The excellent Oilers blogs Coppernblue and Cult of Hockey recently posted two separate, thorough examinations of Steve MacIntyre, the Oilers resident tough guy this past season. The points against the MacIntyre’s value are many, but suffice to say: he was a gross liability. He played against other fourth liners, was handily outchanced, outscored and took a ton of penalties. On top of all that, the Oilers still lost a number of players to injury, including Taylor Hall who hurt himself while fighting. So much for “protecting the stars”.

I have written about the NHL enforcer before. My focus has been the low utility of the role and it’s persistence in some quarters despite its apparent futility. My enduring conclusions echoed what Derek Zona and Bruce McCurdy found with MacIntyre and were summarized previously:

There is convention, ritual and theories of justice underpinning the role of the enforcer. Despite their various faults, goons are easy guys to like and their existence is therefore easy to rationalize. Even if they don’t really help a team win.

Others have chimed in on the goon as well. Daniel Wagner of Pass it to Bulis railed against the presence of Darcy Hordichuk in the Canucks line-up last October. Behind the Nets “League of Extraordinary Statisticians” had a roundtable on goons in January, with the overwhelming consensus landing on “useless”.

A couple of things seem clear about modern NHL enforcers: they are obviously detrimental in just every way that is pertinent to actually playing the game (ie: scoring and defending) and they are probably around due to a combination of convention and ritual. There’s no evidence that their presence actually achieves any of the faintly plausible things that are often proposed to rationalize the role (protection, deterrence and intimidation), but there’s plenty of evidence they are defensive and offensive liabilities.

On-ice, the goon is an anachronism who costs his team points when he isn’t engaging in a pointless bout of fisticuffs with another goon.

Off-ice, however, there is mounting evidence that there are more serious, long-term and life altering costs associated with being an enforcer. The recent tragic death of legendary pugilist Bob Probert brought to light the very real and very serious consequences of being paid to trade punches with other tough guys. A veteran of 16 seasons, Probert spent thousands of minutes in the penalty box owing to his more than 200 career fights. He died of a heart attack at the age of 45, but subsequent investigations of his brain revealed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that has led to the premature deaths and suicides of other modern athletes including football players and boxers.

According to Dr. Robert Cantau, a neurosurgeon, CTE is a progressive, debilitating disease whose symptoms include emotional problems, depression, a lack of patience and memory disruption that eventually balloons to full-blown dementia. Onset can be as early as age 40.

The increasing focus on concussions and their costs has resulted in the league’s on-going struggle with discipline and head-shots. What hasn’t been overly discussed in this realm is the continued existence of players whose sole purpose and lone responsibility is to punch other players in the face. Perhaps the good news is that the NHL has taken some steps both directly (instigator penalties) and indirectly (salary cap) to deter the existence of goons, which is why their numbers have begun to dwindle post-lock-out.

In fact, this isn’t a call for the league to ban fighting outright or to create some sort of new, overly complex rule structure that would further restrict the opportunity to employ an enforcer. My purpose is merely to draw attention to the fact that there are a lot of costs associated with the enforcer – both inside and outside the confines of the game – and no real benefits. Although playing in the NHL and drawing a nice paycheck for 4 minutes of ice time per night may seem like a worthwhile incentive to individual goons who choose that path, the spectre of premature onset of dementia and death looms large once the career comes to a close. Dave Feschuk of the Star recently caught up with Stu Grimson who discussed the foreboding he now feels in the wake of his own fight-strewn career:

“It leaves me somewhat concerned about what the second half of my life might be like,” Grimson, 45, says, speaking over the phone from his law office. “What are my 60s and my 70s and, God willing, my 80s, going to be like, having suffered some of the trauma that I did? I don’t know.”

“There’s no better comparable for me than Bob (Probert). … We’re two guys who suffered similar amounts of brain trauma,” Grimson says. “I recognize I’m probably assuming too much if I assume I’m walking around with CTE just because Bob had it. But it definitely gets your attention.”

