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Brawls, like this one between Panthers’ Krys Barch and Bruins’ Shawn Thornton, are incresingly rare – more than 70 per cent of games went fightless last season. (Elise Amendola/The Associated Press)
Brawls, like this one between Panthers’ Krys Barch and Bruins’ Shawn Thornton, are incresingly rare – more than 70 per cent of games went fightless last season. (Elise Amendola/The Associated Press)

Mirtle: Is this the end of the NHL enforcer? Add to ...

Kevin Westgarth sighed into the phone.

He, like so many other NHL enforcers these days, was trying to make sense of it all.

Why are so many fighters out of a job, in their relative primes, all at once? Why have they been forced to sit and watch as the season started without them, contract-less and anxious to play?

Some, such as long-time enforcer Krys Barch, theorize that the demographics of the game are changing, with different types of players in the sport than there were even 10 years ago.

He also wonders if the league’s lawyers are involved – in his own kind of anti-enforcer conspiracy theory – given the many concussion-related lawsuits that have been filed over the past several months.

Others blame hockey’s new obsession with analytics for pushing general managers to fill all 12 or 13 of their forward roster spots with more skill, as has been the case with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who put their two veteran enforcers on waivers earlier this week in a stark departure from previous regimes.

Westgarth, a Princeton graduate who played for the Calgary Flames last season and had originally planned to be an orthopedic surgeon before fighting his way up through the minor leagues, says he isn’t willing to pin it down to any one thing.

But he believes the trend that saw more than 70 per cent of NHL games go fight-less last season – for only the second time in the past 35 years – is a permanent one.

While a few remain, the heavyweights are disappearing.

“It most likely will continue,” Westgarth said. “These things have ebbed and flowed in cycles. They’ve been harping on the death of fighting – that’s been 10 years going back, it seems – but this year I’d say with some of the more noteworthy enforcers not finding jobs this year” it’s finally happening.

“I think we’re all kind of a little in disbelief … Everybody was waiting for that first domino to fall: One team picks up a big guy and then there’s something akin to an arms race. It seems like that first domino never fell this year.

“And here we are.”

Like many of his contemporaries, Westgarth attended an NHL training camp this year. He skated for a couple weeks with the Edmonton Oilers, hoping to impress, just as Barch tried out in Phoenix and Paul Bissonnette – known as BizNasty all over social media – was with St. Louis.

In every case, their tryouts failed to turn into a job, however, putting them on the sidelines with the likes of Zenon Konopka and George Parros, two men they’ve traded punches with for years.

Others still have been demoted to the minors, with the Leafs garnering the most headlines for sending down Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, who’ll join Jay Rosehill, Matt Kassian and friends in the AHL.

While many of the NHL’s fighting-major leaders from last season remain under contract and in the league, the reality is that most of the survivors are either middleweights or bring some offensive ability to the table.

Players such as Patrick Maroon, who fought 13 times and had 29 points in a depth role with the Anaheim Ducks, are still highly valued and sought after.

But in an era where teams are using their fourth lines more than ever and GMs are under pressure to maximize the value they can get out of their roster under the salary cap, fighting alone is increasingly not enough.

The NHL’s level of parity has become so high and the margins so thin that liabilities – on any line, and for any amount of time – are being weeded out by the best teams in the league.

And a heavyweight who rarely scores and whose team is typically outshot heavily when he’s on the ice is an easy target for any analytics department.

“You have to be able to skate and play and make an impact on the game,” Barch said, adding that he believes what’s happening at the junior level – where there are fewer fights than ever and players are now forced to keep their helmets on when dropping the gloves – is trickling up to pro hockey.

“There are a lot less guys coming up with a rugged background,” he explained. “Even talking to some owners of junior teams, a lot of the kids playing junior hockey now are from a different background. You’ve got kids from big cities, in the U.S. and Canada, that are backed by high income parents, and you’re getting a different breed of kids.

“I think that’s changing the culture. As parents, if you’re well-to-do, you don’t want your kid to make it the hard way [as a fighter], right?”

The numbers help back that up. Last season, only 366 NHL games contained a fight, which was down from 423 in 2011-12 and a recent peak of 509 in 2008-09.

The number of fights overall, meanwhile, has dropped almost 40 per cent in the last five seasons, to less than 0.4 a game.

The number of fights in the playoffs has fallen even more dramatically, with players dropping the gloves only nine times in nearly 100 games last spring.

While the Ducks won their Stanley Cup in 2007 under GM Brian Burke’s truculence regime and sparked a fight-filled trend, the copycats have since moved on to mimicking puck-possession teams such as the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, both of whom finished in the bottom 10 in fighting majors last year.

One of the brightest minds in the fraternity, Westgarth admits he can see the writing on the wall. But he also feels he can still contribute more than simply sitting in the middle of the bench for all but a few minutes a game, a goal he has worked toward for years.

The role of the fourth line may be changing in the NHL, but he argues he has attempted to change with it.

“I know that I’ve improved every season, and it’s kind of an ironic situation where I’m finding myself without a job in the year that I feel like I’m the best hockey player,” Westgarth said.

“It’s kind of unfortunate to be pigeonholed just as a heavyweight enforcer. But it’s hard to look down at [the role] because that’s what allowed us to get to this level in the first place.”

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