t that good on skates, so I’d have to take my skates off to fight.” (And if he had to respond while still on the ice? “I’d just fucking use the stick.”)

The bout we looked at has the highest rating of any brawl this season from readers of the indispensable HockeyFights.com, a comprehensive database of on-ice scraps, and lasted for over a minute before the combatants ran out of steam and were separated by linesmen. Herewith, Roach’s expert analysis.

1. A fiery start.
Both Engelland and Orr begin the fight with a wild flurry of punches. This might be a bad, energy-wasting idea in boxing, but Roach says it isn’t the worst strategy in hockey, where fights last only until the linesmen intervene (which rarely takes too long) and direct the players to the penalty box. “They don’t know how much time they have to get their damage done.” It’s during this exchange that Orr knocks off Engelland’s helmet, which Roach says gives him an advantage because it provides him with a larger “striking target.” The head is now in play. And, says Roach: “You don’t want to be striking a helmet because then you’re going to break your hand for sure.”

2. Getting (too?) grabby.
After the initial round of punches, things settle down momentarily. Both fighters have grabbed onto their opponent’s jersey. The fighters must maintain their balance on skates, and unlike boxers, are allowed (by the unwritten rules of hockey-fight etiquette, at least) to hold onto something with their weak hand in an attempt to control their opponent and keep him close. Roach thinks hockey fighters would be better off if they could get free and use both hands. Says Roach: “I know they use the shirt to control the movement of the other guy, but I think it would be more essential in a fistfight to use two hands instead of one.” He does note, though, that both players are in a proper stance with their left feet forward.

3. A big blow.
The two start throwing punches again, and Engelland lands a big blow despite having a smaller target because of Orr’s helmet. Roach is impressed but points out that a strong blow that’s not a knockdown punch can add “fuel to the fire” and inspire the other fighter to respond in greater force. “There’s no ‘quit’ in a hockey player,” says Roach. “He’s going to suck it up and fight back.”

4. Second wind.
Orr indeed then connects with some big punches. Engelland might be tired: For hockey players who don’t necessarily train simply to fight, even a minute-long bout can be a test of endurance. Says Roach: “If you’re not used to doing it, that takes a lot of energy to continue giving and taking punches.” That said, Roach thinks Engelland recovers well. “He had a second wind, I would say, and came back really well.” It’s because of this second wind that Roach declares Engelland the winner of the bout. “It was a close fight, but Engelland outscored him,” explains Roach, who says that Engelland landed not only more punches, but better ones.

Roach says he believes that Engelland would make the better boxer of the two, pointing to the Penguin’s especially good balance. He also has some general advice for hockey fighters, who tend not to throw body shots — Roach thinks a well-placed blow to the liver or kidneys could be effective, despite the equipment players wear above the waist. “Body shots, even with pads on, they hurt,” says Roach. “I wear thick padding every day, and I get the wind knocked out of me at least four times a day.” He also says that hockey fighters often don’t get their full weight behind punches. Fighting with two hands would make a big difference, but getting into a bit of a crouch, rather than standing straight up, would help too.

Roach is ready to help: “If Engelland comes to my gym for a month, I’ll make him a better fighter.”

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