ST. LOUIS — Ryan Reaves clenched his fists and skated backward toward the middle of the ice. Here, at center stage, he would give them what they are always asking for, what they say he avoids too often.
The opponent was Paul Bissonnette. A shove from the Phoenix Coyote left wing had turned into trash talk, which turned into discarded hockey sticks, thrown gloves and pushed-up jersey sleeves.
Frenzied fans at the Scottrade Center stood and screamed, thrilled for a chance to watch Reaves fight.
“They’re throwing them,” a TV announcer said as the two squared off.
“Reaves is tough,” his partner added. “He throws bombs!”
When he decides to throw them, that is. Search for his name on Twitter, and you’ll see the things people say about Reaves. They say he should drop his gloves more often. Then, when he does fight, they mention all the times he didn’t.
“I know fans always like to see that kind of stuff,” Reaves said. “I’m sure sometimes they’re frustrated. But I have a job to do. They’re the fans. I’m the player.”
The 6-foot-1, 224-pound right wing is now in his third NHL season. He’s the St. Louis enforcer, a player tasked with protecting his teammates when there is perceived wrongdoing on the ice. But that doesn’t mean he goes out of his way to start trouble. As much as it frustrates fight-crazed fans, Reaves — with the approval and encouragement of Blues coach Ken Hitchcock — has been avoiding unnecessary fights as he tries to become a more-complete player.
“Sometimes it’s not the time,” Reaves said of passing up certain opportunities to brawl. “Sometimes, the coaching staff doesn’t think it’s the time. I’ll always be there to stick up for the guys if need be. But, I’ve tried to get away from those kind of staged, fight-for-no-reason kind of things.”
According to hockeyfights.com, Reaves’ seven fights during this shortened season place him in a 10-way tie for 15th-most in the NHL. Tampa Bay Lightning right wing B.J. Crombeen, the league leader, has fought twice as often. Reaves has fought less this season than last. In 2011-12, his 13 fights tied for 11th-most in NHL regular season. The year before that — his first in the NHL — he fought eight times in 28 games.
As Reaves’ number of fights have declined, areas of his game have improved. This season, his average time on ice has increased by almost a minute, his shooting percentage has jumped from 9.4 to 16.7 and he has scored a career-high four goals.
Still, some fans would trade that progress for more fisticuffs. And that irks Hitchcock.
“He [Reaves] doesn’t do the things that some people want him to do, which I quite frankly think is a waste of time, unless it’s a retaliation to something gone bad, or kind of regulating what’s going on on the ice,” Hitchcock said. “He does that fine. But the other stuff, the sideshow part, I don’t want him to participate in that.”
“By being able to focus on being a hockey player, and playing the game the right way, he has a way bigger impact on the outcome,” the coach added. “That’s what we want him to do. He’s not a fourth-line player. He’s a third-line player that started his career on the fourth line.”
The night Phoenix was in town, it took Reaves 10 seconds to turn Bissonnette, the recipient of five rights to the face and one well-timed hip toss, into a crumpled pile on the ice. Reaves flexed and celebrated before entering the penalty box. Bissonnette got to his feet and shook his head. The electricity lingered.
“Who is your favorite player?” a woman on the Scottrade Center JumboTron asked a youth hockey player later that evening.
“Reaves,” the boy said to the crowd of 17,205.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because he gets into a lot of fights!” he said.
Right or wrong, plenty would like to see some more.
You can follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred) and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org