With the demotion of Colton Orr a week or so ago, Brian Burke held a press conference in which he expressed his sorrow at the fact that the current direction of the game is one that has no room for enforcers. Fighters like Colton Orr have no place in a modern lineup, so he was going to go to the AHL to see whether he could reinvent himself, and the NHL would be left to the “rats,” dirty players would could take liberties with stars without fear of retribution.
I don’t really agree that the modern NHL has no room for enforcers. To me, what we’re seeing the demise of is not the fighter but rather the specialist – the player who really only has a single skill – fighting – and if he’s not fighting, a player who really can’t be used at all.
This particular evolution of the enforcer (or tough, guy, goon, what have you – it kind of depends on your perspective) isn’t really all that old. While “goon hockey” is generally associated with teams like the Philadelphia Flyers of the 1970s (even though the Bruins and Blues played this way before the Flyers did, Philly made it into an art form), the players they employed weren’t modern goons. Guys like Schultz, Saleski, Dupont and Kelly would take a regular shift. Saleski and Schultz both scored 20 goals at different points in their career. The reason they were so frightening to play against was that at least one of them was on the ice all the time. In Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, if you played Philly, you played against Dave Schultz and everyone else they had. This was their team.
I was talking it over with some other “veteran” hockey fans (that’s a pleasant euphemism) and we all basically agreed that the modern goon (plays five minutes or less, never scores, only fights) is really a product of the late 1980s and early 90s. This is when teams were looking for an answer to the likes of Bob Probert. You’d see guys like Troy Crowder and Tie Domi appear and if they could go toe-to-toe with Bob and live, they became instant celebrities and were rewarded with large contracts even if they didn’t show any other real skill. Tie eventually developed enough of a game that he took a regular shift and became a legitimate player. Crowder eventually disappeared. With expansion, there was some talent dilution and designated fighters tended to become more of a presence. In the dead puck era, so little scoring was happening anyway that it didn’t really matter if your goon only gave you three goals per season – or even less.
Once the lockout ended, the emphasis became skating and speed and if your tough guy couldn’t keep up, he became a major liability on the ice. A guy who might have once got 8-9 minutes when obstruction was permitted might now just get three or four. Increased parity and the fight for once-plentiful playoff spots made the regular season crucial. Again, this did not bode well for players without everyday skills.
As with most things, there’s no real clear dividing line where you can say “this is where it started.” While there was more of a tendency to keep single-purpose fighters after the latest round of expansion, sluggers from the minor leagues have always been brought up to see whether they can contribute at the NHL level. The difference in days gone by was that if they didn’t show they could take a regular shift, or even semi-regular, they disappeared. The Leafs once had a guy named Paul Higgins. A tenth-round pick in 1980, Paul played just 25 games over a two-season NHL career. His totals read zero goals, zero assists, zero points – and 152 penalty minutes. Now that’s a goon.
I think the future of the enforcer really lies in its past. Before there were enforcers, there were “policemen.” This type of player has been around forever. Red Horner was a policeman for the Leafs 80 years ago. The king of policemen, though, was probably John Ferguson.
The difference between policeman and goon is really one of talent. The policeman was the toughest player on his team (or at least one of them) but was skilled enough to take a regular shift. John Ferguson was as tough as anyone who played the game and as feared a fighter as there was, yet he skated on the top lines. When he broke in, he made room for Beliveau and Geoffrion because he skated out there with them.
John was never going to be confused with a finesse player, but he’d hit 15 goals with regularity and 20+ on occasion. He fought all comers – tough guys, pests, rookies looking to make a name for themselves – and helped Montreal win a bunch of Stanley Cups. He finally retired not because he was tired of the fighting, but because he was afraid he’d seriously maim or even kill someone in a fight.
There used to be a lot of people in this vein. A lot of the tough guys of the 70s could score. Tiger Williams was usually good for 20 goals alongside Sittler and McDonald and hit 38 in Vancouver. Willi Plett scored 33 as a rookie in Atlanta and another 38 skating with Kent Nilsson in Calgary. Even Semenko scored 20, though it took Gretzky to make it happen.
That, to me, is the future of the fighter. Teams will look for guys who can play a bit as well as fight. I also see teams looking to have a couple of guys who can go so that they’re not reliant on a single heavyweight when a couple of cruiserweights will do the trick. I don’t necessarily see a lot of 25 goal scorers fighting, but even if Colton Orr could reinvent himself as a third/fourth liner who could play ten minutes, kill some penalties and come up with a stat line like 7-8-15 while being defensively plausible, he’d be enormously valuable.
So I don’t see an end to the fighter. I see an end of the specialist. But we’ll probably get better hockey out of it. And fewer rats.