What Is It Good For? Absolutely Nothing: The Myth of Enforcer Culture

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

War, huh.

No, not WAR—Wins Above Replacement—but strategic violence to attain an objective. You know, the thing that so many hockey GMs trade assets to get a player to do, and why so many NHL coaches use those players even when they struggle against NHL competition.

Our own LedgerSko wrote an article not too long ago looking at the enforcer question from a psychological perspective, which is undervalued in the discussion of violence and hockey. He concluded,

[M]aybe 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 [an enforcer] on the team.

It could be a thorny ethical question. It actually reminds me of a classic science fiction short story about a utopia that exists only because one child from that otherwise-perfect society is kept imprisoned and tortured. The more we learn about CTE, the messier the question of whether it’s okay to have one player on the team whose job it is to be involved in fights in order to keep everyone else safe becomes.

Or, at least, it would be, if having that one player actually did keep everyone else safe.

The Predators specifically dressed Cody McLeod for a game against the Ducks on December 2nd. It was his first game in nearly two weeks. He had 4:35 on ice, a 25% shot share, zero individual shots, two hits, and one fight. A whole lot of unpleasantness went down during the 60:25 of the game that McLeod wasn’t on the ice, including the moment shown above when Fiala scored a goal and promptly got mugged.

You might say that this was just one game, but there’s been a lot of research—both mathematical and anecdotal—that shows that having an enforcer doesn’t necessarily prevent either injuries or cheap shots.

SkinnyFish at Pension Plan Puppets did some research four years ago, looking at fighting majors taken and violent penalties drawn, and concluded that there isn’t any correlation between how many fights your players get into and how few times the opponents do something nasty to your players. (We make an appearance in that article, and it’s not a great look. Whoops.)

The year after that, Broad Street Hockey/SBNation’s Travis Yost built on that research and rounded up some other work. He concluded that not only does having an enforcer not help your team, it might actually hurt them.

Jonathan Willis has looked at a number of different trends and found that teams that have more fights have more injuries, and also that fighting has a negligible overall impact on momentum—and that even when it does impact momentum, it might help the other team more than it helps yours, because both teams have a player in the fight and want the game to be in their favor.

There’s also a great breakdown from a few years back from Mike Leonard at Stanley Cup of Chowder about how less-than-useless Shawn Thornton was at protecting his teammates in Boston, which goes on to discuss some other serious injuries that occurred against teams that employed enforcers. In a similar vein, Jeff Veillette of FaceoffCircle.ca has been pointing out times this year when the Leafs’ young stars get cheapshotted when Matt Martin is dressed for the game. (Spoiler: it keeps happening.)

And, to take it back out of the anecdotal, Adam Gretz found that teams were just about as likely to be the victim of a play dirty enough to get supplemental discipline when they dressed an enforcer as when they didn’t.

The Ducks’ various liberties weren’t any more an anomaly than all the other liberties we’ve seen teams take with McLeod in the lineup were.

And why should they be? McLeod is averaging fewer than seven minutes on ice a night—down from just over eight last season—and mostly when he starts a fight it’s because he doesn’t like the color of the other guy’s shirt. Not only is he almost never on the ice to be there when an opponent takes a cheap shot, he’s not likely to do anything about it once he is. And even if he does take some kind of retaliatory action, how often has McLeod gotten into a fight which actually impressed? It’s stale. McLeod fighting is just McLeod fighting, another Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday night.

I rewatched his fights and took a look at his fight cards from HockeyFights.com over the course of his time with the Preds.

