Farewell, Enforcers: A Eulogy for an NHL Institution

When I was growing up as a hockey fan in the ’80s, I knew every enforcer on every team. I could rattle off 30 or 40 names if you asked me to, and quite possibly even if you didn’t. I had them listed in order of ability on a page tucked away in the back of a notebook, and when I got bored during class, I’d update the rankings based on the most recent fights.

I got the latest release of Don Cherry’s Rock’em Sock’em Hockey for Christmas every year, and still do to this day. I own a custom-made Craig Berube no. 16 Toronto Maple Leafs jersey, quite possibly the only one still in existence. I can remember going into the bank with my allowance to figure out how to buy a money order so I could mail away for the Wayne Gretzky Hockey fight disc. In college, without easy access to cable TV and long before the days of YouTube, I learned how to connect with VHS tape traders so my friends and I could get caught up on the latest bouts.

I tell you all of this not out of pride or embarrassment or even because I think it’s all that interesting, but because I want you to know that when it comes to hockey fights, as George Carlin would say, my credentials are in good order. That’s important, because I loved enforcers back then, and even more, I hated lectures from snobby anti-fighting sportswriters who clearly had never enjoyed a good honest scrap in their life and had no right to talk down their noses to those of us who did.

All of which makes it a very strange experience to write these words: The NHL’s enforcer era is coming to an end, and I’m happy about that. I don’t want those guys in the game anymore.

Let’s start with some recent background for those getting caught up with the shift in the landscape. The NHL has always been a copycat league, and these days the trend is toward teams that can roll four lines that can all be trusted with meaningful ice time. That doesn’t leave much room for designated fighters, and teams have begun dropping them from the lineup. And because the tough guys are there at least part to neutralize other tough guys, each one that loses a job makes it tougher for the next guy to justify his. This summer seemed be the tipping point. The Bruins moved on from Shawn Thornton, the Maple Leafs demoted Colton Orr, and longtime tough guys like Krys Barch, Paul Bissonnette, and Kevin Westgarth all find themselves out of the NHL.

We’re not talking about the end of fighting altogether — at least not yet — but rather of the one-note heavyweight, the guy who’s there to drop the gloves and maybe throw a hit or two, and not much else. The job hasn’t been entirely eliminated; a handful of teams are still holdouts, especially in the Western Conference, and there are more than a few dissenting voices. But when even longtime advocates like Mike Milbury are jumping ship, it’s hard not to see this as less of a temporary trend and more of a permanent change.

All of which takes me back to those days of worshiping the game’s heavyweights, when we’d devour the highlights of the latest matchups and wage impassioned debates over whether Kocur could really hold his own against Kordic. Back then, I couldn’t have imagined a world in which I wouldn’t want those guys in the league.

Not everyone agreed; even then, there were always plenty of media voices railing against the NHL’s culture of violence. But most fans didn’t listen and most of the league’s decision-makers didn’t seem to care. The game needed its enforcers, the thinking went; they kept the rest of the players honest. Hockey was a dangerous game, but you were more likely to keep your stick down and your elbows in if you knew there was a monster at the end of the other bench waiting to hold you accountable.

That was most people’s arguments, but it was never mine. I didn’t doubt it, since it was everywhere, but it wasn’t my case to make, because I never played at a high enough level to know whether it was true of false. And it didn’t really matter, because I had a better reason to cheer on the enforcers and the chaos they caused: It was fun. It made the game more entertaining.

Some people recoil at that sort of argument, as if enjoying a fight just for the sake of it was unseemly. I never really understood why that was. The NHL, like all pro leagues, is an entertainment product; as much as we’d like to assign a higher purpose to our sports, the fact is that as soon as people stop enjoying them and wanting to pay to see them, they go away. If something makes the game more entertaining to enough people, then by definition it has value.

And as a fan, I always thought the enforcers were just about the most entertaining guys. I loved the whole package: the debates over who was the heavyweight champ, and who was next in line in the top contender’s spot; the quick scan of the lineup cards in an attempt to figure out who might pair off; the buzz in an arena when two tough guys lined up next to each other on a faceoff. The third period of a 6-1 blowout could be boring and unwatchable, but mix in a little bad blood and the possibility of a score to settle and it became can’t-miss TV.

That the enforcers were often the smartest guy on the team, and inevitably seemed to be the most active in the community, only added to the appeal. They’d serve up those patented death glares on the ice, but big smiles off of it. They loved their jobs, which is how you knew everything was OK.

When fighting started to drop, the game’s entertainment value dropped in my eyes. I know I wasn’t alone — find any classic scrap on YouTube and check the comments for disaffected fans bemoaning the loss of what the NHL used to be  but it quickly became apparent it wasn’t the sort of thing you were supposed to say out loud. So we argued about safety and rats and “policing the game” instead.

That stuff was important, but it wasn’t really the point. Fighting was just fun, and that was all that mattered. And I felt that way, and I made that case whenever I could, right up until it wasn’t fun anymore.

We used to like to say that nobody ever got hurt in a hockey fight. That wasn’t true, and we knew it, because we saw guys get a black eye or a bloody nose or spit out a tooth or two. But nobody got really hurt, not in the kind of way that they couldn’t shake off in time for the next game. It was the rats who were hurting people  the guys who’d hit from behind, or stick out a knee, or swing a stick. That was the kind of stuff that led to serious injuries, the kind that had a long-term impact. In a hockey fight, the worst that could happen was that you got your bell rung.

