Being an enforcer isn’t glamorous nor is it for the soft hearted. It takes a special kind of player to endure what this type of hockey entails. A style of play that has evolved over time, going from the “goon” to the power forward, enforcers still have their place in the game. A shrinking role that is clinging to the boards. Whether they were the bullies of broad street or the guardian angel of the great one, the tough guys left it all on the ice. Players like Tie Domi brought the fight to the opposing team and sometimes the fans. They were there when a star player needed protection and when their team needed a boost of spirit. Over time the bully play style went away. While it never truly left, the players adapted every era to match the game. Being a tough guy is something every player identifies with.
The rise of the enforcer as a staple role began with the 1970’s Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers. Teams had a need for the one dimensional player to help prevent dirty plays and protect it’s more talented players. Taking up boxing training and currently MMA striking, pushed the fighting farther than ever before. As the league moved to a faster more offensive style enforcers were slowly fazing out for more skilled players. This lead to the name changing from fighter to grinder. Grinders are players who though high energy and an offensive upside agitate their opponents. Being a pest was an art form perfected by Sean Avery. In April of 2008 he screened Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur by turning his back to the play and waving his hands in front of Brodeur. The NHL moved quickly to amend the rulebooks. As the game grew faster and more skilled players are needed once again the grinder role needed to adapt. The game was leaving these players behind once more. Today this role is filled by the power forwards. Possessing the both physical size and skill needed for the modern game, the power forward is sometimes referred to as the complete hockey player.
There have been many players matching this description over the years. Cam Neely, Keith Tkachuk and Eric Lindros all had an imposing style that brought more to the table than the 1970’s enforcer. Current era players such as Milan Lucic and Ryan Getzlaf continue to carry the torch of the hard nosed hockey player. Racking up the points and the penalty minutes to push their team towards victory. Gordie Howe is the most successful player at this style of play. Being tough enough to never back down but developing the scoring prowess needed to ensure a win.
Unfortunately for the tough guys it’s hard after the gloves are hung up. 2011 was a rough year for hockey. Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak lost their lives that year. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE is most likely the factor that brought the demise of these players. CTE has recently been brought to the light more with the NFL and the movie Concussion. It’s currently impossible to diagnose while the player is alive. The only known way to diagnose CTE is by examing brain tissue after death. The war on the ice was never going to be pretty. Getting your bell rung or being punch drunk were common in the early days. Now with modern concussion protocols and advancing medicine, we are slowly starting to help protect the players. National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has pushed for better protection and aid off the ice since the lockout in 2012-2013. While it will never be possible to prevent concussions in hockey we can spread information. If you haven’t read Dan Carcillos Players Tribune piece on Steve Montador, check it out.
The growing science around concussions will shape the game. The protectors on the ice are going to need protection off the ice. As doctors begin to understand more of the effects and warning signs of CTE, players may retire early or be forced to adapt their play. The NHL and the NHLPA have been adapting as new science comes to light. A visorless player is becoming a rare sight in the modern era. While not offering 100% protection they are slowing the progress of head injuries. The shift change to life outside of hockey isn’t easy for affected players. Depression, confusion and memory loss are just a few symptoms that these players are dealing with after hockey. The most difficult thing is some players may never show signs but get symptoms suddenly. While others will show a progressive down fall. Enforcers aren’t the only player effected, any player can develop the signs of CTE. It is more likely that through fighting and the car crash style enforcers play, they will develop more issues. Some former players are taking the fight to the courtroom and suing the NHL over concussions. The pressure to continue to play injured or get replaced fueled injuries and added to long term effects.
After the locker rooms lights go out and the door to hockey closes players will face a new uncertain challenge. While every player has his last game some are still battling with the hits and brutality of the sport. While some fan favorites like John Scott have punched their way into the hearts of hockey fans. We don’t know the impressions that the game has left on his brain. Who will be there to extend a hand and guide them through the fog of their minds. The gladiators of hockey are vanishing but their shadows gloom heavy over them. Having to survive after hockey will be the hardest shift of the enforcers career.
Jim McBride is the “Beyond the Ice” columnist for Good Night, Good Hockey. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org