Fight Night at the Bridge

Date Time vs Player Winner (Voted by HF) % of HF voters Notes
Date Time vs Player Winner (Voted by HF) % of HF voters Notes
1/14/17 0:22:18 Iginla Draw 43.8%
1/20/17 0:23:47 Lucic Opponent 92.8% Hendricks elbowed Subban, but McLeod fought Lucic. Sure. Okay.
1/24/17 0:06:00 M. Foligno Opponent 75.9%
2/2/17 0:27:12 Maroon Draw 48.5%
3/4/17 0:06:23 Tootoo McLeod 55.6%
3/7/17 0:03:08 Boll McLeod 35.1%
3/9/17 0:02:02 Clifford Opponent 63.0% Retaliation for a legal hit on Ekholm
3/13/17 0:20:00 Matthias McLeod 95.2%
3/20/17 0:23:09 L. Schenn McLeod 98.6% Retaliation for a late hit on Fisher several minutes prior (!)
3/25/17 0:05:30 Haley Draw 62.5% Later that game Haley would take a match penalty for deliberate attempt to injure.
3/28/17 0:58:35 K. Miller McLeod 62.1%
5/16/17 0:34:07 Boll McLeod 52.7% Retaliation for an uncalled charge on an already-injured Zolnierzcyk
10/5/17 0:10:56 McQuaid McLeod 34.9%
10/7/17 0:42:49 Reaves Opponent 78.6%
10/12/17 0:23:34 Johns McLeod 98.5%
11/4/17 0:06:21 MacDermid Opponent 97.4% Retaliation for a probably-legal hit on Järnkrok
11/20/17 0:02:30 Hendricks McLeod 100.0%
12/2/17 0:11:28 Manson McLeod 77.5%

As you can see, only four of McLeod's eighteen fights in gold have even been in defense of a teammate at all, and for three of those four he was either already on the ice or about to start his next shift. A couple of the others were answering for a hit of his own, but all the rest were just fights for “energy.” Two of those other fights were directly counterproductive—fighting the wrong guy when there was a “right guy” to be fighting instead, or fighting someone who would go on to do exactly the kind of thing the threat of fighting Cody McLeod was supposed to prevent.

There are a few other things to note here, too.

Although the HockeyFights community members seem to feel like McLeod wins a fair number of his fights, when it comes to defending his teammates he’s been just as likely to get beaten up as to do the beating. His recent fight against the Kings’ Kurtis MacDermid is a great example of that. Giving McLeod an instigator for that was basically just adding insult to injury.

Another big thing is that most of his fights are in the first couple of minutes of a period. Overall, the later in the game it is, the less likely McLeod is to be fighting. Part of this is because the later in the game it is the more likely Laviolette is to have shortened his bench. He can’t be fighting if he isn’t taking a shift at all. He won’t be taking a shift during special teams play, or against top competition, or in many high-stakes situations.

Finally, almost all of McLeod’s fights are with his fellow players who are on the roster to add grit, stability, and veteran experience. Those aren’t the only players who take cheap, dangerous shots, but they’re often the only ones who have to answer for them, on or off the ice.

This is where nostalgia kicks in and lies to us.

We accepted that Shea Weber’s presence deterred people from messing with anyone who shouldn’t be messed with. So when Weber was traded, it might have seemed logical to replace one great defenseman who is also a physical player with one great defenseman and one, separate, physical player. But Weber got those special-teams minutes, the top-competition matchups, twenty-six minutes on ice a night. He played a ludicrous ninety percent or so of his icetime with Roman Josi, whose concussion last January was the immediate cause of Poile’s decision to acquire McLeod.

And Weber feeling the need to actually fight someone was very, very rare. In McLeod’s first two half-seasons with the Predators he’s had eighteen fights. In Weber’s last two full seasons with the Predators he had just three—two of them were immediate reactions to being repeatedly cross-checked around the head and could probably be filed under “self-defense,” while the third was making Avalanche captain Gabe Landeskog answer for a hit on Josi.

McLeod probably couldn’t have taken that fight, and he certainly couldn’t have fought Sidney Crosby this past June for smacking P.K. Subban’s head repeatedly into the ice. (I don’t think anyone should be fighting Crosby, but the NHL has yet to ask me how I feel about head contact.) Look at what happened last week, when Pete DeBoer was outraged that Tom Wilson had fought future Hall-of-Famer Joe Thornton after he injured a teammate.

Even just in the fights a fourth-line grinder is allowed to take, McLeod doesn’t have Weber’s long-term connection to the team and the extra sense of responsibility for his teammates that seems to settle on the captain. He also lacks Weber’s sheer intimidation factor. Part of that might be their relative sizes, part of it might be their fighting styles, and part of it might just be that everyone expects Cody McLeod to punch someone at some point anyway.

