Friday, 29 June 2012

What’s In A Name?

The designated tough guy on any hockey team has been referred to as: an enforcer, a policeman, a fighter, a goon, and probably some other not-so-polite terms called out from team benches.  Let’s explore the term “enforcer” to see if the name is still valid in today’s hockey, and if role still has the same meaning.

From, here is their definition of enforcer:

  1. a person or thing that enforces.
  2. the member of a group, especially of a gang, charged with keeping dissident members obedient.
  3. a person, especially a public official, who enforces  laws, regulations, rules, or the like.
  4. Also called policeman. Ice Hockey . a physically intimidating or willingly belligerent player who is counted on to retaliate when rough tactics are used by the opposing team.

The first definition doesn’t really work for me.  Hockey enforcers aren’t really doing any enforcing as their activity is always after the fact – it’s more revenge and retribution.  And despite the the perception that they protected the stars back in the glory years, the mid-1970’s to late 1980’s, the stats show that non-fighting PIMs increase proportionally to fights per game.   The more enforcers you have, the more cheap shots are evident in the league.  Those glory years were full of stick-swinging, spearing, slashing and elbows.

The second definition is not a good fit, although some might stretch the term “gang” to the NHLPA.   The third option references laws, regulations and rules so it also is not perfect.  Hockey enforcers don’t follow the rule book when deciding to drop the gloves and “the code” is applied by emotional response and changed to fit the infraction. 

So we’re left with “a willingly belligerent player who is counted on to retaliate”.   I like the fact that, likely not staffed by hockey fans, understands that there is no enforcing and it’s all about retaliation.   This option is also better than “policeman” because that is an insult to an organization that protects the public.   I also don’t like “goon” as that denigrates individuals who, through mutual exploitation, are finding a way to chase their dream of playing professional hockey.

The same website also makes it known that in the 1930’s the term “enforcer” was used as slang by gangs or the mafia, for someone who kept others in line.   I seem to remember the term “policeman” being used back in the late 1960’s (early teen years for me) but my memory of the first time I heard “hockey enforcer” would have been in the 1980’s.  I’ll let the historians and older generation hockey journalists correct me on that.

It’s obvious that the NHL, NHLPA, general managers and coaches all believe that enforcers are still needed, otherwise they would legislate them out of the game or stop adding them to team rosters.  But if they believe that the role is still valid, isn’t that an admission that they cannot control illegal play?   Continuing to put players on the payroll whose primary role is dropping the gloves means teams have no faith in the referees to keep the game clean.  By continuing to tolerate fighting in the game, the NHL and NHLPA also demonstrate that their disciplinary system is useless in curbing behaviour that causes acts of revenge on the ice.  There’s some irony in that concept, that as a group they have no confidence in eliminating illegal acts from the sport, so they support a group of players who engage in illegal acts.

So we should assume that league and team management will continue to put their faith in additional discipline in the form of an “enforcer”.  They actually believe that turning loose a biased, emotional and undisciplined player, skilled primarily in punching and grabbing, is just as important as a trained professional referee.  If the on-ice official missed a call, or the league does not hand out a suspension for a particularly violent act, then all stakeholders in the professional sport of hockey support having a player challenge the culprit and punch him in the face.   Read that last sentence several times and try to reconcile “professional” with “punch him in the face”.

The concept of allowing players to police the game is absurd.  They are emotionally attached to their own team, they are not seeking revenge based on the rule book and their perception of illegal acts tends to include solid legal hits on teammates or running up the score against them late in a game.   By having a high level of tolerance for an activity that is against the rules – fighting – you run the risk of players attempting to force others to fight for some unwritten “code”.   Hockey will always be just on the edge of another incident like McSorley – Brashear or Bertuzzi – Moore.

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