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Does the NHL Need Enforcers?

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So, I watched “Ice Guardians”...

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Fighting in hockey has become a hot button topic over the last several years. Publications across the political, social and sports landscape have weighed in, ranging from The Hockey News, Sportsnet, Forbes Magazine, Medium, The New York Daily News, The Chicago Tribune, even The Guardian. With increased awareness of head injuries, including long-term trauma the chorus in the media to end fighting is reaching a crescendo.

I’ve stated in passing in my earlier writing on the site that my background is in education and coaching, which includes a range of related fields such as behavioral and group dynamics with a pinch of psychology and leadership.

Cognitive Biases

Like most opinions people have, they are prone to maturation, or any one of an array of biases. An introspective look inside your own head can provide a whole bunch of examples. In-Group bias is the inert favoritism that we have for people in our group, or people most like us. This can be used as an explanation for coaches favoring grinder types of players over sheer skill. Outside of Gretzky how many NHL coaches were highly skilled NHL players? It’s a pretty damn short list.

As a player myself, regardless of the sport, I cared deeply about winning, hated to lose and gravitated toward physical sports. I felt responsible for my teammates, saw sports as an extended family and led by example. So that’s how my early opinions were formed. So what about fighting in hockey or more generally the enforcer role? It’s been no secret that I’ve been a cheerleader for sitting Cody McLeod essentially every night, but what role does a guy like McLeod play for the Predators?

Is There a Place For Enforcers?

Had you asked me a few weeks ago, I’d have been firmly in the camp of “anti-fighting”, although I didn’t really have much of a distaste for it. I would have been even more supportive of an enforcer type, but taking a deep dive into hockey analytics changed my outlook. Since the lockout, the game is evolving. Rule changes have been instituted to speed up the action on the ice, and for the first time in more than a decade there seems to be a legitimate increase in scoring. There is less room on the roster for a slow-footed guy whose best attribute is his fists. Through the first 20 some odd games this year, the data from Hockey Fights shows that fighting is at its lowest level in league history. Less than one in five games has a fight.

Ice Guardians

I took a long road trip by bus this past week. (I’m a coach; I didn’t take a six hour bus trip voluntarily.) So before leaving I downloaded a half-dozen shows on Netflix for the ride. One of the things I downloaded was Ice Guardians, which details the role of the enforcer in the NHL, with candid interviews from men who’ve filled the role along with commentary from guys like Brett Hull who advocated for their inclusion in the game. I expected to have my biases against fighting confirmed, but I came away with more questions than answers.

I’ve read enough to know that guys who’ve held down the role of enforcer aren’t all gap-toothed fools who’d struggle with 7th grade math. George Parros and Kevin Westgarth are both Ivy League grads, who now both hold jobs with the NHL, Parros as the head of player safety and Westgarth in growth initiatives overseas, but the bottom line for enforcers is: do they help the team win? Is fighting effective? Is their presence beneficial?

I’m not going to rehash the dozens of arguments to support either side, but rather discuss what I thought was interesting commentary from the players themselves. It doesn’t take a spreadsheet to know that the remaining fighter types in the league have been relegated to the 4th line with none of them having any real positive offensive impact. A look at last year’s fight leaders isn’t going to be confused for a list of Art Ross Candidates, but is there still a place for them in the game?

What Do The Players Think?

If we classify these guys into the enforcement category, their supposed role on the team is to roam the ice, or even just sit on the bench as a deterrent to the other team taking a run at your star players. The debate was thrust again into the spotlight at this summer’s draft when the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Ryan Reaves from the Blues. The reaction from analytics types, me included was a general panning of the move. If you’ve won back to back Cups without him, why do you need him now?

Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby was appreciative of the move.

To paraphrase, Crosby thinks it will create more space for himself and his teammates. It will make everyone more comfortable playing the game. If a player of Crosby’s ability and injury history is relieved to have an enforcer on his team who’s going to argue with him? This sentiment was echoed throughout the documentary. Skilled players like having the enforcers around. Regardless of the reams of data we can lay at their feet, stars feel better when there is a layer of protection on the roster, even if it’s just the brooding threat at the end of the bench. Take a look at the tribute Wayne Gretzky paid to Dave Semenko upon his death.

Not only do stars like having them around on the ice, most enforcers are liked by their teammates off the ice as well. The friendship between Reaves and Tarasenko has been well documented. The same is true for Brett Hull and Kelly Chase. In the locker room they are valued. Enforcers the ones willing to lay their health and their livelihoods on the line for their brothers. They are the guys willing to lead from the front to protect the ones they love.

Roster Management

Proper management requires leaders to handle the mentality and culture of the organization. Circular discussions continue among the analytics crowd on how to measure culture, leadership, momentum, heart, grit or any number of traditional buzzwords. Most revolve around giving a resigned nod to the psychological impacts with the assertion and any measured impact is negligible or non-existent. Goals in the NHL are scarce commodities, and players that create them are the most valuable assets in the league. As a coach or a general manager, are you going to tell a guy like Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, “hey kid, here is a spreadsheet and a couple of data points and articles that say enforcers aren’t needed and they don’t help us win games. Good luck out there tonight.”

Jim Rutherford seems to be a pretty savvy GM. He’s won three Cups in his managerial career. Sure we shouldn’t judge all of his decisions based on the outcome alone, after all Peter Chiarelli won the Cup as a GM, but Rutherford has proven he’s able to build a winner. The organization that previously hired War On Ice creator Sam Ventura and hired Mike Sullivan to man the bench is at the cutting edge of new age hockey. If after two Cups Rutherford thought the roster needed Ryan Reaves, we’d be best served by asking why, not making snarky comments on social media. Is it likely Sid or maybe Geno or even Kris Letang asked for one? All three have significant injury histories.

Coming back to the Preds, before McLeod’s acquisition the toughest customer the Preds had was Austin Watson, maybe adding McLeod was redundant but he’s here now and if his presence makes a guy like Filip Forsberg or Kevin Fiala more comfortable scoring goals, then maybe there is really a role for them on the team.