BOSTON – Milt Schmidt played in an era when skill players and fighters and checkers weren’t divided into groups.
If you played in the NHL in the Hall-of-Famer’s day, you did it all. And if you’re Nathan Horton, and you’re trying to squash all rumors about your lack of passion and love for the game you make your living playing, sometimes you have to pretend like you’re in Milt Schmidt’s era.
So tonight on Milt Schmidt Night – honoring the Bruins great’s 75 years of service to hockey, mostly spent in the Boston organization – Horton showed his hot hands could be used for more than scoring goals (of which he has buried five in seven games).
Finally deciding that his game-long verbal and physical battle with Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf had to end, Horton dropped the gloves and his helmet – as did the Leafs defenseman – for a short-but-sweet bout between two guys known more for their stats than their fists. When Phaneuf took a swipe at Horton from his back, Horton decided not to let up. That cost the Bruins forward a 10-minute misconduct.
“We kind of had a little battle going throughout the game, talking a lot. And then I just maybe tried to put an end to it in the game. That’s how it went,” said Horton, who hadn’t earned a fighting major since the 2008 preseason.
“I want to do anything to give my teammates a boost, help them. Obviously, we were winning, but I picked the right spot I guess,” he continued.
While Phaneuf was the opponent right in front of Horton in the second period of the Bruins’ 2-0 win at TD Garden, the veteran winger might as well have been exchanging blows with every scout and pundit that has doubted him since his days in Florida.
Horton proved his NHL knack for scoring with 31 goals in 2006-07, but his scoring total has slipped every year since. His skills have hardly come into question, but his attitude has always been a sticking point. The respected McKeen’s hockey yearbook this season wrote of Horton’s ability to use his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame to play a “power game.” But the scouting reporting goes on to explain,
“… comes up mysteriously short in the intensity battles and can lose focus defensively, exhibiting lazy body language and stick preparation … needs to operate at full passion on both sides of the puck to help compensate for a lack of elite hockey sense … simply doesn’t have a good feel for the game some nights.”
Ouch. Reading that probably hurts more than getting a sucker-punch from Phaneuf. Luckily, arriving in Boston has lit a fire under Horton. In addition to his impressive scoring line, he is fourth on the Bruins in hits by forwards and is a plus-3. His burning desire might be hidden behind a never-wavering, ear-to-ear grin and might not always be expressed on the ice other than through in his laser-like slap shot, but it’s seemingly there like a candle waiting for some gasoline.
“It’s definitely nice to see him get that emotion revved up,” said Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who was briefly a teammate of Horton’s in Florida last season. “He’s been talking about getting into a fight the whole season. ‘I can’t wait for my first fight,’ he kept saying. And tonight was a good night for him to show it.”
Bruins center Gregory Campbell, no stranger to the rough-and-tumble aspects of the game, has been Horton’s teammate the longest dating back to their days prowling as Panthers. He knew Horton had a feisty side.
“I’ve seen it before. He has a temper,” said Campbell. “He’s got the ability to snap and he’s a competitive guy. Him and Phaneuf were going back and forth. I think people kind of overlook the fact that he can do that because he’s so skilled.
“That goes a long way when you see a guy do that that’s not known for doing that.”
Horton could be forgiven if in the few months he has been a Bruin he hasn’t had time to brush up on his history of the club. However, he seemed to have a pretty good idea about Schmidt’s accomplishments and standing with the organization.
“It’s his night and we wanted to give him a little cherry on his cake,” said Horton of the winning the game for Schmidt.
It’ll be interesting to see how Horton responds when things aren’t going as well as they are now. A six- or seven-game scoring slump, or a five- or six-game losing streak, could prove challenging. But for now everything that Horton does above and beyond scoring goals, is icing on his and the Bruins’ cake.
And his actions basically throw pie in the face of those that questioned his ability to bring such a complete, passionate game.