ARLINGTON, V.A. — It was Jan. 26, 2022. The horn sounded to end the Washington Capitals’ home game against the San Jose Sharks, a 4-1 defeat that marked the team’s third loss in four games. And, as the Sharks came out to celebrate, Garnet Hathaway, Washington’s 6-3, 208-pound grinder, needed to make a statement. He turned to a more than willing Jonah Gadjovich, and then and there, the gloves came off. Both went at it.
As blood leaked from Hathaway’s knuckles, he skated to the dressing room having made a major statement for his club. And after that, the Capitals would win their next two games. Now at training camp months later following his career year — one where that was his only fight — Hathaway looks back and tries to describe the art of fighting. And the biggest part of it for him is strategy.
“It’s harder to describe than just a simple question and answer,” he notes. “The main thing is there’s different times to fight, there’s different reasons to fight. Some could be momentum, some could be protecting a teammate, some could be protecting yourself. You know, a lot of a few of those have to line up in order for it to make sense. You notice the scoreboard has an impact in that. Who scored last has an impact, who was on the ice has an impact. How long the shift you just had, and the period’s an impact. There’s a lot of things that go into it.”
Fighting used to be a major part of the game of hockey, but with the game getting faster and more skill-oriented, the enforcer is harder to find. There are still tough guys, though, and when the time comes, they are ready to go to war.
It also comes down to picking and choosing those battles, and with that comes knowing the enemy.
“You know guys that you need to protect yourself more, and you know guys that you may have an advantage over in a fight,” Hathaway said. “There’s different techniques whether you’re trying to make sure you attack or defend. It’s like any fight, any battle. There’s give and takes, too. It’s more about timing than anything.”
However, sometimes, it’s just all in the heat of the moment, and the heart can take over. In that sense, passion takes over and fights just happen.
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Hathaway has been in that situation before. Specifically, in 2020-21, during a May 5 game between Washington and the New York Rangers. It was the first game following Tom Wilson’s non-suspension following his controversial actions against Artemi Panarin, and the Rangers wanted the Capitals to answer the bell. Washington wanted to stick up for No. 43.
In that instance, Hathaway went up against Phillip Di Giuseppe, and despite the tension and emotions boiling over, he still made sure that he took the time to read the ice and his opponent.
“You always need to be on top of your decisions. There’s a lot of emotions, there’s a lot of adrenaline that goes into these,” Hathaway said. “You’re hopefully in control. That’s probably the best way I can describe it. It’s knowing the time, the situation and knowing who you’re up against.”
Prospect Beck Malenstyn agreed, saying that when he chooses to fight, it’s not something he goes into a game looking for. In fact, he doesn’t even really consider his first credited NHL fight much of a fight. It was against Brendan Lemieux, who grabbed Malenstyn along the boards and spun him around. By the time Malenstyn chose to drop the gloves, he was already down on the ice, and it was over.
“I don’t really have that switch that flips,” Malenstyn, who comes in at 6-3, 200 pounds, explained. “I know when some guys, something goes and ready to go and the gloves are off and it’s go-time. For me, throughout my career, most times when I’ve had to, it’s either been a response for me being physical and someone wants me to answer it or standing up for a teammate. Those are kind of the two instances where I’m willing to stand up for myself if someone’s gonna challenge me and I’m willing to stand up for a teammate if something goes south that way. those are kind of the two scenarios for me. I don’t really have that switch that I’m going out there and I’m going to find one. I’m completely willing if I have to.
“I wasn’t going in there looking for anything,” he added of his tilt with Lemieux. “It’s one of those situations where he probably wanted to go, and by the time I said sure, he was already ready to go and kind of just spun around a little bit and it was over. I wouldn’t even really call it much of a fight. I’m not gonna shy away from it; I’m completely willing if I have to. I wasn’t exactly in the mood for it. and by the time I was, it was a little bit too late. We’ll see if we get another round of it.”
The 25-year-old also said it’s important to size up his opponents and also make sure that he holds his own and knows to get a grip early on.
“The biggest chance to win is not falling, I guess. If you’re losing, you get down there quickly… I think a lot of it’s just understanding where to grab, where to hold onto so he doesn’t have a free hand just swinging away at you.
“You probably walk into situations that you consider to be more favorable than others,” he added. “If I’m standing there with a guy who’s 6-5, I’m not going to expect to do too much to him. But then again, you can underestimate someone pretty easily, too. Some of those smaller guys can really take a punch and can really throw ’em.”