“My brain’s working well for me today. And I have no intention of giving it up right here, right now, and not for many, many years…hopefully guys like me will go on to live happy, healthy, productive lives in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. I don’t worry about the rest. But I’d be foolish to say I’m not concerned.”

It’s entirely possible that the risks for modern enforcers in the NHL are somewhat reduced given the rarity of the goons/fights relative to Grimson’s days. In fact, perhaps the pure goon as a role will continue to die out slowly as a matter of the evolution of the game and therefore no calls for some top-down solution to the issue are really required. That said, everyone involved with the game, including the fans, coaches, GMs and the players themselves should at least be aware of the significant risks associated with the enforcer and that there are men potentially risking their future sanity and lives without even a concurrent benefit within the game itself.

Comments (15)

  1. Steve macIntyre is the best threat in the league,i guess they all cant be 5’6 155 pound enforcers.Sounds scary to me lol.In my opinion the oilers should hold on to that kind of power!Not to mention the fans love watching him {win} fights!

  2. You forgot the primary reason goons still exist. They sell tickets. A lot of people still like a good scrap and what else does a lousy team like Edmonton that is eliminated from the playoffs before Christmas every year, have to offer?

    Great article though – it’s amazing how many supposed hockey “experts” still think goons serve as some sort of deterrent. It’s like they never left 1973.

  3. Yes it is tragic what “can” happen and it’s unfortunate. If you take the Enforcer role out you are taking jobs from these guys and that is wrong. Not every enforcer is a goon. If they were given more of a chance to play they could also show they are good checkers and grinders as well. The ones that are just there to fight and cause problems should go. Take Colton Orr for example. We all know he has one of the best right hands in hockey but he also has a nose for the net too. The problem is Ron Wilson is a tool and wouldn’t give him a shot. So all you get to see him do is fight and of course he gets called a goon. The problem is most are not given the chance. As for the consequences of fighting, they mostly know the dangers and are still willing to do the job. I guess if they take everything dangerous out of the game they will no longer be allowed to sharpen their skates!!!

  4. @ted miller
    Know what else sells tickets? Winning hockey games.

  5. Typical analysis from the modern anti-fight crowd, people who for the most part have been hockey fans for just a couple of years. Oh, by the way, Bob Probert was a chronic cocaine abuser. He died of a heart attack due to the abuse he put his body thru with the coke. Read his book, Tough Guy, and see just how much cocaine he ingested. Alot of misinformation in the article. I give it zero credence.

  6. I think enforcers that can play can actually help a team Take the Sabres Patrick Keleta and Cody McCormick, they are enforcers and can play the game. Just as the game changes, so do enforcers. They need to do more then just fight.

    And to add a few things in, Doug Schultz, Tiger Williams, and the old enforcers of yesteryear all could score goals too. Look it up some time. I believe Tiger actually scored 25 goals one season. That might be more then all the enforcers scored this year, COMBINED.

  7. Not only do the goons serve no useful purpose anymore, they actually encourage cheap shots. I mean, why wouldn’t Matt Cooke cheap shot somebody and tempt the other team’s coach to put his least talented player on the ice to go after him, instead of someone who might actually threaten to score a goal. I mean, can anyone actually name a single player in the NHL who is intimidated by the presence of say a Derek Boogard and doesn’t finish his check on a star player? I can’t think of one. He wouldn’t be in the league if he did.

  8. Dont agree Ted Miller you obviously have never played Hockey….Without Goerge Parros this year, other teams would have ran all over the Ducks young new defensemen. You take a run at fowler or scbisa you dance with Goerge. Simple and effective. Those 2 youngsters would not have had the year they did without them knowing Goerge has there back. And if there playing the Red wings or someone similair, Goerge sits and a more skilled player is on the ice…oh yeah and Matt cooke had 12 goals this year and 15 last year. Thats more goals than alot of “skilled” players in this league.

