Hockey's Sheriff: The Enforcer

With the passing of Bob Probert, I asked FanTake Hockey lead, ColoradoAg to give us an obit and discussion of the role of enforcer past, present and future in the game. He nails it. Enjoy. -- S.R.

I was saddened to hear of the passing of former Detroit Red Wing (and later Chicago Blackhawk) enforcer extraordinaire, Bob Probert.

Probert might not have been the best fighter in NHL history, but he honed his craft during the league’s TV golden years of the 1990’s thus making him a visible, polarizing beast as the league expanded and exponentially increased its viewership. Probert spent the majority of his career with Red Wings and was tasked with protecting the franchise’s most valuable asset – Steve Yzerman – at all costs.

Despite amassing a seemingly fictitious 3300 penalty minutes in 935 regular season games, Probert eventually diversified his portfolio from solely a knuckle-dragging goon to a nasty power forward that added some admirable offense to his repertoire. Probert tallied 384 regular season points when he wasn’t having some nice "me time" in the penalty box (he spent nearly three full days of his life in the box.)

The tales from Probert’s competitors is stuff of legend. When the NHL would release the upcoming season’s schedule, bruisers around the league would immediately find the Wings on the calendar. Guys wouldn’t get sleep the night before games against Detroit. They knew Probert was waiting. As fellow Red Wing Bruise Brother Joey Kocur said, "My favorite memory of Bob would be sitting down before a game, going over the opposing lineup and picking and choosing who would go first and if the goalie would be safe or not. It was great to be able to go out on the ice knowing that he had my back and I had his."

Probert battled his own demons of drugs and alcohol off the ice, but he was also known for something else when he wasn’t speed-bagging skulls – being a remarkably humble, gracious, and likeable man.

Rest in peace, Bob. I’ll never forget this superb bout with Marty McSorley:

Fighting’s role in hockey

The most incendiary issue in hockey amongst fans, the media, and the NHL’s front office is the role of fighting in the game. In the modern age of the public’s immediacy and reducing complex topics to hasty black vs. white hyperbole, the internet is loaded with oversimplified takes on fighting. Stuffy media types will cast hockey into the same light as violent video games resulting in the bane of America’s youth. Hockey purists will quickly dismiss anti-fighting arguments with a rigid "you just don’t understand."

I am a hockey purist. I have played the game my whole life and I will always be drawn to its fundamental traits of respect, accountability, honor, and courage. I support fighting in hockey. However, I freely acknowledge the murky, contentious debates.

Violence has always been a part of hockey. When you get big men with sticks skating at 30 miles per hour in a confined space, blood will boil to a volatile simmer.

The 1970’s represented a raucous period in the NHL. Bench clearing brawls (at times involving fans) were the norm. I find it hard to imagine such a brand of hockey existing in today’s environment of YouTube, TV, and pussies hyper sensitivity. Earlier this year, HBO did a fantastic job detailing the Philadelphia Flyer’s era of the "Broad Street Bullies" and their violent warpath to two Stanley Cups in the late 1970’s:

The NHL had never seen a team (let alone one that won Cups) that so unapologetically kicked the hell out of everything in its way. This wave of hockey culture was portrayed deftly in this cinematic gem:

RIP Paul Newman, too.

The 1980’s ushered in an influx of European talent into the NHL’s ranks built on finesse and speed. It was also the career advent of the most skilled, intelligent player in hockey history – Wayne Gretzky. The Edmonton Oiler dynasty of the 80’s was constructed on a European or Russian style of play emphasizing creativity and speed. This, combined with the NHL’s efforts to thwart bench clearing brawls after the Broad Street Bullies era signaled a shift in the culture of the game. The well-paid superstar was the main focus, and protecting him would be paramount. The Oilers were the model franchise, and they had immensely skilled players such as Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, and others. Messier was tough as hell, but the others needed protection. This marked the birth of the modern day enforcer. Dave Semenko was the Oiler’s bodyguard and he was exceptional.

As salaries rapidly escalated in the 80’s and 90’s for top stars, teams placed heavy emphasis on equipping rosters with an intimidating force. As I alluded to earlier, hockey is a game of respect and honor. Team is forever placed before the interests of the individual. Hockey players govern themselves by what it is simply known as "The Code". The Code is not easily defined. Many NHL players are reluctant to even discuss it.