That last sentence seems ridiculous now, because today we know what “getting your bell rung” really means. It’s a concussion  a brain injury. And guys didn’t just shake it off, even if they were sent right back out the next night and played again and fought again, because the effects could add up over time into something awful.

We didn’t understand that even a decade ago, when we were all making fun of Eric Lindros for being a big softie who couldn’t keep his head up. But we’re starting to understand it now, thanks to research being done in hockey and other sports, and that understanding changes everything. It was one thing to cheer on the enforcers when it was all harmless fun. Once you know it’s not so harmless after all, I’m not sure how you can go on justifying it. I can’t imagine how somebody could sit through scenes like this and this and this and a dozen others, and still feel any kind of buzz when two tough guys line up for a faceoff.

And if “nobody ever gets hurt in a hockey fight” turned out to be lie, then the happy enforcer who loved his job may have been a bigger one. In recent years, we’ve learned about the tragic self-destruction of Derek Boogaard; about the CTE that had affected the brain of Bob Probert and who know how many more; about guys struggling with alcoholism, addiction, and depression. We found out that many of these guys lived in fear of their next bout, feeling sick to their stomachs on the bench in anticipation of the inevitable moment when it would be time to trade haymakers. We heard about how some of those same guys that kids like me used to worship are now waiting to see if they could have CTE too.

As long-time tough guy Todd Fedoruk said, “A lot of guys in my role kind of carry these demons around with them.” That’s proven to be true, and it’s partly my fault, and maybe yours too. Twenty years ago, we didn’t know any of this stuff, although maybe we should have worked harder to figure it out. But that was then. This is now, and now we know far too much to still call this entertainment.

But maybe you don’t agree, or don’t think it matters. Maybe it was never really about entertainment for you. Maybe it really is about something bigger; about deterrence, and safety, and Upholding the Code.

You certainly wouldn’t be alone. For years, smart hockey people like Flames president Brian Burke have made the case for fighting as the antidote to the “rats” who they see are taking over the game. It’s become an almost romantic notion, the idea of the enforcer who smashes faces yet prevents more violence than he dishes out, because opponents know that the repercussions for stepping over the line won’t be worth it.

It’s a nice idea, and there was an element of truth to it for a long time. When things got out of hand, the enforcer would come to the rescue, even if he had to toss the rulebook aside to do it. We remember Probert suckering Kevin Maguire to avenge Steve Yzerman; Tie Domi jumping Trevor Linden after Mike Peca blindsided Teemu Selanne, then ominously warning the Canucks bench “Don’t dress Bure”; Dave Manson flattening a linesman to protect Denis Savard.

It would be wrong to say that any of that was condoned,1 but it was accepted, and that’s a distinction that matters. Those guys were just enforcers doing their job. They served their time, and we all moved on. Nobody got hurt, and if somebody did, well, there was a lesson there about why you don’t touch Yzerman.

Today’s few remaining enforcers are still expected to do the same job, but they don’t get the luxury of having their methods shrugged off when they do. Thornton’s attack on Brooks Orpik, which earned him a 15-game suspension last year, was premeditated, vicious, and stomach-turning. It was also no different than what guys like Domi and Probert were expected to do, and indeed applauded for doing, not all that long ago.

The game has changed, as the cliché goes, and even the most die-hard fight fan would have to agree. The instigator penalty gets most of the blame, but it goes deeper than that. It’s no longer considered acceptable to engage with an unwilling combatant, no matter what the circumstances. That’s been a gradual change, but if you had to draw a clear line somewhere it would be March 8, 2004, the night that Todd Bertuzzi ended Steve Moore’s career.2 That wasn’t the first time a player had gone too far, but it was the most obvious example of how dangerous the retaliation game could become. It was impossible to look at the ethos of payback the same way once you’d watched the worst-case scenario play out.

And so we’re left with an ever-dwindling number of enforcers who can no longer enforce much of anything. No longer able to dispense their brand of justice to anyone who doesn’t volunteer to accept it, they’re left to simply fight each other, often in ridiculous staged fights devoid of any actual bad blood and serving no purpose other than padding penalty-minute totals and justifying a roster spot. It would seem a little bit silly if it weren’t still so dangerous, but it’s all they can do because it’s all we’ll let them do.

When it comes to enforcers, we still want the job to exist; we just don’t want anybody to do it anymore. We’re basically clinging to tradition, an illusion of justice that only works as long as you don’t notice that these days the policemen are only allowed to arrest other policemen.

It’s increasingly pointless, and it’s not fair to the guys who are stuck with the role. It’s better to acknowledge the reality: Nobody can do this job anymore, nobody should want to do this job anymore, and the game would be better if the enforcer role disappeared altogether.

As has become clear in recent months, that’s exactly what will happen. It doesn’t even look like we’ll need rule changes to do it; the enforcer is disappearing organically, as one team after another decides to make better use of limited roster spots. The end won’t come immediately, and it won’t be seamless — inevitably, a player on one of this year’s enforcerless teams will get hurt on a questionable hit, and that team will bow to the pressure to temporarily reload.

But any return to the old ways almost certainly will be temporary. By the time my kids are old enough to start spending their allowance on their hockey fandom, the idea of worshiping enforcers will seem as foreign to them as goalies playing without masks did to my generation.

And I’m glad for that. I could never have imagined myself saying that even a few years ago, but there comes a time when you have to admit that you’ve ended up on the wrong side. Sometimes reality just doesn’t give you any other choice.

Filed Under: 30 For 30, 30 for 30 Shorts, NHL

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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