  9. Another “goon” who has stepped up his performance was Dan Carcillo. Not only did he score in the post season, he was able to get Ryan Miller out of focus, allowing his team mates the opportunity to score. The boy can play hockey and I think he has proven it more than any other goon or enforcer, especially when its needed, like in the playoffs! I saw so many people talking about how he shouldn’t even get ice time during the post season, and he proved them wrong.

  10. And the NHL and some fans wonder why their popularity doesn’t increase. It is hard to take a sport seriously that has the WWF component. Seriously, the game comes to a screeching halt as two guys who can’t actually play the sport at a major league level throw punches while the other players, referees and coaches just stand around and watch. This is an adult sport? Seems childish.

    Anyone who claims the NHL *needs* enforcers clearly never watched football. There are far more collisions per game and yet somehow they manage not to have fights break out every game. I hope it’s not because football players are smarter than hockey players…

  11. Mick: You are wrong to compare football with hockey. I played them both, albeit not professionally, and I will tell you there is a WORLD of difference from getting hit in football to getting solidly checked or cheap-shotted in hockey. The goal in football, defense-wise, is to hit and knock down the offensive player. The offensive player knows that. Hockey is more or less passing to set up shots and score goals for the offense and to try to break up the pass plays and prevent good scoring opportunities for the defense. Getting knocked on your royal keister, or taking a stick to your chops or arms or crotch is quite a different story. It is unfortunate that the leadership of the NHL prefers to listen to those who never played the game in making their rule changes. SINCE THEY OUTLAWED SOME OF THE REAL HARD PLAY THE NHL WAS NOTED FOR ATTENDANCE WENT DOWN IN A LOT OF VENUES.

  12. MICK..Apples and oranges….its hard even reading these comments. Anyone who honestly thinks there is no benefit to having enforcers is completely ignorant to how the game is played and the little nuances out on the ice. I don’t get on blogs and talk about horse racing and baseball cuz im not familiar with these sports and would not pretend to know what im talking about. Others should do the same…

  13. And every single football weekend there’s highlights of some player fist fighting or swinging there helmet…so I don’t buy that argument either. Its called competing…

  14. Wow, I didn’t realize such experts read this blog. I played both hockey (HS) and football (college) and there are more similarities than you think. I played rugby too after college for that matter. In fb, I played running back and had the concussions to prove it (perhaps it is affecting my thinking, eh?). You certainly didn’t play in the football leagues I did if the defenders were simply trying to bring you to the ground. In hockey, you didn’t have 11 guys trying to take your head off every play. Both are violent and involve aggression and hard hits. The big difference is how cheap shots are handled.

    In football, if you did a cheap shot then there is a significant penalty and your coach and fans ride you hard for hurting the team. Cheap shot artists are not respected. Revenge happens, but you always have a chance to get them back *within the rules of the game.* There’s no reason hockey couldn’t do this too by simply increasing the penalties associated with cheap shots and then making sure they were enforced consistently. Anyone who thinks enforcers are necessary hasn’t been involved in other violent sports and has no imagination.

  15. So you are telling me Bob Probert’s getting into fights while standing on ice caused such significant head trauma he had a heart attack a decade later. Probert drank excessive amounts of alcohol soaked cocaine. Stimulant plus depresent equals heart problems. You are an idiot quoting other bloggers. Congrats on finding someone with your opinion on the internet. And when is evidence not mounting? Every amateur writer uses mottning evidence now as if there is some pile of paperwork on a detectives desk that is getting so big one can only decribe it as mounting. Right now we have evidence that Bob Probert’s brain had issues. Which only came to the surprise of those whom don’t watch hockey, Kent Wilsons types that is. We have no idea what happened to Derek so lets not call speculation evidence yet, we are not the US military. Glad you couldn’t pull out anything from Stu then “makes me wonder” quotes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *