Try to justify the institution of the enforcer in hockey to an outsider, and you'll likely pull out the usual arguments. It's about protection, about fear, about retribution. So yes, on a basic level, it's about pain. But it's never, never about injury. So with two players still out in the wake of a one-goon rampage, and the number 1 overall draft pick done for the year, the familiar old question is surfacing with a new twist: is it time to rid hockey of the designated fighter?
On Long Island, Trevor Gillies has racked up quite the rap sheet over the past month. 3:41 of total ice time, and in that span, he's garnered 49 penalty minutes and separate 9- and 10-game suspensions. His victims were Pittsburgh's Eric Tangradi and Minnesota's Cal Clutterbuck, neither of which has been able to get back on the ice.
Make no mistake: Gillies has done exactly what he's been put on this earth to do. 220 PIM compared to 14 shots on goal in his short NHL career, and his minor league numbers look pretty much the same. This isn't a man who was signed to score points; he's here to hit people, and hit them repeatedly if need be.
This is a full-time job in today's NHL. Someone decided that Derek Boogaard, star instructor at hockey fight school for kids, is worth $6.6 million. You could populate a division's worth of fourth lines with guys who aren't expected to score a goal in their lives.
It's been argued, somewhat intriguingly, that enforcers exist not because they help their team win (they don't) but because of a "placebo effect:" since everyone thinks they're useful, they exist. But what happens when they become obviously detrimental to a team? The Islanders' meltdown against the Penguins cost them $100,000, not an insignificant sum for a team playing to a half-empty arena. More importantly, the injuries to Tangradi and Clutterbuck simply don't have a place in the NHL.
Islanders legend Clark Gillies (no relation) said about his namesake, "I wish they had retired my name, not my number." Not even the biggest Islanders homers can defend him, though Garth Snow is sure trying).
All of which has given rise to an interesting proposal: what if we didn't get rid of fighting in hockey, but just the designated fighters? Mike Milbury (obligatory: the same Milbury who beat a fan with his own shoe) gave voice to the notion on Hockey Night In Canada. After pointing out the rising number of concussions in the game, and how players are bigger and stronger than ever, Milbury said:
We have guys with over 20 fighting majors in the league. For what purpose are they there on the end of the bench? This is what got me about Gillies. I don't want to get into an assessment of his abilities, but when you have a designated fighter on the end of the bench, and we still have them, I think it's wrong. I think it's time to take a look at how to get rid of that, and what role there is [for] fighting.
That sounds wonderful and logical, yet it ignores the actual role of the enforcer: a proxy. Trevor Gillies fights so John Tavares doesn't have to. In Edmonton, Steve MacIntyre fights so future superstar Taylor Hall doesn't have to. And yet, on Thursday, Taylor Hall did fight. His first career fight. Falling to the ice, he suffered a high ankle sprain and is out for the year.
Edmonton will miss Hall's team-high 22 goals and 42 points. He'll miss the chance at a Calder Trophy. All because he didn't let MacIntyre or Theo Peckham fight his battles for him.
Is there a dent to a player's pride for stepping aside and letting the enforcers do their jobs? Maybe. But it's also their jobs to take the bruises, the sprains, the fractures. They know the risks, and their IR stays won't hurt the team as much as a goalscorer's would.
In Mike Milbury's NHL, there are no designated fighters, and the marquee names either drop the gloves, or take punishment without retribution. Half a season without the concussed Sidney Crosby is a pretty good preview, and that's not good for business. Perhaps fighting in hockey has run its course (consistent punishments from the league would go a long way). But until the day it's banned, the fighters need to be the guys who are paid to fight.