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Puckin' Around With Spector

Role of Enforcers Could Change

The recent off-season deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak has led to a growing chorus of critics calling for the National Hockey League to ban fighting.

That chorus includes former enforcers like Dave Schultz, holder of the single season record for most PIMs with 472, and Chris Nilan, the Montreal Canadiens all-time penalty minutes leader, who believe the role of enforcer has changed since their playing days in the 1970s and 1980s.

Rather than play a regular shift as Schultz and Nilan once did, today’s enforcers usually play less than five minutes per game, and rarely see action in the post-season.  They often engage in “staged fights”, whereby they simply line up with the opposite team’s enforcer during a face-off, agree to drop the gloves, and go at it.

Some of today’s enforcers, including recently retired Georges Laraque, didn’t take kindly to that criticism. Laraque called those former hockey brawlers who call for a ban on fighting to be selfish hypocrites.

Despite the criticism, it’s doubtful the NHL will put an outright ban on fighting.

Sure, league commissioner Gary Bettman could do it immediately if he wished, but there’s a very good reason why he won’t: hockey fights remain popular amongst the majority of fans.

Hockey Night in Canada personality Don Cherry often catches flak when he defends fighting and enforcers, but he’s absolutely correct when he points out the excitement in the stands whenever a fight breaks out on the ice.

It would take overwhelming disapproval of fighting from hockey fans to bring about its elimination from the NHL product, as well as from every other level in the sport.

While there have been some complaints about “staged fights”, there’s no evidence of any mounting distaste amongst fans toward the on-ice fisticuffs.

Still, the NHL brain trust aren’t ignorant of the criticism being levied their way.

While there is no apparent connection between the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak and their respective roles, the fact the three were linked by their on-ice roles could bring about an investigation into the place of enforcers in the game.

It’s doubtful we’ll see the elimination of the type of player whose ability to fight enables them to assume the role of “team policeman”, ensuring opponents don’t take liberties against their more talented teammates.

What could change, however, is these players could become required to contribute more to their overall game than just chucking knuckles.

That was certainly the case of many of the NHL’s all-time penalty minute leaders, such as Dave “Tiger” Williams, Dale Hunter, Tie Domi, Marty McSorley, Bob Probert, Chris Nilan and Rick Tochett.
Yes, they could fight, but their overall game made them valuable to their respective teams.

Williams, the all-time penalty minute leader, had six forty-plus point seasons in his 14-year NHL career, including a career-best 35 goal, 62 point performance with Vancouver in 1980-81.

Hunter, who’s second overall, finished his NHL career with 1,020 points in 1,407 regular season games, along with 118 points in 182 playoff games.

Tocchet, who’s tenth overall, netted 440 goals and 995 points in 1,144 NHL games, had 112 points in 140 playoff games, won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 1992, and played for Team Canada in the 1987 Canada Cup.

McSorley blossomed into a capable defenseman, with four 30-plus point seasons, played on two Stanley Cup championship teams in Edmonton and finished his career with 359 points in 961 NHL games.

Probert had four seasons with 40-plus points, including a career-best 62-point performance in 1987-88, earning a berth in the NHL all-star game.

Domi and Nilan developed from straightforward enforcers early in their careers into “energy players” taking regular shifts on the checking lines and occasionally seeing time on the scoring lines.

In the wake of the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak came reports from enforcers, both present and of the recent past, of the considerable stress involved in their roles, such as mentally preparing for the next bout with a rival scrapper in every game.

They also noted the stress of expectation, that if they didn’t “go” when ordered by coaches, or if they started to falter in their roles, that they risked being replaced, banished to the minors, their NHL careers over.

Several also admitted to abuse of prescription painkillers and alcohol both to cope with the stress of their roles and the constant physical pain from fighting.

It’s possible the league could try to limit the number of fights and reduce the stress upon enforcers by shifting them toward more well-rounded roles, whereby their pugilistic abilities are secondary to their primary roles.

The role of today’s enforcers, combined with the increase in their size and strength, has also given rise to concern over the possibility of a player being killed from a punch in a hockey fight.

While that has not happened in NHL history, the possibility does exist, and while enforcers as a rule don’t wish to inflict serious injury upon their opponent, that doesn’t mean a death from a hockey fight couldn’t happen one day.

To remove the requirement of enforcers to be merely fighters only and insist they have the skills to compete in other aspects of the NHL game won’t entirely remove that possibility of a hockey death from fighting, but the league might gamble on it reducing that risk.

It remains to be seen, of course, what action the NHL will take, but the criticism toward enforcers and fighting has been around for some time prior to the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak. Their passing merely stoked it.

It would be best for the league to become proactive in conducting an detailed investigation into the roles of their enforcers, the effects it has on them during and after their careers, and what can best be done to remove the stress from their roles while still making them worthwhile NHL players.

At the very least, the league certainly must immediately take action regarding recent claims from former players of the abuse of prescription painkillers, and especially amongst their enforcers.

The NHL doesn’t have the best record in addressing troubling issues, but with this particular issue, now would be a good time to become proactive, rather than ignoring the problem and hoping it’ll just go away.

If the league is unwilling to eliminate the enforcer from its game, changing their role could be the next best thing.


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About Puckin' Around With Spector

I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.

I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.