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The era of the enforcer is dead? Not really

Leafland shook ever so slightly this past week when Brian Burke took center stage to take heat away (as he likes to do, and good for him) from his sometimes inconsistent team.  They've won twice since.  He went off on a few topics, perhaps most notably his impassioned announcement that “rats” are taking over the game.

He did this while explaining that, basically, it’s a sad day for hockey when there is no longer room for a player like Colton Orr.

Now, I’m not interested in commenting too much on one particular guy (Orr), who by all accounts is a “good guy” in the hockey world.  He has certainly been the classic team guy with various organizations through the years, protecting mates and taking on bullies.  But while I am not well-versed in the fine details of his career, my sense is he has largely been primarily that:  a perfectly nice tough-guy, a (at best) fourth-line guy who was on any team he was on not because of his hockey skills but because he was a good fighter who, in the traditional hockey parlance, “kept the opposition honest”.

As part of this discussion, I should address the “rat” point.  Yes, it’s always a concern when sneaky, dirty stuff infiltrates the game, especially if it’s not possible to shut those kinds of actions down.  But there have always been “rats” in hockey, in my view, guys who were/are sneaky, dirty but not really willing to stand up for themselves in any other way.  Kenny Linseman in the '80s was called "The Rat", but he was also  a pretty fine hockey player.  If Burrows in Vancouver is a modern-day "rat" (or Marchand in Boston for that matter), as per the discussion on "Coach's Corner" this past Saturday night, then maybe other teams need their own guys who play like Burrows and Marchand- players with skill who also play with a nasty edge.  And that's the thing...those kinds of "rats", like Matthew Barnaby a few years ago and Steve Downie today, can also "play". But an opposing team that has true team toughness won’t put up with it, and I don't think that you need one guy whose role it is only to fight to deal with it.  Most rats won’t fight anyway, and enforcers usually only fight enforcers, eh?  Maybe you look at it differently...)

To be clear, what exactly do we mean by rats?  I've identified guys who I think can play the game, but can by a bit nasty, maybe even dirty at times.  Of course I'd rather they not play that way.  I'd prefer that they play hard but within the rules.  But does an "enforcer" really get rid of the "rat" stuff?  Has it in the past?

Here’s the thing.  I’ve been watching hockey since the late 1950s.  That doesn’t make me an expert on rats and enforcers, but I’ve seen an awful lot of “tough guys” come and go.  Some could play, some couldn't.  But the best tough guys, in my memory, could also play the game.

I won’t go over the obvious with Gordie Howe.  Suffice to say that Howe built a reputation early in his career that he would gladly fight, if asked, and likely knock your lights out, if you were so inclined.  So not many guys bothered asking after a while (or even tried to bother him…period).  Howe, seen at right in early '60s action against Jacques Plante and the Rangers, wasn't a bad player, eh?

But more in line with what we think of as a classic, prototypical NHL “policeman” would be someone who was/is rugged, not superstar-skilled but was/is the resident team tough guy, but could also play—at least a bit.  I wrote a while back about two such guys, John Ferguson and Reggie Fleming.  In the old six-team NHL, and then into the early years of expansion, these guys were two of the toughest men in hockey.  They inspired some fear but could also play.  Ferguson scored more than 20 goals on more than one occasion it seems to me and helped Montreal win 5 Stanley Cups.  If we asked Jean Belieavu how important Ferguson was, he would tell us he may have been the most important Hab in that '60s era- because he could play but also kept the other team away from the Montreal skill players. (A while back, I penned a piece here about Colton Orr and Mike Brown, and how they were a throwback to the days of Ferguson and Fleming, but I'm not sure Orr has ever really reached that class of player...)

For his part, Fleming put up some decent offensive numbers with the Hawks (including helping a Cup win in 1961), Bruins and Rangers.  Believe me, those guys could find a job today because they weren’t just fourth-line guys who played three minutes a game.

But they weren’t alone.  I won’t list fifty guys, but clearly there have always been enforcers who could also play.  Butch Bouchard, the old 1950s Montreal captain, was one example.  Bert Olmstead, a star with the Habs and the Leafs, scored a lot, also fought and hit—a lot.  Winger Eddie "The Entertainer" Shack scored some big goals with the Leafs while still acting as a part-time tough guy in the ‘60s.  He won four Cups with Toronto.  Leaf great Bobby Pulford (seen at left), in his prime, was a gritty guy who scored big goals and would take on anybody.  He was a major part of those 1960s Cups in Toronto.

In the ‘70s, the Bruins were built on skill—and toughness.  Bobby Orr could really fight but mostly he just skated around people, the best player around.  But he also had teammates like Johnny McKenzie and Wayne Cashman who put up points and were tough as nails.  They didn’t allow the opposition to take liberties with Bruin superstars or their smaller forwards (though there weren’t, in truth, many “small” Bruin forwards in that ‘70s era.)  In the Don Cherry years (and later), they had all kinds of tough guys.  Stan Jonathan, Terry O’Reilly et all.  But again, not only would those guys drop the gloves, they would light the lamp enough to be offensive threats, too.

