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Colton Orr and Mike Brown: almost a throwback to when enforcers could play


Recently I posted on modern-day hockey parlance that includes terms such as “energy line”— a phrase you didn’t hear back in the 1960s, for example.

Back in those days, you did have a “number one” line, but things were maybe not quite as clinical as they are now, when we categorize things and speak of “to-six” and “bottom-six” forwards.

With every team (except, on occasion, the cap-punished New Jersey Devils…) nowadays icing four forward lines and six defensemen, everyone has a specific “role”.  The third line is the “checking line”, the fourth line generally is the “energy” line and so forth.

When it comes to many teams’ fourth-line, there may be (as with the Leafs and Orr and Brown) one or two guys who don’t play significant minutes, but have an important function on the team.  “Enforcers”, as they are called, are there (we are often reminded) to ensure a team’s often smaller skill guys don’t get pushed around.

Now someone like Brown can make solid hits and kill penalties, and that makes him more than just a guy who fights and doesn’t bring much else.  Like Orr, his offensive numbers don’t quite hit the standard I’m about to talk about, but they are certainly guys who contribute.

I guess my point is that there was a time when enforcers or “policemen”, as we tended to call them in the old days, brought more than fists to the party.

To draw a clearer distinction, I’m also not here speaking of the so-called “power-forwards” (again not a term in use in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s).  These are the players who could  and can fight their own battles if they had to, played tough in the corners and in front of the net and were/are elite level scorers, too.  Over the years, different players spring to mind who certainly fit that category, including Gordie Howe, Cam Neely and Brendan Shanahan.

Rather, my reference point are the guys in the really old days who were there largely to protect their teammates, but who could also put up “numbers”.

They were indispensible.

I wrote recently about Eddie Shack (right, in early 1960s' action against Ted Green and the Bruins) and his role with the Leafs in the 1960s.  Some saw him as an enforcer, though I thought of him in somewhat different terms.  But Shack could fight, yes, and his erratic, aggressive style meant opposing players had to keep their heads up at all times when Shack was on the ice.  Importantly, he could score.  He topped 20 goals when that wasn’t easy to do, and over his career netted well over 200 goals.

Reggie Fleming was one of the best policemen in the game in the 1960s.  He could fight and he looked after his teammates.  He killed penalties, played hard in the corners, provided toughness and grit.  In fact, he helped the Black Hawks win the Stanley Cup in 1961.  And while not as prolific a scorer as Shack, for example, he had some offensive punch.

Fleming was good enough to play a bit with the Canadiens when they were the best team in hockey, before joining the Hawks.  He later played for Boston and the Rangers, too, along with the expansion Flyers and Buffalo Sabres in their first year in the league.

In 1964-’65, Fleming (left) scored 18 goals for the low-scoring Bruins, a significant achievement for any player in the old six-team NHL—but particularly noteworthy given his role as a policeman on a not very strong team.

But the most renowned—and feared—policemen in the NHL in the 1960s was Montreal tough guy, John Ferguson.

A winger, like Fleming and Shack, Ferguson was a major factor in reviving the sagging fortunes of the Montreal franchise in the mid-1960s.  I say that because, after their 1960 Cup victory, the Habs did not even reach the finals for the next four seasons.  The still had skill players like Beliveau, Richard, Backstrom and others, but they were missing the toughness they had when they won those five Cups in a row in the late 1950s.

When Ferguson came on aboard for the 1963-’64 season, he provided a bolt of energy.  Montreal’s other players suddenly played bigger and with more confidence.  They probably should have won the Cup in 1964, but didn’t.  (The Leafs upset them in seven games in the semi-finals.)  They proceeded to win 5 Cups over the next seven seasons and Ferguson played a huge part in that success.

I well remember Fergy.  I so disliked Montreal in those days.  (I took Montreal-Toronto games very personally, especially given that my Dad was a devoted Montreal fan. Other than a Toronto victory, nothing made me happier, when Montreal was so good, than Montreal losing a game.)  He was not exactly my favorite player but I did respect what he brought to his team. 

I particularly remember that during the ’67 finals, he clipped Johnny Bower a couple of times, at least, in the Montreal net.  (Note the picture at the top of this story, showing Ferguson and Bower in action during the 1963-'64 season.) He liked to take subtle runs at goalies, kind of send them off-balance, get his stick up, throw them off their game.  Bower didn’t wear a mask and Ferguson was creating problems throughout the series.  He was a “do anything to win” kind of player—the best of his kind in those golden days of hockey.

There are certainly enforcers nowadays who can play, I realize, Orr and Brown of the Leafs among them.  But there was something unique about they way some of the old-timers handled the role.

They could score, too.

2 comments:

  1. Good article Michael.

    Something that jumped off the screen to me was the bit about how Ferguson would clip the goalie, get in their heads. Seems like nobody does that anymore, or at least not on a consistent basis. I know it's obviously against the rules to clip a goalie and a suspension would be handed out easily with all the cameras and such these days. But it doesn't seem like many players get in a goalies face and bark at him or anything these days. Like you said, I guess it's different times.

    As for Orr and Brown, Brown is easily the better player of the two, but Orr is arguably the best fighter in the league outside of Boogaard. I like them both, but Browns' speed and ability to kill penalties will give him more minutes. I doubt either of them see the pressbox all season.

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  2. Reggie Fleming would have kicked Colton Orr's ass from one end of the ice to the other! That's a given.

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