John Scott’s selection to the 2016 NHL All-Star Game is not without precedent. Having a guy known more for punching than puckhandling play in the NHL All-Star Game, while rare, has happened on several occasions.
Then there is the curious case of Chris Nilan, whose near-appearance in the 1991 All-Star Game was, until now, the most controversial selection ever made.
But neither Scott, or Nilan before him, would have been the first pugilist to play in an NHL All-Star Game.
John Ferguson, whose main job was to protect Jean Beliveau, is generally regarded as the NHL’s first true enforcer. Ferguson played in the 1965 and 1967 All-Star Games, back when the Stanley Cup-winning teams — here, the Montreal Canadiens — would play against a squad comprised of the best players from the other teams. While Ferguson’s was only in those games because he was on the Cup-winning team, he nonetheless played in them, and was not scratched.
Fast forward 21 years. Famed enforcer Bob Probert of the Detroit Red Wings skated in the 1988 NHL All-Star Game as a non-starting reserve player. Back then, fans would vote the starters, while the coach of each conference — usually, the two coaches who appeared in the previous season’s Stanley Cup Finals — would select the reserves. Edmonton Oilers coach Glen Sather picked Probert, who ended up with 24 fights and a league-leading 398 penalty minutes that season. Although he was nearly a point-per-game player in 1987-88, Probert’s role on the Red Wings was clearly that of a tough guy.
The next year, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Dave Manson was selected by Sather — again, the Campbell Conference coach — as a reserve player. While he simmered down later in his career, Manson got into many fights during his first few seasons, going toe-to-toe with anyone. He had 15 fighting majors in 1988-89 and was third in the league with 352 PIMs. Still, he had a career year and was many times Chicago’s number two defenseman, often paired with Doug Wilson.
Which brings us to Nilan in 1991 He wasn’t nearly the offensive player that Probert or Manson were in their All-Star years; he finished the season with 15 points in an injury-shortened 41-game season. But Nilan’s coach on the Boston Bruins, Mike Milbury, was also the Wales Conference All-Star Team coach that season, and picked Nilan for the game. He also stuck by his guns, defending his decision:
“I’m not prepared to take any grief from anybody,” Milbury said. “I tried to make all the obvious selections. The remaining four or five spots, I considered qualities such as leadership, courage and commitment.
“Last year’s 12-7 (All-Star) final was an inaccurate showing of our game. (It’s a) gross oversight not to look at the physical player. We’ve recognized fighting for 40, 50 years now.” (source)
“Mad Mike” recognized that fighting was part of the game, and Nilan was still one of the game’s best fighters. That drew ire from the NHL, who wanted Guy Lafleur to play in the All-Star Game, as “The Flower” was set to retire at the end of the season. The NHL then established the “President’s Selection,” which allowed the league to appoint a veteran player on each team. The board of governors also decided that, starting next season, the players who weren’t voted in by fans would be picked by a committee, and not the All-Star Game coaches.
But the league didn’t seek to remove Nilan from the game. His picture was even in the game program (which I swear I have but, sadly, can’t find now). Ultimately, it was Nilan who removed himself. Soon after learning that he was going to play in the All-Star Game, the Bruins tough guy played a pickup basketball game against teammate Cam Neely and broke his ankle. He was replaced in the 1991 All-Star Game by teammate Dave Christian.
Players can no longer make it into an All-Star Game by being on the Cup-winning team like John Ferguson did in the 1960s. Nor can they be selected by a coach like Bob Probert and Dave Manson were in the 1980s, and like Chris Nilan was in 1991. And next year, players likely won’t be able to be voted in, either. So when John Scott plays in the 2016 NHL All-Star Game, he won’t be the first enforcer to do so, though he will, almost undoubtedly, be the last. ■
NOTE: This article was updated at 11:15 a.m. CST to reflect the NHL’s announcement to keep John Scott as an All-Star Team captain.