Tell me about enforcers in hockey

I know little about hockey* beyond the basic principles of the game, but recently I’ve come across the concept of enforcers. Apparently, they’re players whose designated role is to retaliate against opposing players that have been excessively rough.

Leaving aside that this sounds like institutionalised foul play, I wonder if it makes sense tactically. I’d think that the opposing team’s action that the enforcers responds to was, in itself, against the rules, and therefore penalised by the referee. That would mean no additional retaliation would be necessary. The enforcer’s action, on the other hand, would also be against the rules and therefore be penalised in turn. Doesn’t that make the whole concept counterproductive? Plus, when a coach brings in an enforcers as a substitute, that will mean another player who might be more valuable will have to be removed. Perhaps the idea is that penalties in hockey are too lenient to effectively deter foul play? But then it would make tactical sense to commit way more foul play, not merely in retaliation to what the opposing team has done. Is it a balance of terror kind of idea?

*) “Ice hockey” to the Europeans, where “hockey” alone usually refers to field hockey (played on grass).

The enforcer in hockey is going the way of the libero in futbal.

It was usually done when a game was out of hand (think 5-1 near the end of the game) and meant as an intimidation tactic. New rules and just a general thought in the sport that organized violence for its own sake probably isn’t keeping with 2021 sensibilities has diminished the role. But, yeah, that was the old school way. You certainly wouldn’t do it in a tie game.

The purpose of the enforcer was to protect the stars on the team. They were typically end-of-the-bench 4th line players who were sent out to punish someone who ran one of the skilled players. That in turn caused teams to have their own enforcers, which turned it into an arms race.

As was mentioned, the enforcer role is largely going away, but that has its own issues. As an example, the Washington Capitals have Tom Wilson, who is a pretty good player but is also a goon, which isn’t very common. Having him on the ice doesn’t hurt the team, but it hurts every other team because he’s a cheap-shot artist who gets suspended almost every year for deliberately injuring opponents. In the old days they’d send Bob Probert, Scott Parker, Tony Twist, Rob Ray, Dave Schultz, or any number of fighters out there to beat the shit out of him and that would pretty much end that, but without enforcers he can pretty much do what he wants.

This right here is where the argument fails. In hockey it is entirely possible to make extremely dangerous, predatory, but legal checks that could knock an opposing player out for the game if not indefinitely, particularly in the era where head-hunting was permitted. Take a look at this hit from 2011, from Matt Cooke hitting Paul Savard: Matt Cooke knocks Marc Savard out - YouTube. Matt Cooke wasn’t suspended for that, and Paul Savard’s career never recovered. Since these checks either weren’t illegal or weren’t punished very much, teams felt that they had to protect their stars in other ways. To your point about it making tactical sense to commit foul play, well there were teams who deliberately committed a great deal of foul play, such as the broad street bullies, and they enjoyed considerable success.

More recently the NHL has attempted to eliminate more dangerous hits from the game, has added an extra official to catch more infractions, and has lengthened suspensions. All of this has resulted in the decline of the enforcer, to the point where I would argue “true” enforcers don’t really exist anymore. It also might have something to do with the increase in player salary - teams might not want to pay a million dollars for an enforcer. It’s also possible that the decline is in part because teams have realized that it’s bad tactics, as you said.

In the past, there were specific enforcers whose unspoken job on the ice was to protect the star player of their team. One of the best examples of this was Marty McSorley, who was famously known as “Wayne Gretzky’s Bodyguard.” When Gretzky was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, he specifically demanded that McSorley be traded alongside him.

“I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out.”
Rodney Dangerfield
The enforcer role is diminishing, as others have noted, but fighting is regarded by many as “integral” to the game, and “rough play” is not stopped by referees. Thus brain injuries are common, and the culture is coarsened.

