Would bringing back NHL’s brawling enforcers make hockey safer?

As the Stanley Cup finals start on Monday night, it’s worth considering whether we need to rethink how the game is played

The 2021 Stanley Cup finals start on Monday night as the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning prepare to scrap for the title. So now is the perfect time to let followers of other sports in on a secret, although it’s something that serious hockey fans have known for years. There’s hardly any fighting in the NHL anymore. And there’s something else: would bringing back enforcers, the men who are charged with protecting their teammates from violence (usually by inflicting violence), actually make the game safer?

As in many sports, the terrible consequences of concussions in hockey are well documented. This year, I’ve been asked whether I know how bad a concussion is, and what that must feel like. I do. Mine was from playing hockey in my teens.

William Beaver, a professor emeritus of social science at Robert Morris University, has studied how the NHL has handled concussions. He says that there was an increase in the number of concussions after 2005, “but I assume most of the increase was [due to] better awareness and reporting of concussions.” Beaver said 8% of concussions were from fighting. That 8% is of interest, because I think the league is more likely to ban fighting than to make all head contact illegal, incidental or not. Banning fighting might not affect concussion incidence that much, but penalizing all head contact surely would.

I asked Beaver whether the game would be safer if enforcers were let back in. “[Enforcing the rules and fair play] is something the refs are supposed to do,” he says. However, “consistent enforcement of rules is something the league has never had. It depends on the refs and situations.”

One of the arguments against the use of enforcers is the toll it takes on the players themselves. In 2011, three NHL enforcers died. All were under the age of 35 and their deaths were attributed, at least in part, to the brain trauma they had suffered from fighting during their playing careers.

But how do the enforcers themselves see their role – and the dangers of brain trauma? Darren McCarty won four Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. He played right wing on Detroit’s famous Grind Line. He matched up against opponents’ first-line stars while protecting Detroit’s skill players from serious injury. It is hard to imagine a more demanding role in sports.

Now retired, he is raspy, tough, charming, and super smart about hockey. He knows far more about the game than I ever will. He also doesn’t mind being remembered as an enforcer. “I don’t take umbrage at that,” he says. “The most important thing is all the Cups I have. Call me whatever you want.”

He says his path to becoming an enforcer was logical. “When I was 16, I was taken aside and told that if I wanted to make it to the NHL, I had to do one thing better than 99.9% of the rest of the [players], and for me it would be playing physical.”

Like Beaver, McCarty thinks the NHL concussion numbers are due to heightened awareness and reporting. As the rules evolve, hockey may be seen as “softer,” he says. But he doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing: “My hope is that … people are safer.”

“The big thing for any enforcer or any hockey player is accountability,” McCarty says. He believes that as fighting is taken out of the game, with it goes the sense of accountability for on-ice actions. Enforcers had the role of making players accountable for injuring other players. Traditionally, “hockey was self-regulating … and when you take that out of the game, then it gives it that bit of anarchy and guys take liberties.”

The old enforcers, known almost exclusively for their fighting, are gone. “You got to be able to play now,” he says. “The old toughness, the old size, it changed to speed.”

Does McCarty think the NHL was safer with its enforcers? He is clear: “Absolutely.” And did enforcers do a better job than the NHL department of player safety in maintaining player safety? “One hundred percent better. They’re so inconsistent. They don’t know which way to call it, and what they’re interested in is parity.”

McCarty gives the example of one of the NHL’s finest players, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, whom: “I couldn’t be more proud of … to represent the league, but I get frustrated because of the abuse he wouldn’t [have to] take if there were guys playing in my role to this day.”

There is, of course, another reason to love enforcers. It’s the pleasure of those rare occasions when they shrug off the stereotype of only being good for fighting, and produce a moment of magic. For McCarty it was undoubtedly his Stanley Cup-clinching goal in 1997. It’s a masterpiece from a kid who was told if he wanted to play in the NHL, he’d have to fight. It’s a goal for grinders everywhere, from all walks of life.

Peter Jakubowicz

The GuardianTramp

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