Ray: 'It's not something I planned'
The Sabres enforcer put up record numbers in penalty minutes, but his legacy is in the rulebook.
Rob Ray had his share of memorable moments in the National Hockey League.
He scored his first goal on his very first shot in the NHL. He scored the winner in Game 4 of the 1999 Eastern Conference final, which turned into a 3-1 series lead for the Buffalo Sabres and an eventual trip to the Stanley Cup final. He also won the King Clancy Memorial Award that year, acknowledgement for his leadership and humanitarian contributions.
But his most lasting legacy will be the "Rob Ray Rule," a paragraph under "Rule 56. Fisticuffs" in the NHL rulebook:
A player who deliberately removes his sweater prior to participating in an altercation or who is clearly wearing a sweater that has been modified and does not conform to Rule 24A - Players' Jerseys shall be assessed a minor penalty for Unsportsmanlike Conduct and a game misconduct. This is in addition to other penalties to be assessed to the participants of an altercation.
A player who engages in fisticuffs and whose sweater is removed (completely off his torso), other than through the actions of his opponent in the altercation or through the actions of the Linesman, shall be assessed a game misconduct penalty.
A player who engages in fisticuffs and whose sweater is not properly "tied-down" (sweater properly fastened to pants), and who loses his sweater (completely off his torso) in that altercation, shall receive a game misconduct.
"Honestly it's not something I planned," Ray said of his talent for losing his shirt in a hockey fight. "It was just something that evolved. If your role in the game is to be a fighter, well, just like a goal scorer or a goaltender, you're always looking for an edge. That whole thing just sort of happened."
The league was horrified at the sight of a half-naked men flailing away at an opponent with roundhouse rights and straight-ahead lefts while crowds roared in delight. It was a scene straight out of the movie "Slap Shot."
But that wasn't Ray's original intent.
"At first I was just wearing a loose sweater with the idea that I could get my arm out of it and then the guy I was going against couldn't grab my arm and hold it down," Ray said. "After awhile the sweater started coming off all together, and then it was my shoulder pads and it kind of went on from there."
When Ray reached a point that he was shirtless, padless and flashing a goodly amount of skin, the NHL stepped in.
"I remember the rule was specifically set up because of Razor," said Ottawa Senators general manager John Muckler, who was GM of the Sabres when the league decided to crack down on Ray's "a peel". "I don't think they liked what they were seeing."
Ray said didn't mean to make a spectacle of his altercations, he was just exploiting an advantage.
"That was the intent," Ray said. "But after awhile you could tell that the crowd was really getting into it. I didn't think it was such a bad thing. It certainly brought some entertainment into it."
Ray may have gone to an extreme in that regard, but his antics were really just another advancement in the league's always shifting lines regards hockey and fisticuffs.
"It was amazing the things guys would do," said Ray, now retired and a commentator on Buffalo Sabres broadcasts. "I knew guys who would cut various pieces of their equipment so that it would rip away in a fight. I knew guys who would spray silicone on themselves (mostly the arms of their sweaters) to make them slippery and impossible to grab. Guys would practice the quickest ways to lose their gloves and some guys would sew Velcro into their equipment so when they went to shed something it wouldn't fall and then the other guy would drop his stuff and end up with a penalty.
"There were all kinds of things and I guess I tried most of them. Losing the shirt was just something that kind of progressed to that point."
Once it became common practice to see hockey's version of John L. Sullivan stripped to the waist and striking the classic bare-knuckles pose, the league took action.
"When you think about it, it's all pretty amazing," Ray said. "I'm not the biggest guy in the world and I certainly didn't set out to be a fighter. When I was in the minors, I didn't think I could even do it on an every night basis, but I had a coach (John VanBoxmeer) who told me that if I wanted to get to this level I would have to be one of those guys who battled every night. I never thought I would have a rule named after me."
Then again Ray never thought he would set penalty-minute records, either.
"You come into the game with an idea that it would be nice just to make the NHL, even if it means you only played one game," he said. "And then it goes on and takes something of a life of its own after that.
"It's a funny league that way."
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.