They are not the same player. They will not have the same effects. And since McLeod can’t provide that same sense of security we associate with Weber, why play him?

Seven minutes on ice—the amount of time Laviolette trusts McLeod with—might not seem like a lot. But an awful lot can happen in seven minutes. The Predators’ stunning third-period collapse against the Minnesota Wild a few weeks ago took less than that, from Ryan Suter’s goal with just 6:56 left in regulation to cut the good guys’ lead back to one to Jason Zucker’s gamewinner only 4:01 later. That was one of four times so far this season they’ve given up three goals in less than five minutes.

Every shift matters. McLeod has had a good past few games by his standards. He scored a goal against the Stars last Tuesday, his second point of the season. More than just that, he’s been able to spend some time in the offensive zone despite not getting starts there. But he’s had good stretches by his standards in the past, and they’ve never lasted more than a few games. He’s also 33, which means that the odds that he’s due for a Viktor Arvidsson-style breakthrough season aren’t good.

The Predators are lucky enough right now to have some solid bottom-six wingers. When Scott Hartnell and—indirectly—Ryan Johansen return, the depth on wing will get even better. It’s even trickier because Pontus Åberg looks like he might finally be getting his feet under him. Who sits for McLeod? Åberg? Frédérick Gaudreau? Miikka Salomäki? Austin Watson? Having two of those forwards not playing so Johansen and Hartnell can is the good kind of problem to have. Having three of those forwards not playing so Johansen, Hartnell, and McLeod can is not quite the same.

I respect the idea of wanting to protect the skill players, but there’s no indication that enforcers in general or McLeod in particular can actually deliver on that promise. Given that, giving him games over better hockey players is not a good solution.

Comments

Good article and I feel your pain

While I was 100% FOR Ryan Reaves coming to the Penguins, I realize the numbers don’t back up my personal sentiment and the Penguins 4th line is worse for having him.

The problem that we have in this here garage league is lack of direction from the League Office and direct communications with the referees on how to address the problem. There is very little accountability for detrimental hits and while the instigator penalty in theory makes sense, the implementation,without the direct consequences of fines/suspensions for the hits that lead to instigation, has created a league that is no longer policed by the players (the original intent of allowing fighting) OR the league itself, but the players who in the past were able to possibly affect the actual play on the ice by knocking heads are penalized more severely for doing the job that used to be allowed by the rules.

I would be interested in seeing stats about fighting prior to the instigator penalty to see if the threat of Probert, Grimson and Twister beating your damn face in when you took liberties with their stars reduced the bad hits on the ice. My guess is yes, but again, I may simply like watching those guys beat other people up. Forgive me. It is how I was raised on the game.

"I was 100% for ryan reaves coming to the Penguins"

I have a friend who fiercely disagrees with that sentiment

I find a good fight entertaining, if nothing else.

There is certainly a schism among the fans on this....

like among most of us on most things these days.

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula le Guin

Haven’t thought of that story in years! Of course, you can choose not to think about the poor boy but it’s a bit more difficult to ignore the dirty great enforcer sitting on the bench in close fire-breathing proximity.

If you want to say that having a skilled hockey player on the ice is better than having a non-skilled enforcer I don't think there's a lot of disagreement

But I don’t think any of the linked articles really provide very solid evidence about about how fighting affects the culture of hockey if you click through to the underlying numbers for two reasons. First, none of them identify statistically significant information (fighting results in either a fractional injury per year more or less per team depending on the year) and second none of them consider the alternative if there was no self-policing culture including fighting in the NHL.

In the NFL the response to a cheap shot on your team is a cheap shot on the other team which resulted in one of the worst sporting events ever televised last week between the Bengals and Steelers a week ago today. Multiple head-shots to defenseless players, fines, suspensions, spinal surgeries and into the second week of a hospital stay later I’m under the impression this isn’t the number-one-best-super thing to happen in sports.

The culture in hockey that you don’t respond to a cheap shot with a cheap shot of your own stands between a beautiful sport and a blood sport. By all means, McLeod out for someone more skilled, but leave the occasional fight as offsetting five minute majors.