Same with the Rangers of that era.  Individuals like Vic Hadfield and Bill Fairbairn were big producers but also could fight.  The Flyers were thugs but even their muggers like Saleski and Schultz could score 20 goals a season in their “glory years”.

The beauty of the Montreal Canadiens throughout the 1970s was that they had tough guys, but for the most part they could also play.  Bob Gainey didn’t fight but was hard to play against.  So was Yvon Lambert.  Now, defenseman Gilles Lupien was mostly there because of his size, but Larry Robinson was the Zdeno Chara of his day.  Big, tall, talented—and tough.  He didn’t plan to fight, but if you insisted….

In more recent times, what about Claude Lemieux?  He helped different teams win Stanley Cups.  He avoided fights, but he could be nasty.  Was he a rat?

My point is, the history of the game that Burke talks about is not really about guys who basically were on a team to fight and only fight.  And if we're honest, is that not Orr's primary job with the Leafs?  Just look at his ice time.

I know Pat Quinn, for example, always hated the idea of having guys on his teams that could only fight.  His philosophy was, if you can’t play, he wasn’t interested.  Say what we will about Tie Domi, but under Quinn, he scored  a fair bit and contributed some energetic hockey quite often, in addition to keeping people away from Sundin and other more vulnerable Leafs.

So, if you have guys who are truly rugged, tough competitors and can play the game, that’s the ideal.  Isn’t that part of the Bruins’ success in recent years?  Guys like Lucic make you keep your head up.  You  don’t really want to have to fight them, so you may tread a little more carefully than you otherwise might.  And the guy is a scorer, too, a first-line player.

Brendan Shanahan was a great player who could look after himself.  Mark Messier, too.

And that’s where the game is going, and isn’t that a good thing?  In other words, if two players, two good players, are fighting for possession and tempers flare, well, they fight.  They sit for five minutes but then get back to playing their regular shift.  Whether their “fight” helped tilt momentum, or sent a “message”, well, only the players in that particular game know.

But unlike players who are essentially glorified fighters on skates, the aforementioned NHL’ers would have been high-end NHL players even if they never had a fight in their life.  When players like Colton Orr (and he’s not alone, I’m only using him as a reference point because Burke went on about it…) fight, they generally then spend the rest of the night glued to the bench, having “done their job”.

For me, that’s not a part of hockey that we have to keep.

Yes, there will likely always be a role for tough hockey players.  But they will be valuable, in the fine tradition of John Ferguson, Reggie Fleming, Wayne Cashman, Clark Gillies, Bob Probert and many others, for their combined talents:  toughness and skill.

If Burke is sad that Orr may lose his job because he sees Colton a person of integrity who has given everything he has to the game and has been a solid professional, I get that.

But lament that, not the loss of a “role” that really should never have been here in the first place.

If Burke thinks Orr is one of his 12 best forwards, then by all means give him a spot on the roster.  But clearly he is not one of the 12 best.  And it's not just because there are rats in the game.

So yes, let's deal with the "rats", if that really is an issue.  But in a more enlightened time, do we have to fill rosters with fighters as our best idea for a solution?

In short, for me, a real enforcer also brings other things to the table.  When the Red Wings retaliated against Lemieux and the Avalanche years ago, it was not just a matter of one "tough" guy/fighter standing up against what Lemieux had done to Kris Draper.  A number of Wings responded.  But they did it the right way- not like Todd Bertuzzi did, which was cowardly.  And Lemieux, who rarely fought, knew what he had to do and did it.

The Wings who stood up for Draper could also play the game.  And when I think "enforcer", those are the guys I think are the real deal.

13 comments:

  1. Long suffering Leaf fanJanuary 9, 2012 at 10:07 AM

    Very well said Mike! I for one don't mind the odd fight when two guys are battle hard and in the heat of the moment drop their gloves and duke it out. Somewhere in the seventies the game got away from that...I guess, to some degree, we can thank Philly's Broad-street bullies. The thing that bothers me about Burke's statement is how does a residence fighter playing only 4-5 minutes stop the "rats" from doing their thing?? They don't! As we have witnessed for sometime most of the fighting is done by "stage fighting" not through protection of your most talent players. The new NHL is all about speed, and too do so you need specialist who can at least play 10-11 minutes on the 3rd and 4th lines. So long and good-bye to the "goons" and here's hoping that we see in the near future another Brian "Spinner" Spencer, Dave "Tiger" Williams, Pat Boutette, Scott Garland, Dan Maloney, Wendel Clark, Tie Domi, and Darcy Tucker...players who had some skill, but were willing to get their noses dirty for the good of the team.

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  2. Like you, Long Suffering, I see the "rat" issue as separate from the enforcer question.

    I appreciate your invoking the names of Leaf players of the past who provided toughness and could and would drop the Leafs as needed, but also brought some level of skill to their work as well. We could throw Jim Dorey's name into the hopper, too! Thanks.

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  3. I take a bit of issue with statement that Claude Lemieux rarely fought.

