Photograph by Dave Courtney
Following his junior career, Micheal Haley went undrafted. After a final season with the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors of the Ontario Hockey League, where he put up 30 goals and 174 penalty minutes, the hard-nosed forward turned pro and joined the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL). Although the NHL was a long way from “the Coast,” as Haley calls it, he remained determined to break into the league one day.
In 2007, the pugnacious center signed with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the New York Islanders’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate. After a solid training camp where he recalls recording at least six fights in a handful of exhibition games, Haley and his former junior teammate, Tyler Haskins, received word at their hotel that they needed to meet with the head coach. When they arrived in Jack Capuano’s office, he said, “what are you guys doing here?” It turned out that they had intercepted a message that was actually for their roommates. Nevertheless, despite the awkward start to the encounter, Capuano informed Haley and Haskins that they had both made the team. Elated by the news, Haley went back and told his family and friends about his promotion. But when he showed up at the rink the next day, Haley found out the Islanders were sending two forwards down to Bridgeport and, just like that, he was bound for the Coast.
Although Haley was initially disappointed, after playing hard and slugging it out with the Utah Grizzlies in the ECHL, he was recalled by the Tigers. After spending three years in the American League, Haley made his NHL debut with the Islanders on April 10, 2010. As he continued grinding it out in the AHL, he gradually got more opportunities in the NHL until he became a full-time regular with the Sharks in 2016-17.
This year, Haley is with the Panthers and is building on the success he found in San Jose. Although fighting is down in the NHL, Haley leads the league in fighting majors, but he has also found other ways to endear himself to Florida head coach Bob Boughner, who has put Haley in the lineup for 71 games this season, a nice career high.
Violent Gents caught up with Haley by phone on March 21, the day after he logged nearly 15 minutes in a blowout victory over the Senators, in which he picked up an assist and spent some time on the penalty kill. He talked about his role in the NHL, being a father, and his red-hot Panthers.
Did you know you were going to get into a fight in your first NHL game?
MH: I would have found a fight regardless. I didn’t know if I was going to play another NHL game ever again, so I made sure I got on that game sheet some way.
Speaking of getting on the game sheet, on February 11, 2011, you scored your first NHL goal in a game against the Penguins and got into three fights, including one with goaltender Brent Johnson. How did all that happen?
MH: I didn’t actually get to fight him. I would’ve loved to, but [Eric] Godard jumped off the bench, so they were both fighting me at the same time. In the beginning, I thought I could keep going for a few seconds and someone would grab Godard, but he’s a big boy and after I felt one or two in the back of my head, I decided it was probably better to go down.
Johnson broke Rick DiPietro’s face the game before when they had fought, but I didn’t go into that one thinking I was going to fight him. It just so happened that I got off of [Maxime] Talbot and there were no refs around me and he [Johnson] was sitting at the blue line, so it just kind of happened. It was one of those crazy games. That game was actually my third NHL game and my first NHL goal. I had three fights and got kicked out of the game, but I remembered my goal the best.
Where do you see the role of fighting in today’s NHL?
MH: I don’t think they will ever be able to say there’s no fighting. I think that with what they’re doing in junior and the minors, they’re limiting fights and that’s their way of slowly trying to weed it out, but I don’t think it will ever be gone. I, obviously, don’t want it to go. I think it’s a huge part of the game and necessary. I don’t think they’re going to take it out, but with all these new rules, it will slowly diminish the type of fights you’ll see and they’ll be different.
Even in today’s game, if you don’t have someone who can defend your teammates or stick up for guys, you see that there are players who will notice that and try to make that extra big hit. They don’t have to fight, but I think you still need to have someone who will make players think twice. I think that should always be in hockey.
Did becoming a father change your approach to your game at all?
MH: It didn’t change me. If anything, it made me more determined. Now I’ve got to provide. I’m living my dream here in the NHL and like I said, it’s part of hockey, so I don’t look at it as a negative or anything like that. My oldest son, he knows that I fight. He’s not old enough to think that I am just a fighter, but he knows I play hockey and in hockey there are fights.
You have two sons, knowing what you know now about concussions and their long-term impact, how would you feel if they wanted to follow in your footsteps with the type of game you play?
MH: That’s a tough question. When I’m talking about my own health, it’s different than your children’s health. I would never willingly want them to do anything that could be bad for them in any aspect, but by the same token, you can get hurt doing anything in this world. You can get hurt walking across the street. I think as long as you take the necessary precautions, but if that’s what they want to do, that’s what they do. But, obviously, as a parent, I would love to steer them away from my type of punishment. My oldest son loves hockey and he’s a pretty good little player, but I’m not breeding him to be like me. I would much rather he be like [Aleksander] Barkov or [Sidney] Crosby.
Photograph by Dave Courtney
You’ve reached a career high this season with the Panthers in games played. What do you think has contributed to your banner year in Florida?
MH: I think coming in here, Bob Boughner getting the head coaching job helped a lot. He coached me in San Jose. We had a good rapport, he knows me well, and I know the style he likes to play. Coming into Florida, we have a pretty young team, actually a young, skilled team. Those first couple lines especially with Barkov and [Vincent] Trocheck, they’re super skilled. I think that after Thorty [Shawn Thornton] retired, they wanted that same kind of player. They didn’t want to get pushed around and run out of buildings.
The first couple months there were some growing pains, but now we’re on a roll and I think we’ve built a culture here where we’re all in it together. Having that physical presence every night has really helped with that. I think even as a team now, we’re leading the league in fights by a lot. Obviously, if you take me away, we don’t have prototypical fighters, but we’ve built that whole ‘you mess with one, you mess with us all’ type attitude. I think that’s been the biggest thing here.
Following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, your goaltender, Roberto Luongo, gave an impassioned speech before a game. Do you think his address galvanized the team and brought it closer to the community?
MH: I live in the same neighborhood. Him doing that speech and the tragedy in our community, any time you have the ability to deflect some of the pain, even for that short little bit, and give them something to rally around is important. It was a touching speech and definitely was an important game for us as well. I think that happening not only brought our team together but also the community. It just goes to show how we can all rally around each other. We’ve just kept the ball rolling and hopefully, we can give them something more to cheer for.
The postseason is in sight for the Panthers. How do you feel about potentially playing in a playoff game for the first time in five years?
MH: We don’t want to look too far ahead. We focus now on every game and getting those two points and it’s been working. Hopefully, as long as we do our job and keep winning as many games as we can, all the chips will fall where they may and we’ll be going to the playoffs. For us, right now, the playoffs is our goal, but we’re trying to focus on staying within us and making sure we’re ready every game. Obviously, with San Jose, we went all the way to the Cup Final there, but I didn’t get to play in any of the playoff games. So, it would be a good feeling and exciting time if we made the playoffs and I could get into some of those.
Photograph by Dave Courtney
*Since Micheal Haley Spoke with Violent Gentlemen, the Panthers have gone 2-3-1 and are now in jeopardy of missing the playoffs. Haley drew into the lineup for three of those contests, including Florida's game against Boston on March 31, in which he fought Adam McQuaid in a 5-1 loss.