Fighting in hockey. It’s one of the most hotly debated subjects in all of sports. Hockey is still and probably always will be number four in the pecking order when it comes to the four major sports in North America. But, when it comes to the issue of fighting, hockey comes to the forefront.
There’s the camp that says that fighting is the reason why hockey will never be considered a legitimate sport. That it’s a circus sideshow. That hockey should be all about speed and skill. Then you have the pro-fighting camp. Fighting is and always has been a necessary part of the game. Without it, the opposition would take runs at star players without any fear of repercussions. It also can be used as a means of intimidation. Us as Philadelphians know full well how the Flyers won two Stanley Cups using this very tactic. And let’s face it. It’s a fun part of the game. You might hear a lot of people speak out against it but, I’ve yet to be at a hockey game when a fight breaks out where everyone isn’t on their feet.
But the game of hockey is changing and has been for a long time now. Starting in the early 80’s, the NHL started creating rules to curtail fighting. First they passed a rule that penalized a player 10 games for leaving the bench during an altercation. Then they passed the instigator rule which gave a player an extra two minutes for instigating a fight with an opponent. The instigator rule was then made even more severe by adding a game misconduct on top of the extra two-minute penalty. On top of that if a player accrues three instigator penalties he receives a one game suspension.
So for obvious reasons, fighting has become less and less a part of the game of hockey. Even with all of the rules that have been implemented though, as recently as three years ago, every NHL team employed at least one enforcer. It was still seen as a necessity. If things got out of hand like they did during the last regular season game of the 2012 season between the Penguins and Flyers, teams could send out the enforcer to settle the score.
With the trade of Zac Rinaldo this past off season, even the Broad Street Bullies find themselves without an enforcer. And to call Zac Rinaldo an enforcer is a stretch. Rinaldo is a gritty player who can throw with best of them but at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds Rinaldo doesn’t exactly put the fear God into opponents.
The Flyers aren’t the only team in the NHL moving away from having at least one enforcer on their team. Over the past year and change, scrappers such as Tom Sestito and Brian McGrattan have been sent down to the minors. The only enforcers of note left in the NHL are Deryk Engelland and John Scott.
So what are the reasons for the Enforcer heading towards extinction? One is the salary cap. Teams are reluctant to use a valuable roster spot on someone who’s only role is fighting. They are opting instead for players who are more versatile and can do more than one thing. Players like Ryan White and Wayne Simmonds on the Flyers and Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck on the Islanders are invlauable. They not only play physical and drop the gloves but can score the occasional goal and provide a team with energy.
Another is the style of play in the NHL has changed a lot since the red line was removed and the blue lines were moved back. Both of these moves caused the game to become a little more wide open. Removing the red line created more room in the neutral zone because two-line passes were now legal. Moving the blue lines back created more room in the offensive zone. The NHL also cracked down on obstruction penalties. As a result NHL teams put a greater emphasis on finding players who can skate and move the puck over guys who are big and physical. These changes are a big reason why smaller players like Tyler Johnson, Johnny Gaudreau, and Carl Hagelin now thrive in today’s NHL. It wasn’t that long ago that NHL teams would bypass guys such as these because of their lack of size.
All the changes have also caused teams to put a greater emphasis on puck possession as well. Back in the clutch and grab days of the late 90’s and early 2000’s teams had to play a dump and chase style in order to defeat the neutral zone trap. Now that teams can no longer trap because of all of the extra room on the ice, teams can carry the puck in to the offensive zone. A game such as this doesn’t lend itself to big plodding guys who can’t skate. If a team has a choice between keeping a bigger, more physical player or a smaller player who can skate teams will now opt for the smaller, faster guy just about every time.
The Canadian junior leagues are putting less emphasis on fighting as well. Players are now suspended for a staged fight.
Fighting will always be a part of hockey. It’s too firmly entrenched in to the fabric of the game and it still does serve a purpose. But, the days of NHL teams using a roster spot for someone who is strictly an enforcer seem to be coming to an end.