Historically, skilled players were considered “out of bounds” when it came to fisticuffs, and that was respected around the league. Call it honour among thieves if you like, or the law of the jungle, but it worked. Often, in the current game, I see little pests with face shields or visors acting like tough guys and not having to account for their actions. Those pests take away from the honour of the game and actually help create more opportunities for injuries. Their job is to provoke retaliation, and they are almost never the guy paying the price.
I know that hockey fans are very interested in the arguments for and against fighting. On one side of the argument, you have Don Cherry, who is very much in support of the tough guys. Others call it barbaric and feel it should be banned.
The various kinds of data and statistics brought forward either to support or condemn fighting are often viewed with skepticism regardless of which side of the argument you might be on.
But I would say this about the place of fighting in hockey. I believe that especially at the pro level you need to be held accountable for your actions, and the threat of a fight can accomplish that. The truth is, you couldn’t pull the gloves off certain players if a fight was in their future, yet many of those same players in the modern game take liberties with others simply because they can. That is not right, and players should not be allowed to have it both ways. It leads me to the notion of what is commonly referred to as the “enforcer.”
Take the great Jean Béliveau. Do you think he would have been as useful to the Canadiens if he’d spent more time in the penalty box because he’d had to defend himself through fighting? Obviously, the answer to that is a resounding no, and the Habs appear to have agreed. They hired John Ferguson to take care of that part of the game for him.
“Fergie” was an enforcer, no matter how you want to define the term, yet he also had some twenty-goal seasons for Montreal, which goes to show that tough guys can have more than one dimension. But goal scoring wasn’t his main purpose. John was there to make sure no one took liberties with any of the Habs’ star players, foremost among them Mr. Béliveau. You could bump Jean and take him out during the course of normal play, but go over the line and sooner or later you had to deal with the “law.”
John Ferguson knew his job and was not an antagonist, but rather a type of insurance policy for his team.
Now, fast-forward to the modern game and ask the same kind of question: Would you rather see Sidney Crosby performing on the ice or sitting in a penalty box after a fight? Again, the answer is obvious, but today the rules have changed. He doesn’t have a John Ferguson, and that means Crosby is vulnerable. The opposing teams take all kinds of liberties with him, and if no one is going to stop you, why not do whatever you can to slow down a player like that?
The outcome of that vulnerability has become all too evident in the series of injuries Sidney has endured. I don’t want to watch Sid fight his own battles. He’s our best player, and I want to see him healthy and on the ice, not sitting in the box.
Of course, the star players today have a role to play as well. If someone like Sid is going to take a poke at the opposition with his stick, or trash talk while on the ice, then there will be some kind of retribution. You get what you go looking for in this game. But the main point is, if a player of Sidney Crosby’s stature had an enforcer, a true enforcer, whose main job was to protect the star player, then perhaps some of the physical punishment he’s gone through might never have taken place. Enforcers have a very practical role to play. If the league really wants to see its stars shine, one of the best ways is to give them more time and space to be creative. And that is the enforcer’s job description.
Unfortunately, the game seems to be moving in the opposite direction by forcing the referees to call each game by the book. Not long ago, they had much more room for interpretation and could call the game as much by their sense of justice as by the black-and-white of the rule book. What might be deemed roughing in a clean game one night, might not be in a chippy contest the next.
Refs could call the game according to what was fair. But in the search for standardization, that discretion has been taken away from the refs, and, along with it, a lot of their feel for the game.