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.