Dropping the gloves: what happened to the NHL “enforcer”

Those who defend fighting in hockey say that it helps deter other types of rough play, allows teams to protect their star players, and creates a sense of solidarity among teammates. This aspect of the game relies upon “the code,” an implied set of unwritten rules that instil respect and protocol among men who drop their gloves.

Fighting and ice hockey have a long and fabled history. Roger Dangerfield’s suggestion that he “went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out,” trivialises a very important part of the sport. Hockey is an inherently violent sport, and violent sports need to be fair.

NHL fights

Many Australian rugby league fans mourn the removal of “the biff”–a colloquial term for when refs would turn the other cheek if a fight was equal between two players (if both parties were to blame).

Disputes were once settled in the open; now professional fouls, repeat offences, and cowardly cheap shots form the basis for retribution in the NRL. This has been to the game’s detriment.

Year on year, the number of NHL fights are falling, but why?

“It may be a lot of factors,” “Perhaps the predominant one may be, and this is my speculation, the game is so competitive now that teams are focusing more on skill and having four lines that can help you win a game. ”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, quoted in the Chicago Tribune

NHL fights
Source : HockeyFights.com


The stats don’t lie, the NHL is moving in a less pugilistic direction, and the traditional role of the enforcer has all but vanished. Never again will we see the likes of Dave Schultz, Dave Williams, Lou Fontinato, Derek Boogaard and Stu Grimson, cut it in the NHL. Is this a good thing?

The diminishing role of the enforcer could see responsibility dilute itself amongst the team; I remember the unlikely pairing of Pavel Datsyuk and Scott Niedermayer going head to head back in 2009, and it’s this sort of confrontation–rather than tough guy on tough guy– that is becoming the norm.

The ten greatest enforcers in NHL history: voted by fans on Ranker


As long as hockey is played on ice, there will be confrontation. And the fans overwhelmingly support this position, as do the players. Ryan O’Reilly perfectly summed up the general sentiment with these words:

“Fighting is something that will always have to be part of the game. It’s a game that’s played at such a high pace that sometimes guys are in vulnerable positions and you have to know not to hit in that area, and fighting is one of those things that stops that because if you hit a guy in a sensitive area you have to answer for that.”

Sabres center, Ryan O’Reilly


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