As NHL enforcers fade, tough guys will always be needed
Four decades ago, the NHL team that calls Philadelphia its home was not known as the Flyers. That may have been the name listed in the program, but fans knew better. Those brutish icemen were the Broad Street Bullies, and nobody better exemplified their feisty ethos than winger Dave Schultz. In 1974–75, the Hammer scored all of nine goals while earning 472 penalty minutes, still the NHL single-season record.
Today players like Schultz are dinosaurs. The tough guys known as enforcers—only the least skilled among them are called goons—are fast disappearing from the NHL. During the past 10 years, fighting has decreased dramatically from 789 bouts in 1,230 regular season games (41.14% of all matches had at least one fight) in 2003-04 (the last full season before the lockout that cost the NHL all of 2004-05) to 469 in the same number of games last season (29.76%).
The reasons for this are many, though a general push for safety is foremost among them.
Within the last several years, enforcers past and present have been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Bob Probert, one of the most renowned fighters in the history of the game, struggled with drug and alcohol abuse throughout his career. He retired in 2002 and died of a heart attack at age 45 eight years later. After his death, researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine examined Probert’s brain tissue and diagnosed him with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease that has been found in the brains of patients with a history of repeated head trauma. In 2011, three active NHL enforcers died within four months: Derek Boogaard, 28; Wade Belak, 27; and Rick Rypien, 35.
The deaths shined the spotlight on the possible dangers of the life of an enforcer, including concussions. Within the past two years, the NHL has been hit by two lawsuits, one with more than 200 former players as plaintiffs. Both suits claim that the league has not done enough to address head injuries.
GALLERY: Notorious Enforcers and Goons
Concussions played a large role in the premature retirements of such All-Star players as Eric Lindros, Pat LaFontaine, and Keith Primeau. And head injuries have threatened the career of the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, who last season won the second NHL scoring title of his nine-year career. Since early 2011, he has missed significant playing time while recovering from concussion-related symptoms. The loss of the game’s brightest star was enough to prompt the league to act.
Last year, the league made helmet visors mandatory for all new players, and made it a minor penalty for a player to remove his helmet during a fight. Who wants to punch a piece of hard plastic? “Rules changes are always going to favor the guys who score goals,” said Donald Brashear, who spent 17 seasons in the league and in 2010 was named enforcer of the decade by the Hockey News. “The rules are never going to be made in favor of the guys who make body checks.” Or drop the gloves.
With fighting under fire and concern about head injuries at an all-time high, enforcers such as George Parros (159 fights over nine seasons, according to Hockeyfights.com), Zenon Konopka (112 in nine), Arron Asham (98 in 15), Mike Rupp (81 in 12), Krys Barch (112 in eight) and Kevin Westgarth (32 in five) are now out of work. Teams seem reluctant to carry a fourth-line player whose only prominent contribution to victory is fisticuffs.
“The way the game is played has changed, and coaches nowadays want players who are able to do more than just drop their gloves,” says Hall of Famer Cam Neely, the president of the Bruins. “If you look at what we had in Shawn Thornton for a number of years, he played a good role on our fourth line. You could look at him as an enforcer, but he also played decent minutes.”
After two straight seasons in which Thornton did not reach double figures in points—but he did hit double figures in fights—Boston dropped the winger during the off-season. On the first day of free agency in July, the Panthers signed the 37-year-old Thornton. A tough guy who can play a little is still in demand.
It’s not like the Bruins will be defenseless this year. They began the season on October 8 with their tough-guy role being filled by Bobby Robins, a 32-year-old rookie and career minor leaguer who had 687 penalty minutes (and just 11 goals) during the last three seasons with the AHL’s Providence Bruins. In Boston’s season opener against the Flyers, the 6' 1", 220-pound winger drew a charging penalty with a teeth-rattling hit on Zac Rinaldo. When Philadelphia tough guy Luke Schenn came to his teammate’s defense, Robins fought him, to the delight of the crowd at TD Garden. But his stay with the team was brief. On Oct. 14, the Bruins sent Robins back to Providence.
Despite the presence of an apparent goon on his roster, Neely insists that he'd really rather have a tough guy who can do at least a few things on the ice besides throw punches. “Rather than having an individual in that enforcer role, we talk about team toughness,” he says. “That means taking a hit to make a play, and taking the body when the body is there to be taken. It’s not necessarily about putting the guy in the sixth row, just taking him out of the play, within the rules. The intimidation factor isn’t going away.”
Neely does not want fighting to disappear altogether. Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman and Penguins GM Jim Rutherford have advocated for fighting majors to be toughened to game misconducts. And during the Bruins–Flyers pregame segment on NBC, analyst Mike Milbury—while acknowledging that during his playing days he “liked a good scrap”—called for the elimination of fighting from the game. “Let’s grow up,” he said, “and get rid of it.” Neely, on the other hand, takes a stance more in keeping with the tough-guy-with-a-scorer’s-touch attitude he brought to the ice in his 13-season NHL career, during which he had 79 fighting majors to go with 395 goals. (Yzerman, a fellow Hall of Famer, had nine fights in 20 seasons. Rutherford was a goaltender and never fought.)
“There’s constant conversation within the league about us doing what we can for player safety,” says Neely. “But things happen on the ice, organically, that lead to guys getting into it with each other. Tempers flare. For me, it was always, ‘Hey, he did something to piss me off, so let’s settle this now.’ I don’t see that going away anytime soon, because of the nature of the sport. Hockey is a physical game.”