By Robert Tychkowski
To their enemies, and they number in the hundreds, they are the biggest jerks in sports - back-stabbers and cheap-shot artists who run off at the mouth and hide behind the instigator penalty.
But to hear the NHL's super pests tell it, they're just regular guys who play hard, hit hard, no matter who they have in their sights, and shouldn't have to apologize for trying to bring a little intensity to the game.
Shift disturbers, that's all.
"Most of all it's just being physical, checking guys," said Vancouver's Jarkko Ruutu, as good (or bad) an agitator as countryman Esa Tikkanen ever was. "A lot of guys get frustrated by that. So you're stirring it up a bit and you get a certain label."
The labels are many. Agitators. Antagonists. Troublemakers. Or, as opponents like to call them, dirty, cheatin' !#&%$ers.
"I'm fine with that. It means I'm doing my job," said Tyson Nash, an Edmonton-born handful who's been a needle in the NHL's side for years. "But I wouldn't consider myself a dirty player at all. I don't go after knees or cross-check guys in the face or throw elbows, I just finish my checks. If a guy has his head down, whether it's their best player or their worst player, I'm going to try and bury him."
"And when guys get hit, especially by a smaller guy, they're not going to like it. You throw a stinky glove in their face and it seems to add that much more fuel to the fire."
Nobody begins their hockey career wanting to be an agitator - nobody with talent, anyway - it sort of evolves over time. Like a weed. Ruutu. Nash. Sean Avery. Steve Ott. Denis Gauthier. They all morphed from go-to guys on their amateur teams to guys you want to get at in the bigs.
"I think all of us were scorers at one point," said Nash. "But in the minors I started to realize I wasn't going to be a goal scorer in the NHL. I wasn't a big guy, and I wasn't that offensive, so I knew I had to do something to stick at the next level. This was it.
"And growing up an Oilers fan, Esa Tikkanen and Ken Linesman were guys I enjoyed watching. Hey, we all wanted to be Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, but unfortunately we couldn't."
When you're an agitator, being universally despised comes with the territory. So does playing with a bull's-eye on your back. The minute a game gets out of reach, all of your enemies start circling like sharks, dying to get even. The pests get as much as they give.
"It's part of the job," shrugged Ruutu. "I live with it every game I play. If I'm not aware of what's happening around me, I want to make short plays, get rid of the puck, because I know that every single guy on the ice wants to get me."
"Early on in my career, it was crazy," adds Nash. "Joel Quenneville in St. Louis wouldn't even play me in the last 10 minutes of a game if we were up or down because he knew guys were coming out to kill me. You take that as a compliment, but it's exhausting - every night you have to be at the top of your game and have your head on a swivel."
On the other hand, their opponents say the troublemakers have it easy, that they hide behind the instigator penalty like it's their mama's skirt.
"That's what I don't really understand about the new rules," said San Jose tough guy Scott Parker. "All they do is give guys like that more room."
Well? "All of us, to some degree, have to fight," said Nash. "You know you're not going to fight the heavyweights, but there are guys we do have to fight, guys like ourselves, the Averys, the Dan Hinotes. If they're running around, I know I have to go after them. They're not going to fight a guy like Laraque, but they will fight a guy like me."
"I know there's heavyweights that want to fight me," adds Ruutu. "But I'm not stupid. At the same time, it's part of the game to get emotions involved."
It's an aspect of the game every team seems to be in search of. On how many nights, when the Oilers were in sleepwalk mode, could they have used a guy to light a powder keg under the game?
You look on just about every team nowadays, they seem to have one guy like that," said Nash. "It can really help if a team comes out flat or there's a line that's not playing well."
It isn't glamorous work, but it keeps them in The Show. "Trust me, I'd rather be scoring goals," chuckled Nash. "But we're not all blessed with that talent."