When it comes to picking that opponent, Malenstyn has had to take on quite a few, with several of his fights stemming from his big hits. Some of those opponents have been close friends, which can definitely have an impact on the tilt.
“It’s something that just kind of happens within a game and you can laugh it off after. You’re not really going to hurt each other. That’s what I’d say is probably the biggest thing with any fight. There’s probably instances where there’s a little more animosity behind it,” he laughed. Two of you have been going at it for a while, and that’s just going to kind of settle the score.
“And then other ones are just kind of turning the page on something. It could be something from games in the past; there’s an instance that guys want to kind of level the playing field and you understand that’s maybe on your shoulders, a questionable hit or something like that they want to even out and you put them down. You have your swings and then it’s the page is turned; it’s a clean slate.”
For other players, though, that switch Malenstyn referred to does flip. Hershey Bears forward Kale Kessy, who weighs in at 6-3, 212 pounds, is a known tough guy who will go “toe-to-toe” when he has to. Kessy has 142 pro fights under his belt over the course of his 13-year career, per hockeyfights.com. The Hershey Bears forward will drop ’em when it comes to sticking up for his teammates, turning the tide or responding to a cheap shot.
It’s all part of an unspoken yet clearly understood code in the game of hockey.
“Could be a big hit or a cheap shot or somebody going after your younger guy or more skilled guy, something like that. I’m always going to be the first to jump in and help out,” Kessy said.
The 29-year-old used to be a fighter that would just engage in casual fisticuffs but has since changed his technique in order to better hold his own. And for him, there are ways to get an advantage to increase the chances of winning.
“I used to just love to go toe-to-toe and just trade punches with one another, but you find a lot of tough guys that can catch you in the chin every once in a while and stuff like that,” Kessy said. “I tried to taper it down and tried to be a little bit smarter and technical… it depends on the game and the moment.”
Kessy has adapted and changed his style over the years and now has a few priorities when it comes to a fight. First, he makes sure to keep his balance, and he also emphasizes getting a good grip on his opponent’s jersey.
“Definitely need the center of gravity. You see some fights and you spin around in circles and stuff like that. Some fights are quick because either you fall or the other guy falls,” Kessy explained. “It’s the heat of the moment. Everyone’s competing. everyone’s battling hard and everyone’s competitive. You want to get a good grip and good center of balance.
“[Grabbing the jersey] is huge. I think, if you got a good grip, you can kind of control and counter and stuff like that and stay away from their dominant throwing hand,” he added. “If they’re a righty and I’m a righty, unless you’re going toe-to-toe, you should be able to avoid huge blows… if you’re trying to regain your grip, you’re going to go off balance. I think getting a good center of gravity and good grip and hold, that’s very key.”
Then, there’s the protection and recovery. Fighting, as well as hitting, takes its toll on the body, whether it be cut-open knuckles, wrist injuries, black eyes, knockouts or even just soreness. Whether it’s taping the wrists or touching base with doctors, players know that being safe is vital, too.
Malenstyn, who led the Capitals in hits during his 12-game stint up with the big club in 2021-22, also described that physical style of play can lead to a lot of “wear and tear” on the body, and recovery is a big part of the game as well.
“You make sure those shoulders and things like that are well protected. It’s not an easy job out there sometimes, and you can overextend yourself and get pretty tired quickly if you’re throwing the body around too much,” Malenstyn noted.
“[Taping the wrists] is more of a stability thing,” Kessy added. “I think guys like the habit because sometimes, you can jam your wrist and stuff like that if you’re hitting helmets or kind of your fist isn’t quite as tight… I know there’s a lot of guys and tough guys that do it, so it’s just a personal preference.”
Overall, though, fighting in hockey, in a way, is its own sport. But in the end, there are times to fight, and there are times to play smart hockey. But in the end, it’s about tilting the ice in your club’s favor.
“The biggest thing is to gain momentum for your team. And that can be different things. That can be when you’re down in the game and you’re trying to spark some life, which could come from a fight, could come from a hit, come from a great offensive possession shift,” Hathaway explained. “That’s where I’d say, ‘Hey, I don’t need to get a huge hit right now, but I can wear another team down, get an offensive zone face-off, keep a team on the ice, roll in a change.’ It’s part of that game.
“What goes into winning and losing, it’s kind of fluid… every fight and situation is different. You just have to read the game.”