Deadspin’s Adam Gretz yesterday published his argument that the hockey enforcer is “the most useless role in sports,” including a statistical analysis that shows the presence of enforcers on the ice or bench in modern NHL games does nothing to deter injuries. It’s well worth reading, though like most arguments against fighting in hockey, its lack of understanding for the sport’s nuances suggests Gretz has never actually played–something I may or may not be completely wrong about.
The math is enlightening, certainly, but the thesis ignores recent historical development. It’s the NHL who diminished the role of the enforcer, and made their players less safe by removing the opportunity for them to police themselves. I would be very interested to see the same mathematical analysis on the NHL game before the “third-man-in” and “instigator” rules effectively took away the ability of an enforcer to protect his team-mates without hurting his team. Maybe there was no statistical basis for this idea either, but I’m betting it would show.
There is a reason Wayne Gretzky treated his enforcers as well as he did, giving them gifts like cars and vacations to share the wealth he accumulated—it’s because Gretzky understood those players were the reason he was treated with respect. Anyone who went after him would immediately be facing a pummeling from Dave Semenko or Marty McSorley. Gretzky was far from the only star player to hold this understanding of what his enforcers did for him.
These days, players know that league rules inflict such harsh penalties for on-ice intervention that enforcers rarely, if ever, do so. Even if a player intentionally maims another team’s star, to the point where the threat of a suspension and major penalty aren’t deterrent enough, the referees will personally intervene to prevent any retribution. This is which is why you no longer see any measurable effect from the presence of enforcers, and why they’ve been relegated to ritualized fights only against one another.
That is my hypothesis, at least. I’d be interested to see it tested—may even do so myself if I can find the time.