Essentially, The Code represents an unwritten set of rules enforced not by the league or referees, but the players. Take a cheap shot at a skill player? Be prepared to defend yourself against the behemoth sitting at the end of the bench. Purists will argue that the mere presence of an enforcer greatly reduces the dangerous cheap aspects of hockey resulting in a more skilled game where stars aren’t being carved to shreds by wild sticks. Breaking The Code is an egregious offense in hockey. If you are going to run guys from behind, take liberties with your stick, and run your mouth – you will be confronted. If you choose not to defend yourself, the enforcer will find someone else to take your punishment.

It is the ultimate accountability.

This is why NHLers don’t wear facemasks. It is the strict adherence to The Code that keeps players policing one another and navigating the obscure physicality of an immensely violent game.

Will cheap shots ever be eliminated from hockey? Absolutely not. Do I believe that The Code can keep the vast number of cheap shots at bay? No question. Do I like asking myself questions in lieu of writing coherent paragraphs? Yes, it is fun and easy.

European hockey places very stringent penalties and consequences on fighting. European hockey is also renowned for cowardly cheap shots and dangerous stick work. There are countless examples of Euros making the jump over to the NHL only to find that their brand of cheap hockey didn’t just result in time spent in the penalty box. It resulted in a confrontation from a man whose only reason for NHL employment is protecting teammates.

The most compelling argument against gratuitous fighting in hockey is the Olympics. TV ratings for Olympic hockey are always strong and fighting is nonexistent. Fighting results in costly suspensions and penalties in line with the overall "purity" mantra and brand of the Olympic Games. I certainly recognize the merits of this perspective. That typed, an Olympic roster and NHL roster are not created equal. The elite Olympic teams are built like All Star teams. A roster spot is too valuable to give to a guy whose only role is fighting. Talent in the NHL is more dispersed and the style of play is much different.

The fighting debate is not going anywhere. I think the NHL is regaining some of its relevancy (albeit at a snail’s pace) and I predict they will eventually find themselves back on ESPN (looming NBA and NFL lockouts being the lynchpin in that deal.) This will give the argument even more visibility. Fighting draws fans into hockey, but I am not sure it creates a loyal customer. There are too many other avenues for peoples’ palettes that enjoy violence. You could go to five random NHL games and not see one fight or you can tune into the gobs of UFC programming littering our cable feeds.

The question the NHL consistently asks themselves is if fighting deters potential fans (read: families). I want to know your thoughts in the comments.

ColoradoAg’s Favorite Fighters

Joey Kocur

As I mentioned earlier, Kocur was half of the Bruise Brothers with Probert in Detroit. With a devastating right hand, one fellow fighter once noted that a fight with Kocur would keep you from eating solids for a week. Here is a bout between good pals Probert and Kocur after Kocur was sent to the New York Rangers.

Stu "Grim Reaper" Grimson

Standing a bulbous 6’6" and 250 lbs, Grimson was a load to handle. His big frame caused him to struggle with balance early in his career (balance is one of the key strengths for a good hockey fighter), yet he found his footing and became a big rival of Probert’s in the 90’s.

Dave "The Hammer" Schultz

If you saw the HBO program on the Broad Street Bullies of the Philadelphia Flyers, you are familiar with The Hammer. He still holds the record for most penalty minutes in a season at 472.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofgE7DXvvWo

Schultz's competitor, Terry O'Reilly, was also one hell of a fighter. Oddly enough, O'Reilly was also a huge literary buff.

Tie Domi

TIE DOMI

This little shit was a remarkable nemesis and crafty fighter. He is third all time in NHL penalty minutes and once beat the hell out of a Philly fan (shocking, I know) that somehow made his way into a penalty box inhabited by Domi.

Dave "Cement Head" Semenko

DAVE

As mentioned earlier, he was Gretzky’s body guard in Edmonton.

George Parros

Parros is currently in the NHL. I particularly like him because of his elite mustache and the fact that he holds a degree from Princeton.

Gordie Howe

He is a top three player all time in the NHL, yet he had no problem defending himself. A guy once described Howe’s punches as sounding like an axe splitting wood. The term "Gordie Howe Hat Trick" still is common today referencing a game where a player gets a goal, assist, and a fight.

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