If Dennis Polonich wasn’t a hockey player, he’d be one of the henchmen in a gangster film noir. And he’d be the short guy with a toothpick in his mouth, wearing a Fedora, playing with a coin and standing outside a storefront.
Polo, as they called him when he played for the Red Wings in the 1970s, would have been one of the muscle sent in to “work over” or “give the business” to a hapless store owner who balked at the offer of protection.
It wouldn’t have mattered if the mark Polo was sent to beat up was half a foot taller than he. He’d be just as pugnacious as ever.
Polonich wore No. 8 when he played for the Red Wings, and that was about how many inches above five feet he stood, even on skates. Most of his fighting opponents missed when they swung at Polo because they kept swinging over him.
There wasn’t a player in the NHL whom Polonich wouldn’t take on. He was the Red Wings’ designated pugilist, their fearless thug.
You didn’t even need to follow the team to know that Polo was the scrapper; all you needed to do was look at his face. He had a nose broken so many times that it formed an “S” from the bridge to the nostrils. His eyes were perpetually blown up. He looked like Chuck Wepner after the fight with Ali—all the time.
But Polonich had spunk and heart. While his team was a laughing stock, Dennis Polonich never was. There were some nights when a Polonich fight was worth the price of admission at Olympia Stadium.
It all ended abruptly for Polonich, however—his days as a mini heavyweight.
The incident occurred in October 1978, at Olympia. A tough customer named Wilf Paiement of the Colorado Rockies brutalized Polonich with a swing—of his hockey stick, which struck Polonich in the face. Paiement was suspended for 15 games by the league. In a sport where they give you five minutes for something that would get you five years in real life, a suspension of that length was shocking. Polo sued and got $850,000, eventually.
After the Paiement incident, Polonich was never the same. He was 25 years old and washed up, a has-been. His best days as a fighter were behind him. Polo was out of the NHL by age 29 after bobbing up and down between the Red Wings and the minors.
Since Polonich’s salad days, Hockeytown has been thrilled by true heavyweights—bruisers like Bob Probert, Joey Kocur, Darren McCarty and Brendan Shanahan. They were all big men who ate little dudes like Polonich for a pre-game snack.
But no doubt that Polo would have taken each of them on, even if it meant yet another rearrangement of his S-shaped nose.
The Red Wings, I swear, now employ Dennis Polonich reincarnate.
Jordin Tootoo is 5’9”, according to those game programs that often have trouble using a yardstick. If he’s 5'9", then they measured him on skates and while he was wearing two helmets.
No matter. Tootoo, whose name is as fun to type as it is to say, is Polonich-like because he’s a shrimp who has done nothing except get into scraps with one big dude after the other in this still-young NHL season.
Tootoo just turned 30 and is a first-time Red Wing after having played eight years in Nashville, where he garnered a reputation of being as annoying as a mosquito but with the hitting ferocity of a Mack truck.
Both traits have been on full display since the Red Wings hit the ice on January 19 to start the truncated (thanks to the lockout), 48-game regular season.
Tootoo started the season like he was shot out of a pistol—mainly because he’s too small for a cannon.
He came out swinging—literally. Twice he’s gotten into fights off the opening faceoff. On another occasion, he dropped the gloves twice in the first period. He has delivered hits that you normally see when a freight train collides with a bicycle.
Tootoo even resembles Polonich—both in body and face. Tootoo has that same smushed in aspect to his visage that Polonich had, mainly because his face has been smushed in from repeated running into the glass and running into opponents’ punches.
For years, Tootoo has vexed opponents with his tenacity and uncanny ability to get under everyone’s skin. Typical mini hockey heavyweight.
He’s only been a Red Wing for 10 games and already Tootoo has his teammates singing his praises, mainly for his fighting. The Red Wings haven’t really had a fighter since McCarty and Aaron Downey retired several years ago. They tried guys like Brad May but no one really stuck on the roster.
Tootoo is going to stick. He will soon play in his 500th career NHL game, and the Red Wings signed him to bring needed grit and some right crosses. He’s not a passing fad. He’s not a scoring one, either. After 10 games Tootoo has one point (an assist), and 30 penalty minutes. He was signed for his fists, not his hands.
Tootoo plays the game at knee level to most of the rest of the league, yet he can scrap with the best of them. His hits are Titanic. He knocked down Philip Larsen of the Dallas Stars a few weeks ago like a spare bowling pin.
The crowds in Detroit, naturally, have taken to him like a bee to honey. Or a fist to a face. Tootoo’s name makes for great crowd chanting. Already Joe Louis Arena has been filled with “TOO-TOO” reverberating around the building.
Jordin Tootoo is the first little guy fighter the Red Wings have had since Dennis Polonich. It must be noted that Polonich actually scored 18 goals one season; Tootoo’s career high is 11, back in 2007-08.
But Tootoo is 30 and still doing it. Polonich was retired by that age, victimized by an enraged opponent who used his stick like a homeowner uses a baseball bat at 2 a.m.
Watching the Red Wings this season hasn’t been the stress-free, frolicking time it’s been in the past. The team now struggles to shove past .500. But keep your eyes on Jordin Tootoo, No. 22 in your program, which is the only number in that rag that speaks truth about him.
Don’t believe the 5’9”, but believe the hits and the fights. He’s got the S-shaped nose to back them up.
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