Couple of Takeaways

First, the hospital stay for Ryan Shazier was not caused by a dirty hit on Shazier. He went in head down and hit a receiver’s hip with the crown of his helmet. The major injury in the game was caused by terrible tackling technique, not the dirty nature of the game. Your point about cheap shots inducing fights being better than cheap shots inducing escalating cheapshots still has weight.

Second, I think we need to be very careful with the arguments made here. The article is anti-enforcer, but I’m not sure it’s anti-fighting. The stats say fights aren’t useful, but McLeod’s fighting history could be an important piece of the puzzle. Guys like him, enforcers who would otherwise not be in NHL games not good hockey players who can scrap like Shea Weber, have a lot of pointless and unnecessary fights. If enforcers were removed from the league (obviously would be a agonizingly slow process with so many stuck-in-the-past hockey minds), I would bet the arguments against fighting would diminish. Things like Thornton’s hit on Oshie can arguably deserve a response. A brutal cross-check deserves a response. McLeod just wanting to look useful by punching someone won’t deter those things though. It requires guys who opponents respect who are willing and able to police bad behavior.

"Enforcers who would otherwise not be in NHL... have a lot of pointless and unnecessary fights. If enforcers were removed from the league... I would bet the arguments against fighting would diminish."

I took out your parenthetical because I think this is a money quote if you read the whole thing as two brief sentences. The twilight of the otherwise useless enforcer is a great direction for the game to go. I totally agree with you and Kate on that.

I do have a tendency to be excessively wordy to ensure I make the full argument

Sometimes the effectiveness falls off as a result. It’s just a very fine line here with a few intersecting arguments about fighting, enforcers, and general player safety.

I don't know how much authorial intent counts for

But you’re absolutely correct when you say that the article is anti-enforcer but not anti-fighting.

The basic points I intended to make were:

  • using bad hockey players only because they will punch people is bad
  • punching people to show you should continue to get chances to punch people is not good
  • if you are going to make the attempt to police the game yourself can you at least try to win a fight once in a while, gotdang
  • in conclusion, stuff is complicated

I didn’t get into the ethics of allowing fighting at all (it’s not my top priority for removal if I could pick one but only one thing, and the research about the exact causes of CTE in ex-NHL players is not the clearest, with the league doing its level best to muddy the waters even further) and I think that’s really the only argument that doesn’t boil down to personal taste that can be made against it. Without fully addressing those ethical concerns, it’s likely to pretty much turn into a slanging match.

(For what it’s worth, and in the interests of fuller disclosure, I am not nearly as opposed to fighting for cause as my superego reminds me I should be. Though that might’ve come through too.)

I think "authorial intent" matters to the extent of trying to steer the conversation

It would be silly to be arguing against something that you were not saying, or possibly trying to say. There is a time and place to discuss whether fighting has any role in hockey going forward, but since you’re not really trying to weigh in on that discussion, it seems silly to have that discussion here.

I don't want to stifle discussion if people have something to say

I’m not actually sure whether there’s anyone in our figurative writers’ room who’s always anti-fighting, regardless of circumstances. (It’s a position that takes a lot of confidence to argue, too, because it tends to bring out a lot of ad hominem arguments.) I definitely don’t think—though I could be wrong—that there’s an article about fighting in hockey in general in the pipeline anywhere. So unless/until an article about whether fighting still belongs in hockey appears, people who have very strong feelings one way or the other on the subject might not have a better place to express them than the comments to an article about whether enforcers still belong in hockey.

(I will note, in case anyone is eyeing this comment and drawing up an article, that the biggest weakness of pretty much everything I’ve seen about taking fights—especially fights, or the idea of fights, in retribution for hits—out of hockey is the blithe assumption that skill players agree with the writers that they’re barbaric and antiquated. That’s just not true, and that cultural aspect is something that has to be considered.)

The article starts with linking CTE to hockey fighting

A link drawn because boxers get CTE from being punched. I’ve provided a mechanical review of a boxer below that shows the incredible difference between trained boxer and untrained person throwing a punch that shows this isn’t the concern we should be concentrating on.

