When I was growing up as a hockey fan in the ’80s, I knew every enforcer on every team. I could rattle off 30 or 40 names if you asked me to, and quite possibly even if you didn’t. I had them listed in order of ability on a page tucked away in the back of a notebook, and when I got bored during class, I’d update the rankings based on the most recent fights.
I got the latest release of Don Cherry’s Rock’em Sock’em Hockey for Christmas every year, and still do to this day. I own a custom-made Craig Berube no. 16 Toronto Maple Leafs jersey, quite possibly the only one still in existence. I can remember going into the bank with my allowance to figure out how to buy a money order so I could mail away for the Wayne Gretzky Hockey fight disc. In college, without easy access to cable TV and long before the days of YouTube, I learned how to connect with VHS tape traders so my friends and I could get caught up on the latest bouts.
I tell you all of this not out of pride or embarrassment or even because I think it’s all that interesting, but because I want you to know that when it comes to hockey fights, as George Carlin would say, my credentials are in good order. That’s important, because I loved enforcers back then, and even more, I hated lectures from snobby anti-fighting sportswriters who clearly had never enjoyed a good honest scrap in their life and had no right to talk down their noses to those of us who did.
All of which makes it a very strange experience to write these words: The NHL’s enforcer era is coming to an end, and I’m happy about that. I don’t want those guys in the game anymore.
Let’s start with some recent background for those getting caught up with the shift in the landscape. The NHL has always been a copycat league, and these days the trend is toward teams that can roll four lines that can all be trusted with meaningful ice time. That doesn’t leave much room for designated fighters, and teams have begun dropping them from the lineup. And because the tough guys are there at least part to neutralize other tough guys, each one that loses a job makes it tougher for the next guy to justify his. This summer seemed be the tipping point. The Bruins moved on from Shawn Thornton, the Maple Leafs demoted Colton Orr, and longtime tough guys like Krys Barch, Paul Bissonnette, and Kevin Westgarth all find themselves out of the NHL.
We’re not talking about the end of fighting altogether — at least not yet — but rather of the one-note heavyweight, the guy who’s there to drop the gloves and maybe throw a hit or two, and not much else. The job hasn’t been entirely eliminated; a handful of teams are still holdouts, especially in the Western Conference, and there are more than a few dissenting voices. But when even longtime advocates like Mike Milbury are jumping ship, it’s hard not to see this as less of a temporary trend and more of a permanent change.
All of which takes me back to those days of worshiping the game’s heavyweights, when we’d devour the highlights of the latest matchups and wage impassioned debates over whether Kocur could really hold his own against Kordic. Back then, I couldn’t have imagined a world in which I wouldn’t want those guys in the league.
Not everyone agreed; even then, there were always plenty of media voices railing against the NHL’s culture of violence. But most fans didn’t listen and most of the league’s decision-makers didn’t seem to care. The game needed its enforcers, the thinking went; they kept the rest of the players honest. Hockey was a dangerous game, but you were more likely to keep your stick down and your elbows in if you knew there was a monster at the end of the other bench waiting to hold you accountable.
That was most people’s arguments, but it was never mine. I didn’t doubt it, since it was everywhere, but it wasn’t my case to make, because I never played at a high enough level to know whether it was true of false. And it didn’t really matter, because I had a better reason to cheer on the enforcers and the chaos they caused: It was fun. It made the game more entertaining.
Some people recoil at that sort of argument, as if enjoying a fight just for the sake of it was unseemly. I never really understood why that was. The NHL, like all pro leagues, is an entertainment product; as much as we’d like to assign a higher purpose to our sports, the fact is that as soon as people stop enjoying them and wanting to pay to see them, they go away. If something makes the game more entertaining to enough people, then by definition it has value.
And as a fan, I always thought the enforcers were just about the most entertaining guys. I loved the whole package: the debates over who was the heavyweight champ, and who was next in line in the top contender’s spot; the quick scan of the lineup cards in an attempt to figure out who might pair off; the buzz in an arena when two tough guys lined up next to each other on a faceoff. The third period of a 6-1 blowout could be boring and unwatchable, but mix in a little bad blood and the possibility of a score to settle and it became can’t-miss TV.
That the enforcers were often the smartest guy on the team, and inevitably seemed to be the most active in the community, only added to the appeal. They’d serve up those patented death glares on the ice, but big smiles off of it. They loved their jobs, which is how you knew everything was OK.
When fighting started to drop, the game’s entertainment value dropped in my eyes. I know I wasn’t alone — find any classic scrap on YouTube and check the comments for disaffected fans bemoaning the loss of what the NHL used to be — but it quickly became apparent it wasn’t the sort of thing you were supposed to say out loud. So we argued about safety and rats and “policing the game” instead.
That stuff was important, but it wasn’t really the point. Fighting was just fun, and that was all that mattered. And I felt that way, and I made that case whenever I could, right up until it wasn’t fun anymore.