Brain injuries in the NHL do not commonly come from fighting - only 5-10% do, and the number is declining as fighting declines. Concussions are usually more about getting checked while skating as fast as Usain Bolt can run, or falling onto the ice awkwardly, or getting hit with a puck going 100 miles an hour. And I think that’s a large part of why fighting persists in the NHL - fighting is not the most dangerous thing in hockey, not by a long shot. I’m not saying that concussions caused by fighting don’t matter, or that fighting is necessarily good, just that fighting is not to blame for the NHL’s concussion problem.

I don’t go to that many games a year but it’s not unusual for there to be no fights in a game. That was not the case going back ten years or more. And when a fight does happen they are usually broken up quickly.

It’s actually somewhat unusual now for a game to have a fight. Fights per game has dropped from a high in 2001 of 0.65, when 42% of games included a fight, to 0.18 fights per game in 2018, when 17% of games included a fight. Cite.

So, 91.84 fights per regular season, I think. How many fights are there in a season of football, baseball, basketball, rugby, water polo, tennis, billiards? I think it is fair to say that even if greatly reduced, fighting is tolerated in hockey.

I get it’s a bogus comparison, but Muhammad Ali had a total of 61 professional fights over what, 21 years?

Ali is a pretty bad example, He was involved in 3 brutal fights against Joe Frazier and the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman in which he laid back on the ropes and invited punishment as a way to tire him out. He allowed many unnecessary blows in his following fights using a similar strategy.

As this article claims Ali should have retired after The Thrilla in Manila in 1975.

My point was just if you followed hockey steadfastly, you’d likely see more fights in a season than Ali fought in 20 years. It was a cheap rhetorical point, but I think it hints at something about fights in hockey. Of course most of the brain injuries in hockey do not come from fights, but from checks, hits with sticks, etc.

Very good. I understood it to also mean that the hockey fights led to the similar kind of brain damage that Ali suffered. It just sticks in my mind because Ali was a hero of mine growing up and watching his final destruction at the hands of Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick were a couple of the hardest things Ive ever witnessed.

Ditto. Have not been able to watch boxing since.

Don Cherry used to say that one of the problems with hockey was thag it was rough, and yet continuous. In football, play stops after a tackle and everyone gets a breather to calm down. In hockey you can have a guy chipping at you, checking yoh, mouthing off at you, and play just keeps going. In that circumstance, some players just snap and retaliate.

His point was that if you take fighting out of the game, the players will take out their frustrations with their sticks, which is a lot more dangerous. And there have been some horrific injuries from cross-checking, high sticking and low stickwork against legs.

As for enforcers protecting stars, yeah. It’s tough when yoh have a physical game which mixes 168 lb finesse players with 250 lb monsters. Gretzky was abnormally hard to hit as he seemed to have eyes in the back of his head, but other stars could and did have their careers shortened or ended due to hits. Craig Simpson’s career was ended by constant cross-checking in the back as he worked the net.

I’d argue a bit that it’s not entirely known. The sudden traumatic brain injuries are usually from checks, or head-into-ice contact. But the long term CTE type brain injuries numbers seem very high in the fighters. Of course there is some self-selecting, In that the Fighters who don’t have as serious of apparent long term damage aren’t dead yet to have their brains examined.

These are good points. I think we are in agreement that blows to the head are a bad thing.

Given the average shift for a line is about 1 minute and a player is unlikely to play more than 20-25 minutes a game, it looks like they have time to get a breather and work on anger management. As for the chipping and mouthing off, well, hardly unknown in other sports, and fighting is not a thing. As for retaliation with sticks, that too can be regulated and controlled if the NHL cared to do so.

Given the amount of times people have snapped and gone after someone else on the ice, much more so than in football for example, I’d say the evidence refutes that.

Esa Tikkannen was a master at getting people to go after him and get them off their game or thrown out. He’d just constantly poke at, trip, prod, back-check or otherwise harass a player while nattering at him, then the player would finally lose it and take a run at Tikkannen and draw a penalty. It’s pretty common.

A minute is a long time when someone is working hard to get you to lose your cool.