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NHL's Fighting Paradox: Reveling in the violence, policing nothing

Violence ignites passion in humans. Passion taps into our irrational side. When we see someone we love (or root for) physically wronged, our blood boils, we want justice, we want revenge. There are many reasons hockey fans like the willing fighters known as "enforcers," but within the heat of a game this is undeniably the reason that resonates most.

The role of the enforcer in the modern NHL -- such as it exists -- fascinates me, because it works far more on the psychological and irrational side of players', fans' and coaches' brains than it does on the cognitively logical side. Enforcers claim there is an accepted "code," yet no one seems to agree on what that code is anymore. Fans pretend an enforcer protects star players, yet modern enforcers rarely play alongside stars. Retired enforcers talk of the glory days, yet like the two-line pass and the 21-team NHL, they are describing a version of the game that doesn't exist anymore.

We pretend enforcers fulfill a "self-policing" function when someone misbehaves, yet they rarely fight anyone but other enforcers, and the instigator rule makes them powerless to police the actual crimes they are employed to police.

Meanwhile, the observer is far more likely to watch a game and recognize the emotional release let out when an enforcer either trades punches or delivers a big hit, than they are to notice the subtle blown assignment or defensively desperate shift that happened (and led to a goal against?), in part because one player on the ice is in the NHL not because his skill matches others', but because he is more willing to put his health on the line for this other side of the game.

Every time some form of the following equation is said: "They won because [the enforcer] created room for the stars to work," it is -- like so much of hockey analysis -- based more on gut, on feel, on firm fidelity to already held beliefs. I do not dismiss these effects; if a squad of players feels bolder, safer, looser because an intimidator is on the bench for one shift per period as a message, then that is a very real effect. You cannot convey confidence to a performer -- he or she has to feel it, based on whatever impetus he needs to perform. Sometimes that confidence comes from the presence of an enforcer who, I agree, has the physically and mentally most difficult job in hockey. (Enforcers past and present talk frequently of the inner turmoil of their role, of its uncertainty and its context which is both encouraged and discouraged by the league with a knowing wink and a shaming finger.)

But again, it fascinates me how many players and fans treat the issue as black and white, as if an enforcer automatically makes a team better and "protected," and a lack of one makes them automatically vulnerable and worse. Brian Burke made much hay about "truculence" to the Leafs lineup this year, then discovered all the truculence in the world does not compensate for skill and goaltending. Granted, there is a role for this stuff, but it is ambiguous and hard to pin down. And there is another way to achieve it.

The Lost Art of the Bodycheck

Bodychecking. In this game's purest form, physical intimidation -- and the game's underlying, simmering violence -- is achieved via bodychecking. It is legal, it requires skill, mobility and judgment, and it is achieved without interrupting the game. The clock does not stop for bodychecks. In my ideal fantasy hockey world, bodychecking is applied with freedom and reason, and fighting serves only to cap the lid when someone takes checking too far (whether illegally or through careless legality). In this hockey wonderland, there exist not players whose sole purpose is to fight, but players whose sole purpose is to play the game, and that game includes both checks and the occasional fight when necessary -- without an instigator to punish them.

I don't mean to badger you every month with this topic, but today occasions it: Today, to prepare for the Flyers -- who include players like Chris Pronger, a star who is protected by the instigator rule from ever having to answer for his notoriously outside-the-rules physicality -- the Islanders introduce pure enforcer Trevor Gillies, who turns 31 today and will play his second NHL game. My ideal hockey world features players like Clark Gillies (no relation), a winger who could keep up with two more skilled Hall of Famers while scoring 319 regular season goals and accumulating 1023 PIM.

Because the Flyers have a sustained run of wins over the Islanders, and because they employ multiple players who "take liberties" and/or show a disproportionate belief in the role of fighting, this move by the Isles on some level makes sense. Yet even if it goes down as planned -- someone hits someone a little too aggressively, someone objects, and Gillies fights one of the self-appointed receivers of punches on the Flyers -- it will be impossible for me not to see the absurdity in the exercise. All too often enforcers fight others' battles. (Enforcer A to Agitator B: "Hey, you hit my guy, time to answer the bell." Agitator B: "Nah, thanks." Opponent C steps in to Player A: "Hey, if you're gonna fight, fight me, someone your own size." After the game: "Well, we exercised the code.")

The NHL's Enforcer Paradox

Now, I know Clark Gillies do not grow on trees; he is an impossible standard for every team to match. But that is what the NHL, if it really believes in all of its romantic ideals, should aspire to have. With the post-lockout actual enforcement of the existing rulebook (a.k.a. the "obstruction crackdown"), the natural speed and skill of the game has been allowed to prevail. Along with this, the enforcer role has become a 5-on-5 liability, and fewer of them are around or take a regular shift, because the players who fill these roles are by default the least able to keep up in the other facets of the game. (No one grows up wanting to be an enforcer; they veer that way when other options are cut off by the culling of talent, and only then if they have the courage and desire to do this task to remain in pro hockey.)

The NHL is culprit #1 in the paradox of the enforcer, because the league pretends to discourage it while it also revels in the violence and how it entertains us. The instigator rule was implemented to prevent sideshows and brawls, yet the result is no player feels obliged to fight anyone, save for the few players whose jobs will not exist unless they fight each other on a somewhat regular basis. Often, that fight itself becomes a sideshow because it serves no purpose in the actual game (sometimes it is entertaining, sometimes it "provides energy," often it polices nothing). If the NHL removed the enforcer rule, maybe it would encourage a few more relatively talentless enforcers to exist. But you know what else it would do, which would be far greater? It would allow the supposed "self-policing" -- which is the league's implied reason for allowing fighting to continue, and the players' proposed reason for wishing it so -- to actually happen. Players who actually take a regular shift would have to answer for their actions.

Maybe players would be more likely to behave -- to restore the mythical "respect for one another" that has been lost -- because they'd fear actual retribution from the other team's goon. Or maybe one-dimensional enforcers would remain as mostly afterthoughts, because coaches would feel confident their regular 5-on-5 players were now freed to police themselves and exact out justice only when needed, and only on the actual offending party rather than his designated surrogate.

The way Clark Gillies once did.