NHL enforcers slowly vanishing
PHILADELPHIA (AP) Dave Schultz would drop his gloves in a flash, his bare fists pummeling away at unprotected faces in fits of fury so ferocious he became known as ''The Hammer.''
Schultz was the intimidating backbone of Philadelphia's ''Broad Street Bullies'' teams of the 1970s that won a pair of Stanley Cup championships. The Flyers' rugged style of play became their calling card, and rare was the NHL team that didn't have a tough guy or two whose primary role was to protect his teammates by brute force.
Fast forward 40 years since the Flyers' last championship and players like Schultz are having a harder time sticking in the NHL. The role of the enforcer is seemingly going down without a fight as speed and skill on every line have become the norm.
In a league that is also facing head injury concerns - and lawsuits - is it finally time to say goodbye to the goon?
''They just wanted to take fighting out of the game,'' Schultz said. ''It's not the same game.''
But not necessarily a worse one.
The true signal the culture in the NHL has changed comes from Schultz's old stomping grounds. For the first time since the organization was in its infancy, the Flyers opened the season without a true enforcer on their roster. Heck, their biggest threat might be goalie Ray Emery, who headlined a fight last season against Washington's unwilling goalie, Braden Holtby.
''We've got some toughness on our team,'' Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said. ''We've got some guys that can handle themselves. But I think when you look, there weren't a lot of fights in the preseason. There are never any fights in the playoffs. In between, there's been less and less.''
The numbers back up the former NHL goalie.
There were 143 fights through the first 408 games of the season, which projects to 431 fights overall, according to hockeyfights.com. That's a dramatic dip from 734 fights in 2008-09 and 714 fights in 2009-10. The number of fights fell into the 500s in 2011-12 and the 400s last season (there were 347 fights in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season).
The NHL has toughened instigation penalties in place since the 1930s. It added a two-minute minor for the player who started the fight in the 1990s, looking to both cut down on brawling and perhaps attract more casual fans. Of late, the NHL is dishing out longer suspensions for cheap shots and illegal hits, erasing some of the players' unwritten code of justice.
''That tells you, let's just play hockey,'' Schultz said. ''And when there's a problem, the league will take care of it.''
That role used to be left to the enforcers, the de facto bodyguards for the stars. Back on the put-up-your-dukes heyday, even Wayne Gretzky had his own personal great one watching his back: Marty McSorley was the Hall of Famer's first line of thuggish defense, serving and protecting Gretzky in stints with Edmonton and Los Angeles.
''I remember when guys like Gretzky said, we want guys to be able to protect us,'' Schultz said. ''(Sidney) Crosby doesn't want to be protected. By the league, yes. But not by one of his teammates.''
Stu Grimson, the color analyst on Nashville Predators' TV broadcasts, was known as ''The Grim Reaper'' with 2,113 career penalty minutes in his NHL career. He said fighting still has a role in the game, especially at home games where one entertaining scrum can shift momentum and liven up the fans.
''I think the fight itself, there is a purpose for it, and you can put your finger on that purpose,'' he said. ''I think it makes sense to keep that in the game, and I think it's valuable to the game for that reason.''
Chicago Blackhawks forward Dan Carcillo said fights aren't going to completely vanish, either.
''I don't think the mindless, senseless, go out and fight, rah-rah, for no reason, I don't think that has a place in the game anymore,'' Carcillo said. ''If guys take runs at other players, I think those players that take the run at them, whether they fight or not, they have to know in the back of their mind that there's still fighting in this game and they're going to have to answer the bell or respond to it if they're going to take dirty runs or cheap shots.''
But in the back of everyone minds is the risk of concussions and other long-term health risks that come with trading punches on the ice. The idea that brawling was as much fun as a nasty wreck in NASCAR or bench-clearing brawl in baseball came to a jarring halt in 2011 when three former enforcers were found dead.
Derek Boogaard, once named in a Sports Illustrated players poll as the NHL's toughest fighter, died from an accidental mix of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone. Wade Belak hanged himself and Rick Rypien was discovered at his home after suffering from depression for a decade.
The 65-year-old Schultz said he suffered nothing more than a couple of minor concussions and feels fine.
''We didn't hit anyone near as hard as they do today,'' Schultz said.
There are just now far fewer of those hits.
''It's still an exciting sport,'' Schultz said. ''It's just evolving. It's the way it is.''
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver and Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.