When it comes to changing the flow of a hockey game, the presence of an agitator on the ice can make all the difference. When the chips are down, and the ice seems tilted the wrong way, an agitator can make plays that will take the opposition out of the game and focus on their own actions instead. That misplaced focus can open ice for skill players to get the team back into the game. The Detroit Red Wings have had their share of agitators over the years, but I have compiled a list of the three best to don the Winged Wheel in the modern era.
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Having been a fan of the Wings for as long as I can remember, there are a couple of players who stuck out in my memory. I consider the success of the team as the benchmark for determining how good they were. I’m sure someone could go into a lengthy, drawn-out statistical analysis of the effectiveness of each player, but I’m a writer, not a statistician – I’m going to give you the list based on the perspective of a fan who watched most of the games these guys played in.
So, without further ado:
3. Dino Ciccarelli
Dino Ciccarelli was a player I grew up hating. He played most of his career for the Minnesota North Stars, then four years for the Washington Capitals before coming to Detroit. Whenever Dino played against the Wings, he was continually chipping away at them, causing chaos in front of the net, and generally being a pest. And, he always seemed to score crucial goals. Granted, for the first part of his career, the Wings weren’t particularly good, so every goal seemed to be an important goal.
When the Wings picked him up in 1992, I was a little perturbed about the trade that sent Kevin Miller to the Caps. Miller was a solid offensive forward, and I didn’t like Ciccarelli. That lasted about two games into the regular season. I was a Ciccarelli fan ever since.
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He lived up to every expectation I had for him. The only difference was, he was doing it for the Wings. I loved it. Dino almost seemed to have an extra set of eyes to know where the referees were, and was able to pull his shenanigans when they weren’t looking. I’m not going to claim that he was the cleanest player, but he was a workhorse. Detroit fans loved him for it.
2. Kirk Maltby
As a member of the Wings beloved Grind Line, Kirk Maltby has always held a special place in my heart. He is arguably the least popular of the reputable line. Still, he played his role as the agitator to the tee. Maltby was a perfect combination of physicality and speed. As Kris Draper said in an interview upon Maltby’s retirement, “If you want to skate, he can skate. If you want to hit, he can hit.”
Maltby didn’t score a lot of goals for the Wings, but he caused the other teams to take a lot of penalties. Since he played with the Wings during a time when they had offensive threats on every line, those power plays arguably were the cause of many Red Wings’ goals.
Maltby wasn’t known for playing dirty, but he was probably one of the best actors in the game at the time. If a stick came anywhere near his head, Maltby could snap his head back like he had taken a full-on stick to the chops. He would even go over to the bench to get checked out, knowing that he didn’t get hit. If a stick were inadvertently stuck near his skate, Maltby would step on it and take a tumble. He didn’t earn any accolades from his opponents for playing that way. Still, four Stanley Cups during his career with the Wings stand as testimony that he was a valuable member of the team in his role.
1. Tomas Holmström
Tomas Holmström, known affectionately by Wings fans as “Homer,” caused many penalties to be taken by opposing defensemen and goalies, earning “Demolition Man” as a nickname from players and the press. He made a career of standing in front of the net, taking abuse from opposing teams. He took so much damage that he started wearing soccer shin guards on the back of his calves to absorb some of the harm from slashes by the opposition. He was tenacious in his determination to maintain his space in the area that Mickey Redmond often called his “office.”
The Wings haven’t had another player occupy the front of the net like Homer since his retirement in 2012. Holmström wasn’t a dirty player by any stretch of the imagination. However, he endured abuse that would have caused most players to drop gloves regularly. He was so proficient at his craft that the league started enforcing goalie interference penalties on him many times in instances when he wasn’t guilty of the infraction. Quite a few Wings goals were called back in error due to these penalties, but Homer never changed the way he played.
I don’t think another player has had as big of an impact in the agitator role as Homer did in the modern era. The four Stanley Cups won during his career leave little doubt about that. Although he didn’t fit the standard definition of an agitator like Dino Ciccarelli did, he created enough havoc to get goalies and defensemen off their games and pucks into their nets.
The Future Agitator for the Wings
It was hard to narrow this list down to three, but those are the three I would put on the top since entering the modern age of hockey. I would give some honorable mentions to players like Pat Verbeek and Vladimir Konstantinov. Both guys caused chaos and took other teams off their games. Still, Verbeek only played one season with the Wings, and Vlady would probably be more suited to a “best defensemen” article.
So those are the three I ended up choosing. I would love to see the Wings develop or bring in a player to fit that role soon. Tyler Bertuzzi could end up in that role, but I feel like the Wings want to use his skills differently. The purpose of the agitator hasn’t left the game (Matthew Tkachuk, Brad Marchand). I hope the wings can get someone to fill that spot and open some space for their skill players to become successful.