As even the casual puck fan knows, hockey teams usually carry at least one “enforcer” whose job description is as follows: Try your hardest to beat the living daylights out of an opponent. The question is, why do these guys continually do it, and why do teams place such value on these enforcers?
Let’s answer the second part of that question first. In hockey, there is a common perception that toughness automatically equals wins. If a team wants to “send a message,” “swing the momentum of the game” or “[insert cliche here],” it looks to its enforcers as the underlying path to success. Therefore, teams are willing to give a job to a guy with few shooting, passing or defensive skills so long as he has a right hook.
Now, we can answer the question as to why NHL enforcers are so eager to take on such a dangerous job. If you could make up for your lack of skill by throwing punches, thereby guaranteeing yourself a spot on an NHL team and a salary of roughly $750,000 instead of $50,000 in the minors, wouldn’t you? I would.
Therefore, as long as NHL teams place a high priority on carrying enforcers, they’ll always exist, and so will fighting in the NHL.
But should fighting really be that high of a priority? While nobody, myself included, would claim that toughness isn’t valuable in hockey, it’s questionable as to whether there is a correlation between fighting and toughness. Recent studies, including one on theleafsnation.com, have shown that teams who fight more often than others don’t actually win more, and the teams that have better fighters in general don’t see better results, either. (Never mind the fact that it’s pretty difficult to determine who “won” an NHL fight much of the time.)
And if we really think about it for more than a few seconds, it’s surprising that there was ever that common perception in the first place. Sure, it’s an easy narrative that fighting equals toughness, which results in wins, but because an enforcer is almost always on the team’s fourth (and final) line of forwards, the fighters don’t have much of an effect on the goal scoring in most games, anyway.
A great example is the Boston Bruins, who have one of the most respected enforcers in the game, Shawn Thornton. The 36-year-old has fought just about everyone in the league, and, if he felt that it would give his team an extra 1 percent chance of scoring a single goal, he’d probably be willing to fight the referees, the opposing team’s coach and the opposing team’s hot-dog vendors. However, he doesn’t score goals. My question is, even if Thornton beats the snot out of the opposing enforcer, how is that going to energize his teammates who are more responsible for putting pucks in the net, and how is that going to deflate the opposing team’s energy to the point that they’ll allow more goals?
Now let’s say that Thornton’s teammate, Milan Lucic, who is considered one of the toughest players in the league and plays on the team’s first line, was to beat his opponent in a fight. It’s conceivable that Lucic could plant a seed of doubt, hesitation or fear into his opponent in order to knock him off of his game. That I could buy, because then the fights would actually affect the psyche of the players who routinely make a difference in the game. Of course, the minor change in the flow of the game usually isn’t worth the risk, since having Lucic fight would cost him five minutes of playing time due to the major penalty that it incurs. Therefore, Lucic and other top players who fight do so only about five or six times per year, while enforcers can engage in up to 20 fights in an 82-game season. And again, if a guy who gets only five minutes of ice time drops the gloves, does it really affect the play of the others?
Enforcers may be fan favorites, but their contributions are overvalued. Further, the elephant in the conversation regarding fighting in hockey is the extreme risk of injury and head trauma. One of hockey’s biggest enforcers, Derek Boogaard, died at age 28 in 2011 partly due to the trauma that his brain endured time and time again during bouts on the ice. Here, we have a profession built on fighting that can be lethal in ways similar to the dangers of concussions in the NFL, but that doesn’t seem to provide much help to the game itself. Fighting should be cut back drastically in order to correct the phenomenon of overvaluing enforcers and the harmful injuries that these men can suffer. While some fighting should be accepted, because there could be a small value in the case of top players who are willing to fight, the NHL should deem that a player can have up to seven fights per year without getting suspended. The top fighters routinely average around 20, so this would cut the number drastically, but players like Lucic rarely hit this number anyway. There’s a middle ground that promotes safety and quality of play while still appreciating hockey for the great game that it is.
Tom Hoff is a junior on the McDonough School of Business. Down to the Wire appears every Friday.