There isn’t, as far I know anyway, any site on the internet that explains just why there are fights and goons in the National Hockey League. Have you wondered exactly why pro-hockey tolerates this kind of behavior when other professional sports have eliminated it?
Well, I will attempt to explain the existence of the hockey enforcer. Let’s do this in a conversational tone; I want you to ask me a question and then I will give you the best answer that I am capable of giving.
So go ahead…
You: OK, so explain to me just why there are so many fights in hockey.
Me: Fighting results from the nature of the game. Hockey is a game that you play in a small area, you get to move around faster than you are able to run, you get to hit people and you get to carry a stick. And even more importantly, the game rarely stops. How could a fight be avoided given all of that?
You: Well, football is a tough physical sport, and they don’t fight frequently. Why??
Me: This has to do with the referee’s whistle. Football players play hard for 10-15 seconds then the referee blows the whistle and stops the play. The angry players they will have trouble retaliating and not getting caught.
In hockey, stoppage of play is the exception not the rule and there is plenty of time for tit-for-tat retaliation to explode into a fight. The hockey enforcer’s roll is take care of the retaliation. That way you won’t have to waste a good player in the penalty box.
You: What exactly does a goon do?
Me: The major role of the goon is to protect the better players on the team. Hockey is a very fast game with players making contact with each other all over the ice. This creates the possibility of an injury causing cheap-shot that the referees don’t catch. If your team has a tough enforcer on the bench then the other team’s players will think twice before taking a cheap-shot at one of your better players.
A goon also also attempts to physically intimidate the other team’s skaters which causes them to play more tentatively. They also rally their own team by demonstrating that they won’t physically back down to their opponents.
You: Have there always been goons in hockey?
Me: Well, there has always been fighting in pro-hockey, and there has been pro hockey in one form or another for around 100 years. Earlier teams couldn’t afford to have one skater assigned to only protection but they might have had a tougher skater who essentially performed the goon’s roll. Examples of players like this would be:
- John Mariucci; of the 1940’s, who at 5’10” and 200# was one of the larger players of his day.
- Lou Fontinato; of the 1950’s, who was a tough defenseman. His play on defense encouraged other teams to find their own enforcers.
You: Why would a tough defenseman encourage other teams to add enforcers to their team?
Me: I’m glad you asked that. Here’s how physical intimidation works in hockey.
When you put together your hockey team you will tend to have the smaller quicker players on offense and the bigger and stronger players on defense. Yes this is an over-generalization, but this is the tendency.
When the quick forwards skate down the ice, the stronger defensemen (Canadians always seem to misspell this word) will try to check them in order to slow them down. The defensemen will then realize that the more physically intimidating they are, the more tentative the forwards will play.
If defensemen really nail the forwards, then they will not only physically intimidate them but they might knock them out of the game for a while. If this style of play were to go unchecked (get it?), then many of the forwards will get injured. So if you are smart, you will go out and get a really tough skater to be out there with your smaller but talented forwards. This tough guy might not be the best athlete on the team, but his very presence will make those smaller forwards more confident and more effective.
You: That’s an extreme over-generalization and isn’t true in “blah blah blah” situations.
Me: Yes, I’ve already said that it is an over-generalization. But not every reader has your knowledge of the sport so lighten up.
You: How has the roll of the enforcer evolved?
Me: Well; like I said, early teams didn’t have a skater assigned to only that roll.
Also, in the 1970’s, the NHL created a “third man in” rule in which an automatic ejection was given to anyone who joins a fight in progress. This rule slowed down the number of bench clearing brawls.
You: Will the NHL ever eliminate fighting?
Me: I doubt that that fighting will ever be eliminated. There have long been calls for elimination of hockey fights. But no one can be sure whether the elimination of fighting will increase or decrease the overall number of injuries to the skaters.
My guess is that the elimination of the goon would actually increase injuries for the reasons listed above.
There are college leagues and European leagues with little fighting. But the fans of the NHL like to watch hard physical contact. And that kind of contact will either result in fights or more injuries; at least in my opinion… take your pick.
Listen to the “Gentlemanly” Exchange at the 49 second mark of the Ivanans – Laraque fight in the video below;