In modern hockey the enforcer is rapidly disappearing. The Toronto Maple Leafs have taken their 4 tough guys; Colton Orr, Fraser Mclaren, Mike Brown and Mark Fraser off of their roster in the past 2 years to make room for more young players and better offensive depth. The modern day Gretzky, Sidney Crosby, is on a line in between two wingers who weigh less than 200 pounds and are very different than Marty McSorely the imposing straight enforcer who accompanied Gretzky for most of his career. The National Hockey League has been taking many steps in the last decade to increase player safety and one of the main things in those discussions is removing fighting from the sport all together. At first glance it seems like it would be nothing but good for hockey but the fight is very valuable to the sport.
There are several issues with this that have to be considered before fighting can be taken out of sport the first being the accountability players have for their actions on the ice. When elite goal scorers like Tampa Bay’s lanky captain Steven Stamkos are pitted against players like the 280 pound Dustin Byfuglien who can’t match his offensive skill it makes sense they would be extra physical with them. There is nothing in the rules that says a big player can’t hit a small player extra hard and highly physical players making clean hits are even praised in hockey. The classic defence for this is to have a very tough player on the ice to protect the star by fighting players who are too rough with the stars. The difference between the two physical confrontations is the aggression seen in the fighters who wish to establish dominance over players to prevent them from hurting others compared to the violence shown by the body check used to incapacitate or harm the star players. These two actions are also a question about fair play in the sport because fighting is breaking the rules to uphold the good of the sport where illegal hits are breaking the rules and harming the good of the sport. Without fighting in hockey hard hitting players will be able to violently smash in to other many talented players without any repercussions.
The difference between a big hit and a big fight
The hockey fight is a considered a particularly dangerous battle compared to other combat sports but it is actually relatively safe. The two hockey players boxing are balanced on thin blades on a rock solid slippery surface which sounds like an act from a circus compared to the separate sport of boxing. The first problem with this idea is most elite players have been skating for the majority of their lives and the balance they have on their skates is unimaginable for non-elite athletes. The fighters are also more balanced because the two skaters are grabbing each other’s jerseys making it more difficult for a player to fall backwards hitting their head off the ice. This positioning is also safer because players are less likely to land a powerful blow and also have a chance of hitting the helmet further decreasing the damage. A key aspect that is safer in a hockey fight than a boxing match is once one player is beaten the two are split up and the loser is not able to continue fighting unlike in boxing. When deconstructed the hockey fight is shown to have a much lower risk than an uninformed onlooker would perceive so the enforcer is not the biggest danger to hockey players.
A gambling add displays the difference between boxing and hockey fights
Even though it’s not as dangerous as it sounds many players are injured in fights and some develop concussions. Although it is a risk Dr. David Milzman, the Washington Capitals team physician, has done research watching over a thousand fights in slow motion and he estimates that there are injuries in less than 2% of fights making it relatively small. Dr. Milzman argues the main cause of concussions, which are one of the biggest issues in the NHL today, are violent hits to the head. An issue with players suffering from these concussions is they are more frequently placed back in to the game. The players contribute more to the team’s offense making coaches who are paid to win more likely to ask them to re-enter the game without proper medical clearance. It is also more obvious when a fighter is concussed by a punch to the head than a player going down after a body check which could simply be a result of the wind being knocked out of them so coaches won’t unintentionally return concussed players to the ice. The evidence that points to dangerous body checks being the primary cause of concussions is a perfect example of why enforcers are needed to make sure players being rough with other athletes are held accountable.
More problems arise when fighting is left in the sport but players don’t have enforcers to control particularly aggressive players for them. This exact problem was shown in an Eerie Otters OHL game last week where their star player Connor McDavid was receiving particularly rough shots from an opposing player for the entire night. He is heralded to be a definite first overall pick in the 2015 NHL draft and was on his way to breaking OHL scoring records when dropped the gloves with a Mississauga Steelheads player where he broke a bone in his hand forcing him to miss weeks of playing. Nazem Kadri a player for the Toronto Maple Leafs was quoted about the fight saying “You can’t be a pushover. Guys can’t take liberties with you and not have some sort of consequence… I’m more of a goal scorer, but if the time comes, the time comes.” Kadri is stating if people are being violent on the ice a fight is important to control them. He says he was lucky enough to have players on his team keep others off his back but he also had to stand up for himself when he was out there without any of his tough guys. Connor McDavid’s injury perfectly illustrated the place for enforcers in the Ontario Hockey League and it also applies to the NHL.
Professional hockey is quite rapidly eliminating the pure enforcers but the removal of fighting is not the way to maximize player safety. The disappearing roll of the enforcer is a space that is left to be filled by hybrid players like Milan Lucic of the Boston Bruins. Lucic is a widely feared fighter around the league standing 6’4 and weighing over 230lbs who has also been known to score 60 points in a season along with over 100 penalty minutes. This new kind of player with elite skills along with the ability and willingness to fight is perfect for the modern game because they don’t take away from a team’s offensive abilities and they prevent the team’s smaller players from being pushed around. The National Hockey League is always evolving but there will always be a spot in the league for a guy who can put the puck in the net and put a violent player in his place.
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