    He was dirty and a bit of rat, but he was also a good player (Conn Smythe winner, 80 career playoff goals, ninth all-time in the NHL)and a fairly willing fighter.

    I can see at least 39 fights for Lemieux.

    He had 2 busy seasons with 5 fights in each.

    Lemieux also fought tough opponents. In the 1989-90 season, Lemieux fought tough, experienced fighters with good size. They included Ronnie Stern, Neil Sheehy, Darin Kimble and Jim Sandlak.

    In 1997-98, he has Darrian Hatcher and McCarty.

    In other seasons, he fought top enforcers. You can see Rob Ray and Chris Simon on his dance card.

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  4. Thanks DP. I've always credited Lemieux with being an important contributor to many teams, including Cup teams. And I stand corrected on his willingness to fight. Thanks.

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  5. Spot on Michael.

    I cannot remember when the game active rosters expanded from 18 to 20 players but that may have had something to do with teams being able to carry a 5 minute tough guy.

    I remember in the 60's the Leafs rotated 3 lines and 2 defence pairs with a 5th defenceman and 3 extra forwards. In the 61-62 season they used the "Wrecking Crew" of Eddie Shack, Duke Edmundson and Johnny Wilson as a 4th line. They brought toughness, excitement and some scoring to the game as they were all good players.

    I cannot remember the Leafs using a goon until the 70's when Forbes Kennedy and Kurt Warner played (and I use the term loosely}. Both were an embarassment to the team and to the fans.

    I have always felt that the pure fighter has no place in the game and was very disappointed when Ryan Hollweg (now there was a huge embasassment} and Colton Orr were signed.

    Toughness will always be part of the game but staged fights and thuggery have no place in hockey.

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  6. Thanks for the post, Pete Cam. Well said, as always.

    Let me throw out another old-time name you will recall: Gerry James. He was the tough winger for the Leafs who also played for the Blue Bombers in the CFL. You didn't mess with him, but he could also contribute in other ways.

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  7. I hate the kind of unnecessary fighting Prust, say, does for the Rangers. Just dropping the gloves within the first two minutes for no other reason than to stage a fight doesn't male sense to me, and cheapens the game. (Having said that, Wilson put Rosehill out for that shift and he beat Prust, which seemed to weaken the Rangers' resolve a bit).
    I liked Orr's shifts on the forecheck. When he and Rosehill or Brown went in there, they made things happen, and often generated chances. He also finished his checks cleanly, which is something the "rats" do but often a little bit late.
    All in all, though, this version of the Leafs looks like it doesn't need him. I think we're still a bit too polite in front of our net, but with Brown - and Armstrong, if and when he returns - we have the "muckulent" quality we'll need for the second half of the season.
    I liked Orr - I hope he can refashion his game.

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  8. I appreciate your take on Colton Orr, Gerund O'...Maybe he can claim a spot back with the Leafs or elsewhere. The game seems to be "changing", yes, but if he can consistently do the things you refer you, then maybe there is a place for him.

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  9. Thanks for the reminder. I remember Gerry James well. He came up through the system, playing for the OHL Marlies and the Rochester Americans. He played partial seasons with the Leafs (reporting after the football season) from 54-55 to 56-57 and also the 58-59 season. We eagerly anticipated his arrival each season. He was a tough honest hockey player.

    Career Stats: G-149 Go-14 A-26 Pts-40 PIM-257

    He was also a pretty darn good fullback.

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  10. I agree wholeheartedly with you Michael. To anyone who says the game needs "fighters", I say show me someone who wasn't at the edge of their seats watching Canada win the gold medal in the last Olympics and were disappointed to not see a fight break out. That's the kind of hockey we need, despite what Don Cherry says.

    I, like you, don't mind a tough, rugged game and yes sometimes a fight breaks out in the heat of battle. In that case, throw the players out of the game just like any other sport. These staged fights are such an embarassment to the NHL and it's even worse in junior hockey. Again, did anyone miss the lack of fighting in the World Juniors? I think not.

    I watched the Wings/Leafs game Saturday and the Wings/Hawks game on Sunday. Two excellent and exciting games for fans of all three of those teams. The NHL needs more GMs like Holland and Burke to say goodbye to the guys that don't have the skills to compete at the NHL level. I think the tide is finally turning in that direction, as slow as it is.

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  11. Well said, Gene. We both know from watching the game for so many years that you do not need "fights" to make great hockey. They may happen, but they are not essential to the game. Rugged hockey, tough hockey, intense hockey, all great. Useless fighting? I just don't see the point.

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  12. After posting here, I went on to read an article in today's Detroit News that talks about toughness in hockey, with regards to the Wings games this weekend against the Leafs and Blackhawks. Once again, Michael, you've got the pulse of the nation at your fingertips. Here's the link: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20120109/OPINION03/201090412/1128/sports0103/Make-no-mistake-Wings-fury-match-their-finesse

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  13. Gene, thanks for your comment and that link. I had not seen it and I would encourage visitors here to read that column. While making an important broader point about how the game can be played at the elite well with skill and real toughness, it speaks as well to why the Red Wings, constructed as they are, are at the top of the standings year in and year out.

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