Thursday 9 October 2014

The End Of The Enforcer?

This past week several articles appeared that asked that question and then reported on the number of enforcers who are out of work or were put on waivers and sent to the minors.  There was wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst the fight fans and former enforcers were quoted saying the direction was a mistake.  However, although in my opinion these player moves were positive for hockey, I suspect the NHL fight culture didn’t change overnight.

I have to admit that I was surprised at the number of teams making a conscious decision to focus on rolling 4 complete lines versus making room for a dedicated face puncher.  I would have thought that an elimination of enforcers would have been more gradual and some teams, notably Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia, would have to be dragged into the culture change.   But this preseason we saw enforcers were being released from tryouts at a record rate.   Toronto sends 3 tough guys to the minors and hang onto a skilled player who’s only 5’ 8”.  Philadelphia gets recognition for not having an enforcer in the line-up since the 70’s.  

But don’t get carried away just yet.  Just 1 day after the much publicized demotion of their enforcers, Toronto recalled Troy Bodie.  The Leafs said he was needed to replace an injured player – Franson, a defenceman, replaced by Bodie, a 4th line forward.  After all the Bruins talk about having skill on their 4th line they decided to offer a roster spot to Bobby Robins.  In the first game between Boston and Philadelphia, Robins coincidentally laid a late/nasty hit on Zac Rinaldo and Robins then dropped the gloves to take on Luke Schenn. Around the league there are plenty of teams with players who generally spend more time in the penalty box than on the ice.   Fighters who remain employed include: Tom Sestito, Chris Neil, Antoine Roussel, Ryan Reaves, John Scott, Luke Gazdic and many others.

The NHL fight culture has been wounded but it’s not dead.  You have players on teams with enforcers telling reporters that it’s still an important job and that policing (they mean revenge) remains part of the game.  On teams with more focus on skill the players will continue to defend their former fighting teammates with comments sprinkled with “grit”, “energy”, “momentum” and “good in the room”.  At least one team, Calgary, openly held a session during training camp to teach their players how to fight.  The top 3 fighting teams last year - Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia – appear to have a conflict between the General Manager’s direction and their coach who would happily waste a roster spot on someone they can send over the boards to exact retribution for some perceived wrong.  Look for constant recalls of face punchers from the minors, at least until those coaches are fired or buy into their team’s strategy.

Pressure will continue to be exerted on the fighting culture from several  
directions.  Money talks and NHL sponsors and partners have made it clear that they are not happy when their brand is linked to occurrences of excessive violence.  The concussion lawsuits, even if they fail, will cause the NHL to continue the trend of reducing fighting.  The investment in analytics by most teams will put more pressure on the role of the enforcer.  The benefits of skill and puck possession will result in more wins versus leading the league in penalty minutes.  Having a 4th line that can play 10 minutes or more every game will reduce the wear and tear on the team’s top 6 forwards and that will pay dividends in the playoffs.   

I believe that we will see a further reduction in fighting this year.  But don’t be surprised that the stupidity of dropping the gloves remains on display on a regular basis over the course of the season.  We’ll get more injuries and concussions as a result of a punch to the face.  And as long as the NHL and NHLPA continue to support the fighting culture we should expect at least one or two major violent incidents like we have seen in the past.  Enforcers may be disappearing, but they’re not extinct just yet.


  1. Great article, Paul. The tide is turning, but it's not going to happen overnight. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman could lead the way for a change in the culture of hockey, yet he settles for being lip-spittle on the faces of the owners and G.M.s who are stuck in the past. As these "goons" are replaced by the more skilled players, the league MUST instruct its referees to become the "policemen" on the ice, as they are SUPPOSED TO BE. The refs must learn or re-learn to recognize the shit-disturbers on the ice and take that facet of their game away. On opening night, Calgary Flames' d-man Deryk Engelland slashed Henrik Sedin in the back of the leg for no reason, right in front of the ref. Sedin then slashed back at Engelland while the play was going on in front of them. A needless, stupid scrum ensued. The whole thing could have been prevented had the ref called the original slash on Engelland. This is the exact scenario the on-ice officials MUST control, or the fighting will continue.

  2. The players do the policing. That's what's makes hockey unique. Go watch something else. The last thing we want is euro / women's hockey.