When the Anaheim Ducks sent Tim Jackman to their American Hockey League affiliate on Nov. 2, it was a difficult assignment for the veteran forward, who had been a healthy scratch much of the season before being placed on waivers. But there were some familiar faces that welcomed the longtime enforcer, who led the Ducks in penalty minutes last season despite being limited to 55 games.
The physical winger felt right at home when he entered the San Diego Gulls' locker room and was greeted by Brian McGrattan, Shane O'Brien and Stu Bickel, three other hard-nosed players who made their bones in the NHL collecting plenty of penalty minutes.
With the role of enforcer being mostly abandoned by the NHL, these players have found a place with the Gulls. And San Diego's fearsome foursome now makes up one of the most intimidating groups in pro hockey.
"I've trained with Bicks, we did some boxing one summer trying to prepare for the upcoming season. So we spent some time punching each other in the face," said Jackman, 34. "Me and Shane O'Brien, we used to battle quite a bit when he was in Colorado and I was in Calgary. He plays tough and he slashes and he's kind of dirty. We always went at it."
San Diego doesn't seem like the most likely destination for a tough-as-nails group that has been squeezed out of the NHL game. But here the four enforcers are, and their game certainly hasn't softened now that they've been relegated to the AHL in recent years. Through 22 games, Bickel led the American league with 94 penalty minutes. Through 25 games, McGrattan was eighth with 72 PIMs.
It's a formidable group in San Diego, one that collected a combined 2,534 penalty minutes in 1,413 NHL games. That combined career total is within striking distance of entire active NHL rosters.
"I didn't think Jacks was going to be here. That was an added bonus," said Bickel, 29. "I knew what kind of crew it was going to be. It's nice. You don't have to do all the heavy lifting yourself."
The group has made the Gulls a popular draw in their first year in San Diego. But it is also indicative of a game that has seen the designated on-ice security detail mostly eliminated. Each of these veterans has come to terms with the changing face of the NHL, but it has done little to discourage their physical play.
In San Diego's 3-1 win against the Ontario Reign on Nov. 28, the four longtime enforcers combined for two fights and 34 penalty minutes. Led by McGrattan's 25 minutes, the four-player total was more than Ontario's 27 minutes as a team. Three nights earlier, Bickel's 12 total penalty minutes outpaced the entire Texas Stars roster in a 5-3 loss.
It's an element fans aren't likely to find in the NHL. Which makes the Gulls not only something of an anomaly in the changing world of pro hockey, but a throwback to what the NHL was like not that long ago when the likes of McGrattan and O'Brien were plying their trade.
"It's getting pushed out in the NHL pretty fast," said McGrattan, 34. "That's why a lot of guys are here, but that's life. That's the way it is. It's kind of thriving down here, which is good. It keeps guys employed and we'll see where it goes from here. It's kind of dying off a little bit. We're kind of the last of a generation, so hopefully we can keep it going."
That's a compelling statement coming from McGrattan, who was one of the most intimidating players in the NHL for a decade. His countless NHL battles are well documented, but the young Ducks prospects building their game in San Diego can also track them in McGrattan's numerous scars, tattoos and menacing scowls. The soft-spoken enforcer isn't likely to share his own war stories, but the intimidating presence he still provides speaks volumes.
"He did it for a long time in the National Hockey League and fought some of the toughest guys that ever played in the NHL. He has that demeanor about him out there," said Jackman. "He has that intimidating factor when he's on the ice and on the bench. He makes everyone feel a little taller."
Add O'Brien, Bickel and now Jackman to the mix, and plenty of opposing AHL players are suddenly coming down with bad cases of the San Diego flu.
"McGrattan is arguably the toughest guy in the NHL for 10 years," said O'Brien, 32. "Jackman is not scared. Bicks will fight anyone. We have a lot of team toughness. Hopefully the young guys feel a little safer out there. We're not going to get pushed around, that's for sure. If you see a team with a lot of tough guys on it, you know it's going to be a long night."
The group of tenured fighters has come together nicely in San Diego, providing an on-ice bodyguard for some of Anaheim's most prized prospects, most notably Nick Ritchie, Shea Theodore and John Gibson, who was called up to the Ducks in November. That physical veteran core has only grown tougher since Jackman's arrival.
But there's a certain sense of foreboding to Jackman's assignment. McGrattan, O'Brien and Bickel provided familiar faces, but the three longtime enforcers combined to play 26 NHL games last season. And there hasn't been any indication they will get the call from Anaheim anytime soon.
It's a sign of a changing NHL: a faster, less physical league that members of the enforcer fraternity have been forced to come to terms with.
"I don't really think about it. I was blessed to play as long as I did. I was an eighth-round pick. I played over 500 games in almost 10 full seasons in the NHL. The game doesn't owe me anything," said O'Brien. "Obviously we all want to be playing in the NHL, but I have no regrets. I know my situation and I'm playing in a great city with a great group of guys. If Anaheim thinks at some point they need my services, I'll try to be ready to go. But I'm happy and I feel blessed."