On the opening night of the 2013-14 NHL season, Montreal Canadiens forward George Parros suffered a concussion and had to be removed from the ice on a stretcher following a fight with Colton Orr of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Both men were doing the job they were paid to do. Patrol the ice. Police the game. Drop the gloves and fight one another whenever somebody needed to change momentum, give their team a spark, or defend a teammate. It was their second fight of the game—as well as the sixth time they fought one another in their NHL careers—and the fourth out of five fights to take place during Toronto's 4-3 win.
The immediate attention congregated around this consequence of fighting in hockey, obviously. But, importantly, not around the almost complete lack of evidence in favor of the role of players like Orr, the pure fighter.
The Old Way
The image of a player leaving the ice on a stretcher following a fight was more than enough to kick off another round in the raging tire fire that is the NHL's fighting debate and what it will take for the league to start phasing it out of the game entirely. In the immediate aftermath three current NHL general managers (Pittsburgh's Ray Shero, Carolina's Jim Rutherford, and Tampa Bay's Steve Yzerman, who also happens to be one of the best players in NHL history) offered some strong words in their push for tougher fighting penalties.
“Yes, I believe a player should get a game misconduct for fighting,” Yzerman told TSN’s Darren Dreger. “We penalize and suspend players for making contact with the head while checking, in an effort to reduce head injuries, yet we still allow fighting. We’re stuck in the middle and need to decide what kind of sport do we want to be. Either anything goes and we accept the consequences, or take the next step and eliminate fighting.”
Rutherford added, "We've got to get rid of fighting. It has to go.”
The biggest problem isn't necessarily the fact that fighting still exists in the NHL (though, most fights do tend to happen at completely meaningless times in the games, and almost disappear entirely in high leverage situations), it's that NHL teams continue to employ players whose only tangible skill is their ability to punch another player in the face.
There are no shortage of arguments for why this role exists, with "protection" and “policing the game” being some of the most common. After the Edmonton Oilers lost Sam Gagner, one of their best players, to a broken jaw at the end of the preseason, the result of a vicious slash from Vancouver Canucks forward Zack Kassian, the team immediately rushed out and claimed Steve MacIntyre on waivers from the Pittsburgh Penguins. This wasn't a coincidence.
No Protection, No Deterrence
When it comes to enforcers, there is perhaps none that offers less value from a hockey standpoint than MacIntyre. In 91 career games at the NHL level he has recorded four points (two goals, two assists) and tallied 175 penalty minutes. Only 21 times has he played more than five minutes in a single game, and only once more than 10 (his rookie year). In 15 seasons between juniors, minor leagues, and the NHL he has scored more than five points just three times. When it comes to actually playing the game a player like MacIntyre makes any team that he is on worse the minute he shows up in the locker room.
So why is he there? Protection of course, and to serve as a “deterrent” from other teams taking liberties with star players. After all, if Edmonton had a player like MacIntyre (or Luke Gazdic, the tough guy the Oilers claimed on waivers from Dallas after MacIntyre was injured in his preseason debut) maybe Gagner wouldn’t still be spitting pieces of Kassian’s hockey stick out of his mouth.
At least that's the type story general manager Craig MacTavish and coach Dallas Eakins were trying to sell after the move. “It shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone that we’ve picked up some size and toughnes," MacTavish said. "There was a need. We know the type of player he is and the type of person he is. We think he’s going to fit in well.” Added Eakins, “It seems like there’s a lot going on in the league right now. MacIntyre will help other teams keep their sticks down.”
There is little evidence to suggest this actually happens. There has been plenty of work done over the years (including very recent additions) to try and find a correlation between fighting majors and injuries. In almost all cases teams with more fighting majors tend to experience more injuries and be on the receiving end of more stick infraction penalties. I took a slightly different angle in.
Because the typical heavyweight enforcer has no other hockey ability they will not dress in every single game (unless they happen to play for the Randy Carlyle coached Toronto Maple Leafs). It's usually based on the opponent and whether or not they have a fighter of their own in the lineup. Because of this there could be incidents where teams suffer an injury or are on the receiving end of some really dirty stuff when their enforcer is sitting in the press box and not able to serve his role as a deterrent.
I went back over the last two years and looked at every team that was on the receiving end of a hit that resulted in a suspension, fine, or match penalty (I excluded match penalties that were later rescinded by the league, as well as any fines or suspensions for other incidents, including verbal abuse, hand gestures, etc.) and looked at whether or not they had fighter in the lineup on that night.
The results were not surprising. Of the 106 incidents since the start of the 2011-12 season that resulted in some sort of supplemental discipline from the league, 54 of them involved the team on the receiving end having a fighter dressed in the lineup that particular game. Fifty-two teams did not have a fighter dressed. The rate per game with an enforcer dressed was once every 36.9 games, and without an enforcer once every 36.1 games. Hardly a huge difference one way or the other, and it doesn’t really do much to suggest that enforcers really serve as any sort of a deterrent from other players doing something dumb.
