Thank your local sheriff: Hockey enforcers equal on-ice police force

by Kiley Fischer, Sports Editor

“I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out.”

Rodney Dangerfield might have known what he was talking about.  The rough and tumble sport of hockey has seen more than its fair share of hits, fights and broken bones.  Bob Probert, Chris Nilan, Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, Tie Domi and hundreds of others have collected an NHL paycheck for the punches they throw.  While those punches might cause some injuries, they prevent many more.

“The intimidator, the punisher — in other words, the enforcer.  A hero to his teammates and a villain to others, he provides protection and is responsible for most of the fights.”  Arpon Basu’s synopsis of his book “NHL Enforcers: The Rough and Tough Guys of Hockey” sums up the role of an enforcer perfectly.  These men literally fight for a job by defending their teammates night in and night out.

Many have made arguments against fighting in hockey.  An entire website — banhockeyfights.com — exists in hope of their demise.  They list among their reasonings lowering the number of concussions and “it is wrong to punch people.”

Wrong or right, hockey fights have proven more than a little necessary in the deterrent of dirty hits and the targeting of star players.  No, it is not 100% effective.  However, it does work.

In his article “Many in N.H.L. View Fighting as Necessary”, Jeff Z. Klein of the New York Times interviewed former NHL enforcer Rob Ray.  Ray, an enforcer with a 15-year career and 288 fights, said, “You need to have that fear: If I hit someone wrong, someone’s going to come after me,” he said. “Without it, you’d have far more head shots and hits from behind.”

A slap on the wrist from the league will only do so much.  Former NHL chief disciplinarian Colin Campbell’s inconsistent suspensions seemed to send a message that the name on the back of the jersey was more important than the crime.  However,  a 6’4”, 240 pound hockey player enraged with a dirty hit delivered to his teammate would seem to elicit more fear for the offending party than a two-game rest without pay.

Don Cherry, a commentator for “Hockey Night in Canada” (HNIC) and former player and coach,  has said more than enough on fighting in hockey.

“If you don’t have somebody to step in and take charge and keep those guys honest,” he said on HNIC, “those 16-year-olders will be open season.”

While Cherry was referring to junior hockey, it is the same in the NHL.  If you don’t have somebody to step in and take charge and keep those guys honest, those 16-year-olders [read: stars] will be open season.”

Boston’s Nathan Horton was hit in game three of the Stanley Cup Final in June by Vancouver’s Aaron Rome.  Pittsburgh’s Eric Tangradi was hit and mocked on February 11 by New York Islander Trevor Gillies.  Penguin Sidney Crosby was just cleared for practice contact on October 13 after hits by Washington’s David Steckel and Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman in January.

All 30 teams in the league have someone who’s willing to drop the gloves to protect their teammates despite the cost.

Maybe we could all use that level of loyalty.

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