If, in our best intentions to make hockey players safer, we were to support a rule change that resulted in no more fighting but one more major collision that change would be a net negative to player health and safety and to the sport of hockey.

So even though I’m coming off as a little critical we actually want to the same result, which is a fun, fast, and safe game. I’ll join the campaign to remove unskilled rough players from the game. I’ll join the campaign to improve rule enforcement. I’m also going to say that I think linking boxing fights to hockey fights is spurious and leads to conclusions that move us in the opposite direction of our shared goal.

i will also like to add

"A link drawn because boxers get CTE from being punched. I’ve provided a mechanical review of a boxer below that shows the incredible difference between trained boxer and untrained person throwing a punch that shows this isn’t the concern we should be concentrating on"

all hockey players are pro athletes, so comparing a boxer with an average person is not the same as comparing a boxer with a pro athlete. many "goons" practice fighting in hockey situations, and practice punching on a bag, or with fighting coaches.

also, getting knocked down in a ring and banging your head on a spring loaded floor is not the same as landing with your head on solid ice.

also, also, boxers down have to worry about the other combatant being armoured and landing on your head causing what is scientifically known as an "ouchie-sandwich"

i think the potential for injury is much higher in a hockey fight than a boxing fight. boxers have padded hands, and most of them still wear their teeth.

i would also like to add that i box, but not competitively…

All valid points however...

Boxers (and to a bit lesser extent MMA fighters) take SIGNIFICANTLY more repetitive punishment to their brains than hockey fighters.

I actually don’t think its fair at all to draw comparisons between hockey and professional boxing. In a single fight a boxer might take 100+ hits to the head. An MMA fighter will take less overall but they are much more violent due to smaller gloves, head kicks, cleaner shots, etc. A hockey fighter probably takes what… 3 or 4 relatively cleans hits over the course of the fight?

The full speed contact, and resulting whiplash effect, of hockey checking and football blocking/tackling are probably better comparables when looking at post-career brain injuries (i.e. CTE).

i agree about the strikes landed part

but it’s a horrible thing to see someone have a career ending injury doing something that really doesn’t matter, and can be solved with better officiating. i remember watch george parros end his career to sacking his face on the ice. it makes no sense to me. especially with an instigator rule. when was the last time we really seen a goon actually"drop the gloves" to go set the tone. staged fights are not what happens. a team is losing, so one 4th liner looks for another 4th liner to try to "motivate" his team.

i love watching fights, but not hockey fights. we have a bunch of combat sports available, there is no need for guys to beat each other senseless, then go laugh about it to each other in the penalty boxes. what does that solve?

Fighting results in few injuries where the player leaves the game, that game.

But there’s no denying that long term damage is being done to their brains, which leads to shortened, less healthy, often self-ended lives.

And I’ve always been a fan of police-policing, myself. Nothing is better than transparent, enforced rules, applied to everyone, equally, with due process and open proceedings. Especially in organized sport.

The NFL is a shit show from top to bottom, and the sport is little more than gladiatorial barbarism within the stated intentions of its rules, so the fact that there is no equal enforcement of those rules, much less some self-imposed code of honor, has little to do with the fact that it’s a sport for violent spectacle and is hardly comparable to pretty much any and every other organized team sport.

Taking fighting out of Hockey does not turn it into the NFL. There’s no evidence or equivalency to that. In fact, several of the cited articles point out that having fighting in the NHL does nothing to deter cheap shots or rule breaking acts of violence. In fact, I think that was the thrust of this article in general, but I’m open to being corrected. Thorough and equal enforcement of the rules is paramount.

The articles show that there isn't correlation between fighting and penalties committed, they say nothing about how culture affects prevented cheap shots.

And if you’re throwing your confidence and support behind NHL officiating and supplemental enforcement as a mythical future cure-all (you know, like it is in the NFL) I think we’re way far apart there based on any reasonable observation of their current performance.

Finally, concussions are primarily caused by brain impact with the skull from sudden changes in movement. This happens in hockey when there are hits or checks along the boards, not during what passes for a fist fight while both guys are on skates that ends as soon as one participant ducks. Blaming CTE consequences of hockey on fighting is willful disregard of reality.

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