By Dan Hutchinson – Thompson Rivers University 3L JD Student
The death bell of the NHL tough guy has been sounding for years and now that breed of player is all but extinct. Names such as Probert, Domi and Twist are long gone from the game and even more recent names such as McGrattan, Orr and Parros have been unable to find employment in the NHL either having to settle for minor league deals or retire The league simply phased these players out of the game with rule changes that make the game faster, with more emphasis on speed instead of toughness.
According to hockeyfights.com, after 227 games in the NHL this season there have been 53 fights corresponding to 20.3% of games played with a fight. The percentage of games with a fight is down nearly 7% from last season and has dropped significantly each season since 2010 when the number of games with a fight was 40.1%. This number has dropped significantly due to the NHL taking steps to limit fighting including stiffer punishment for players engaging in a fight and instructing linesmen to break up fights before they are able to start.
The drop in fighting has also resulted from a philosophical shift in the league towards speed and skill and away from toughness and grit. Teams want players that can play at least 10 minutes a game and contribute more than their fists. “You’re already seeing a lot of that,” said Carolina GM Ron Francis. “Now you get teams that have scoring on all four lines. The way the game is played and the pace it is played at, teams that have success are the ones that have 12 forwards who can give you minutes.”
While this philosophical change has played a part in the death of the enforcer it is not the only reason the tough guy is no longer part of the game. Significant changes in rules in hopes of protecting players has seen the league take matters into their own hands further pushing the enforcer out of the game.
With concussions being an issue on everyone’s mind, especially with the current lawsuit against the NHL launched by former players dealing with issues relating to head injuries sustained during their playing career, the NHL has started to give out lengthy suspensions and fines for players laying dirty hits on opponents. The most recent long term suspension was given to Raffi Torres for a shot to the head of Jakob Silfverberg. Torres was suspended for 41 games on the play.
The question now is whether these suspensions and fines are enough of a detriment for players to avoid dangerous hits and result in an actual increase in player safety. Or were players safer with their own personal policemen roaming the ice? Many believe that the threat of having to “face the music” as a result of a dirty play to be more of a detriment than a fine or suspension. With the way the NHL is going, the threat of an enforcer coming after a player due to a dirty hit or even a fight as retribution is becoming a non-factor, a path which many feel is wrong.
“I would hate to see the unintended side effects of where hockey would go without fighting, without that threat of retribution. It’s a fast, violent game where we’re wearing weapons on our feet and essentially carrying a club. So while a two- or five- minute penalty is a bad thing, it’s not going to knock somebody off their path of destruction as much as somebody grabbing them and punching them in the face,” claims ex-NHLer Kevin Westgarth.
It’s hard to know whether the NHL would be a safer place without fighting and the threat of a suspension being the only thing to stop players from dirty plays but looking at two high profile instances where headshots have been delivered, no enforcer was in the lineup for the team that sustained the hit. In the 2011 Winter Classic where Sidney Crosby was taken out with a blatant headshot, Pittsburgh hadn’t dressed their enforcer Eric Godard and neither did Anaheim when Torres nearly took off Silfverberg’s head. This would never have happened to Gretzky when McSorley was in the lineup. It’s impossible to say whether or not these hits would have occurred had an enforcer been dressed but it is something worth noting.
Additionally, in the NCAA fighting is banned and is arguably more dangerous as a result. “They drop the puck and you try to kill guys in the corner. I don’t know if it’s because there’s no fighting or because of the build-up, but there’s a lot of crash-and-bang, not much finesse out there,” says ex-NCAA and current NHLer Corey Tropp. So while the NHL is doing its best to phase fighting and the enforcer out of the game in an effort to maintain player safety, they may be doing more harm than good.
It may be best for the NHL to leave fighting alone rather than push it completely out of the game. It certainly seems like the players want fighting to stay a part of the game after a recent NHL Players Association survey revealed that 98% of players support fighting in hockey. The NHL is slowly working to eliminate fighting in an effort to increase player safety and decrease the number of concussions. However, the best option may simply be to let the fights and enforcers stay a part of the game.