Quick, what’s the easiest way to start a fierce debate about the game of hockey? If you said “Talk about how awesome shootouts are,” well, yeah that would probably get some old school fans pretty fired up. But on an even greater level, all you have to do is bring up hockey fights. Some fans love them. Some fans detest them. People who aren’t fans usually point to that as one of the reasons hockey is awful and barbaric.

I’m in the middle on the issue, because I think sometimes a fight is a necessary part of the game. When some plug (like Joe Vitale for example) crashes the net, spears the goalie a little, and when the ref turns his back, takes a slash at another team’s star defenseman (all things Joey V has done without remorse), sometimes a guy needs to step up and show that his team can’t be pushed around that easily.

The key in those fights is that the participants are playing hockey to begin with. Crashing the net? Hockey play. Cross-checking a forward parked in front of your goalie? Hockey play. Devastating shoulder-to-shoulder hit on that crafty forward who doesn’t see you? Hockey play. What isn’t a hockey play is two guys coming out for their only shift of the game, pummeling each other as the puck drops, and never getting on the ice again. What I’m saying is that the days of the meathead enforcer are nearly over at the NHL level. Eric Godard and Georges Laraque have retired, Colton Orr and Riley Cote have vanished into thin air, and Raitis Ivanans may still not have woken up after our very own Steve MacIntyre punched the consciousness out of him on opening night in 2010.

I used to be in the anti-MacIntyre camp, that is until I saw him play in Wilkes-Barre. The first thing to understand is that MacIntyre knows how to play hockey. He may not be the quickest skater, nor does he have the softest hands (quite the opposite), but he knows where to go when he’s forechecking, he knows where he should be in his own zone, and most importantly for a guy like him, other players are absolutely terrified of him.

Perhaps the finest performance he’s had this season occurred about a week ago against the Syracuse Crunch. Crunch defenseman Dmitry Korobov made the questionable career decision to cheap-shot Steve MacIntyre with a boarding penalty from behind. (Korobov did, strangely enough, leave the arena alive that night.) Korobov’s true mistake, however, was that he didn’t kill Steve MacIntyre, who came back more powerful than anyone could imagine. Without a heavyweight fighter on their roster (Radko Gudas spent the game hitting small guys and then hiding on the bench from Mac), there was no one on the team to stand up to the big man, and he took full advantage.

MacIntyre played a power forward’s game without the puck on his stick, parking in the opponent’s crease, battling for pucks in the corners, and smashing defensemen as they made passes. His steady physical play began to earn him more ice time and better linemates as the game wore on, and the Crunch was visibly unwilling to engage him by the third period. Forwards wouldn’t backcheck when Mac rushed up the ice. Defensemen would swat the puck away indiscriminately when he chased it into the zone. When the puck ended up in the corners, no one would even battle him for it. It got to the point where MacIntyre facewashed everyone on the ice on his way back to the bench, and they stood there and took it because no one would stand up to him. One player said something to him as he got away from the crowd, but Mac shot him a look and he turned and skated away with his tail between his legs. It was the best game a guy like Steve MacIntyre could hope to have. He had a noticeable effect on the other team and made an actual difference in the game.

All that said, the Penguins unfortunately lost that game 4-0 thanks to a putrid effort by everyone else on the team. Sometimes a player can have a great game in a losing effort (think goaltenders), and that particular performance showed the kind of value Steve MacIntyre can have, especially at the AHL level. It’s not just “take shots at your superstar” or “exchange punches with other team’s meathead.” It had an effect on the hockey game, and it made the other team play softer and make mistakes. It might not work quite that well at the NHL level, but Steve MacIntyre is definitely a proven asset for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

Brian can be found on Twitter, @BlitzburghBrian