To determine whether or not a player was a “fighter” I included players that were either in the top-20 in fighting majors during the season, or played fewer than eight minutes per game and averaged more than 1.2 penalty minutes per game (which comes out to 100 penalty minutes over 82 games).
The list of players that fit description included the likes of Colton Orr, John Scott, Krys Barch, Jared Boll, George Parros, Frazer McLaren, and Paul Bissonnette, just to name a few.
This is a cursory glance, sure, but it falls in line with other established data. And still, the prevailing wisdom hasn't budged. It's not even an appeal to to some inscrutable new metric or projection model we're talking about here, but a refusal to bend to basic, fundamental data about a practice that doesn't work.
Ignoring the Evidence
Perhaps the best illustration of how little the dedicated hockey enforcer matters when it comes to serving as protection was a game between the Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 19, 2013.
The Leafs' Nazem Kadri was a month into his breakout season, averaging nearly a point per game and helping lead Toronto to its first playoff berth in seven years. The big narrative around the Maple Leafs at this time was how their rough and tumble style and league leading fight total was playing such a significant role in their turnaround. Not only on the team level, but also individually when it came to the performance of players like Kadri. He was seeing some ice-time on a line with Orr and/or McLaren during this stretch. In this particular game, he spent the majority of his night playing alongside Orr and Clarke MacArthur.
It was supposedly the protection that Orr provided that allowed Kadri to excel on the ice and operate without fear of another team taking runs at him as Orr kept everybody in check and “created space” for Toronto’s young star.
It was also on this night that Kadri, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound former top-10 pick and one of the most talented players on the team, took part in his first NHL fight when he squared off with Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, a 6-foot-6, 220-pound defenseman. Orr, the player the Maple Leafs were paying more than a $1 million to fight and offer protection, was standing no more than 20 feet away. It all started after Hedman — again, with Orr on the ice — had been taking some liberties with Kadri in the faceoff circle, including an exchange where he knocked him to the ice which was then followed by an exchange of stick swings (the type of thing the Colton Orr’s of the world are supposed to prevent — make players keep their sticks down).
Not only did Orr’s presence in the lineup not prevent that incident from taking place, it took place with Orr actually on the ice. Some deterrent. Who knows, maybe if Orr wasn’t on the ice Hedman would have taken it to an entirely new level and stabbed Kadri with a skate or sucker punched him. But outside of that, Orr did absolutely nothing to prevent one of Toronto's star players landing in a fight.
During the 2011-12 season, when Brian Burke was still running the show in Toronto, the Leafs actually sent Orr down to the American Hockey League because they determined he and his role just didn't have a place on the NHL roster. Burke lamented that there was no longer a place for players like Orr in the NHL and that the “rats” were going to start taking over the league, running around and cheap-shotting people without any retribution.
(What’s amazing about this is that Brian Burke, of all people, realized players like Orr didn’t hold much value in the current NHL, but the current Maple Leafs regime has not only kept both Orr and McLaren on the roster, they also signed them to multi-year, one-way contracts. For a team that's up against the salary cap that is an absolutely incredible waste of resources and cap space.)
But again, there is nothing to back up the idea that these players actually do anything close to that.
Fighters Aren't Fighting
There is little to no evidence, be it hard data or anecdotal, to suggest fighters prevent violence. And yet, every time one of these plays happens it sparks a familiar refrain, something like, "This is why fighting matters, if it wasn't there, this would keep happening!" But it does keep happening—with fighting and paid fighters in the game. If anything, their presence in the lineup actually seems to promote violence. Instead, maybe more coaches should follow the mindset Darryl Sutter had when he took over the Los Angeles Kings back in 2012.
"It's a diminished role," Sutter said to Rich Hammond of the Kings Insider. "It's like I told those young kids, Jordan Nolan and Kyle Clifford, they're not fighting anybody. There's like five or six of those guys left in the league to play two or three minutes a night. We'd rather those guys be on the ice, because we can take advantage of it. If it's just about staged fighting, I'm not into that."
It's going to take something drastic and a major culture shift for the NHL to actually go through with stiffer penalties for fighting. But that's almost beside the point. Fighting as an institution is entrenched in a messy, antagonistic way that makes legislating it mean more than it should. But as a tactic, it's simply ineffective, in every possible context. There is no good reason for NHL teams to devote their limited resources (cap space, roster spots, draft picks) to players whose only ability is to fight, just like there is no good reason for an NBA team to have players whose sole job is to commit intentional fouls.
There is always a place for toughness and physical play in hockey, but there also has to be some talent behind it to make it useful.
Adam Gretz is a freelance writer who has previously covered the NHL for AOL and CBS Sports. He currently writes about the NHL for SB Nation and Hockey Prospectus. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Update: The original post didn't include the rate of occurrence for games with and without an enforcer dressed. We've added those above, in-line.