With scuffles breaking out across the ice between the Flyers and the visiting Seattle Kraken on Oct. 18, Nick Seeler stared down Kraken defenseman Jamie Oleksiak from over the referee’s shoulder. Suddenly, he threw the ref aside and lunged at Oleksiak.
Oleksiak, 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, had 5 inches and 50 pounds on Seeler, as well as a much longer reach, but Seeler didn’t back down. The two traded punches before Oleksiak got the advantage. While Oleksiak emerged the victor, it didn’t matter to Seeler, the Flyers, the announcers or the fans, who roared their approval.
Meanwhile, Zack MacEwen, who had just been claimed off waivers by the Flyers, was sitting at his home in Canada, waiting for his U.S. work visa so he could join his new team. As he watched the Flyers beat the Kraken 6-1 in the season’s second game, he couldn’t wait to cross the border.
“It was great,” MacEwen said of Seeler’s bout. “It was a great fight. He fought a guy that was way bigger than him, too. And, you know, he did really well. He can handle himself. He’s a big boy.
“That game was — that was a beatdown that they put on that team. It was exciting for me to come jump into this.”
Four games later, MacEwen got into the action himself, fighting Luke Schenn of his former team, the Vancouver Canucks.
In a Flyers organization fondly remembered for the Broad Street Bullies teams of the 1970s, a group that won two Stanley Cups and led the league in penalty minutes 10 straight seasons from 1972 through 1981, nobody will mistake Seeler or MacEwen for Dave “The Hammer” Schultz anytime soon. That said, both have shown they are prepared to drop the gloves if needed, whether it’s to defend their teammates or to change the momentum.
Since becoming a Flyer, MacEwen has fought three times. Seeler, who signed with the Flyers during the offseason after a year away from the game, has been in two.
Fights are rarely premeditated anymore and don’t happen as often as they used to, but both Seeler and MacEwen have put in hours of training to make sure they’re prepared for anything.
“It’s always good to practice things and work on things that are part of your game, and that’s part of both of our games,” Seeler said. “Obviously, we’re not going into a game looking for a fight, but if it happens, it happens. And you want to be the most prepared you can.”
Category 2 fighter
When Jeremy Clark first met Seeler, he said his impressions were that he was a nice, good-looking kid, and he had teeth. Clark’s goal, as Seeler’s boxing and jiujitsu coach, was to make sure he stayed that way.
Clark, who owns Minnesota Top Team and trains athletes across many sports, said there are three types of people who learn to fight. There are those who learn so that they can defend themselves if they’re attacked. There are those who want to be able to step up if the situation calls for it. And then there are those who do it for the sport of it and go looking for fights.
As the game has evolved, “enforcers” have started to fall more often in the second category. Clark, who has sparred with Flyers interim coach Mike Yeo and knows center Nate Thompson, said he’s seeing these types of players start to have skills beyond fighting. Morgan Rhynes, who trains MacEwen in the summers, described MacEwen similarly, saying that he sees him as more of a skilled player who has the ability to fight. Both MacEwen and Seeler fall solidly in Clark’s second category.
When the trainers evaluated them, they saw that both Seeler and MacEwen are big, strong, and powerful, but neither had much technique or control behind their punches.
With that in mind, Rhynes said he taught MacEwen how to handle taking a punch. Clark also first taught Seeler how to defend himself and not get hurt — or lose those teeth.
But it’s on ice
When Rhynes, who is an MMA fighter out of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, watches hockey fights, all he sees are opportunities.
“Even before I started working with hockey players, the way that they would hit is they were just trying to hit as hard and as fast as they could,” Rhynes said. “And me, as a coach, what I see is technique. I see openings.”
Rhynes, who coaches out of Moe’s Martial Arts Studio, has only recently started training professional athletes of other sports.
MacEwen was his first hockey player, and Rhynes has been studying and learning as he goes. Clark has a jump-start on Rhynes since he was first approached by NHL players more than a decade ago . But Clark also had to work through trial and error when he first began.
Hockey is the only professional sport (outside of combat sports) that allows for fighting. It doesn’t conform to one type of style — when the players are apart, it’s more like boxing, Rhynes said. Once they grab hold, it’s more like jiujitsu or judo, although the punches still go back to boxing. Additionally, everyone is different, Clark pointed out. Sometimes young players go to older players for advice, but the techniques the veterans use often don’t work for the younger players or against different opponents.
And everything happens on ice.
Footwork is the foundation of boxing, but hockey players can’t dance around their opponents while on skates. They have to focus on staying upright, so working on balance is one of the most important factors.
Clark describes it as the same as learning to skate. At first, you need both hands on the boards, but in this case, the boards is the opponent. Then, once you’ve practiced, you can move to one hand. Once you’re really getting the rhythm, you can let go.
Many hockey fights come down to the grips and holds, so that’s the second step in Clark’s training process. Clark uses jiujitsu to train Seeler and the other players to be “comfortable in an uncomfortable position.”
Punching is the last thing Clark teaches. The problem is that the lead leg for fighting is the opposite of the one for skating, so it goes back to footwork again as Clark tries to break players of old habits.
Through all the physical workouts, they’re also training players to be mentally tough. Clark said the saying that “everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face” is very true. Meanwhile, sayings like “squash your fears” are stupid. Fear is inevitable, so he tries to teach fighters to accept fear and learn to compartmentalize it.
Rhynes also emphasized the importance of the psychological training. He said that while training is 90% physical and 10% mental, actual fights are 10% physical and 90% mental. The players have taken these messages to heart.
“Every fight is different,” Seeler said. “You can go in with a plan. And then, you know, something completely different can happen. I think it’s just nice to have a baseline and have tools in the toolbox to be able to handle yourself well.”
When Seeler signed with the Flyers, he, his friends and his family were all excited for him to join a team with a reputation for being exactly as its mascot is — gritty.
Seeler has always had a gritty element to his game even before arriving in Philly and when MacEwen joined the team, he found a kindred spirit.
“Mac just happens to play a similar style, but he’s a forward,” Seeler said. “So I think we like the grittier side of the game.”
Like MacEwen, Seeler knew of his new teammate’s fighting skill before they joined the Flyers. He had watched MacEwen’s fights on the internet.
“Mac’s game is physical, but he also knows when a good time to step up is,” Seeler said. “He’s a really tough kid, and he can throw.”
MacEwen had a similar evaluation of Seeler.
“He’s a great guy off the ice,” MacEwen said. “Nice as can be. And he’s tough as they come. He’s a tough guy. I wouldn’t want to mess with him, so there you go.”
Now that they’re teammates, their fights are more exciting because they’re fighting not just for the same reasons but for the same people. They also get to trade tips and bounce ideas off each other.
In the locker room, the two of them talk about fights they see and fights they’ve been in. If one of them notices the other doing something in a fight that he hasn’t seen before, he’ll ask about it. Most of the talk happens behind the scenes, but recently, after practice, the two of them decided to get out there and put their ideas into practice.
While the other parts of the game take precedence during the season, fighting is something both MacEwen and Seeler want to be prepared for because it’s important to be able to stand up for their teammates.
“It’s something that will always be there, and when it’s necessary that I don’t mind doing and sometimes enjoy,” MacEwen said with a grin. “It’s just something that can get the boys going. It’s something that if there’s any liberties taken on anyone on the team, that’s something I can step up for.”