Cleat Geeks

The NHL’s Unspoken Code: A Product of Enforcers and Fighting on the Ice?

Growing up watching hockey in the 90’s as a young child always brought about two constants in this sport. Both aspects drew me in closer with an ever growing passion for the game. The first was always those players who could land those punishing hard hits that made hockey in my mind, one of the most ruthless and intriguing of all professional sports. Men to the likes of Scott Stevens, Cam Neely, Darius Kasparaitis, and Eric Lindros. The breed of these players and players like them throughout their time in the NHL were also willing to drop the gloves when the time came. Yet they also attained many of the other skills that placed them in a separate category outside of just being considered a straight enforcer. These players brought with them the acknowledgement to the opposing team that their player’s better place special emphasis on not skating around during their shifts without being on high alert and keeping their heads up at all times.
The enforcers compiled the second constant. Men like Bob Probert, Joe Kocur, Tony Twist, Marty McSorley, Tie Domi, and Stu Grimson. These men were the policemen on the ice. Minus the stripes and whistles, these men were the true refs on the ice, commanding respect for both themselves and mainly their respective team’s stars. If respect wasn’t given, they would do what they did best, placing fist to face until the other team understood very well of what would be tolerated during the night’s contest. This is part of the “code” that has for many generations been ingrained in the tradition of hockey.
As Tony Twist stated, “The code’s about honor; which means I’m not gonna take advantage of you when you’re down. I’m not gonna sucker or cheap shot you. I’m not gonna take the bread off your family’s table.” This code is seeped within the fabric of the player’s themselves while upheld on the ice by the enforcers themselves. Terry O’Reilly spoke about one specific instance on the code’s importance. “The best example in my era would be a scrap I had with Ryan Walter. We started fighting and I turned a certain way and my right shoulder popped out and with it was an exclamation of pain. He said what’s the matter? I said my shoulder just came out. He says “okay fights over, we’ll finish this another day.” The code in today’s game has lost a great amount of its importance. Suspensions have slowly and more frequently replaced these player’s (enforcers) whom in my opinion, are instrumental.
This is a discussion that needs to be further acknowledged. Scrums have continued at a normal rate throughout my time watching for over 20 years, but other aspects are like night and day. For instance, look at most team’s third and fourth forward lines on the ice in today’s game, as opposed to even 10-15 years ago. Lines were once compiled, using their bottom two lines to change the pace, and sometimes the outcome of the game. During present play, most teams forward lines try replicate the bottom two with the top two the best way they can with the talent each team is able to acquire. With this change, cheap shots tend to have a greater affect with few enforcers on each team to continue the well-known tradition of the termed “players police their own.” There are many examples cheap shots (hits), but one hit in recent history really stuck with me and with it, made me lose respect for the player that conducted it.

 

MAXIM LAPIERRE

St. Louis Blues Maxim Lapierre checks Dan Boyle from behind on October 15, 2013 leading to a 5 game suspension.

 

It was October 15, 2013 on a Tuesday night. A fresh new season was underway and the St. Louis Blues were facing the San Jose Sharks at the Scottrade Center. During the game, Dan Boyle, received the puck and wrapped it back around the boards in San Jose’s defensive zone. As the puck was wrapped around, Maxim Lapierre seeing only Boyle’s numbers, checked him into the boards knocking him unconscious. After the game, comments from Lapierre were all but pathetic excuses. More of what you’d expect from a toddler, rather than a professional playing at the NHL level. “I didn’t jump or try to go for his head,” continued Lapierre. “I was just trying to finish my hit. … The only thing I want to focus on is that hopefully he gets better.” This also wasn’t his first incident involving a dirty hit, as back in 2010 he was suspended four games for a similar hit on Scott Nichol.
Please do not confuse the context. If enforcers were still utilized in today’s game much like in the 80’s and 90’s; it still doesn’t necessarily mean that many of these hits and cheap shots would have been prevented (like the Lapierre hit, or other’s that have occurred like it). On the other hand, enforcers were used specifically for this purpose. That if a dirty hit or cheap shot occurred, they were going to make sure the opposing team thought about ever doing it again.
Fighting is a key piece to the game of hockey, both for the player’s and the fans. For player’s, it’s the last ditch effort to bring the game back to its intended purpose of just playing. In other cases, it’s conducted in hopes of changing the game’s momentum for the team that night without any. For the fans, it provides immense excitement and pride in the team we love. Chris “Knuckles” Nilan stated the obvious when he spoke on the subject saying, “Probably 18,999 people in the stands, out of the 19,000 at one time or another. Wherever they worked, probably wanted to punch someone in the mouth. Whether it’s their boss, someone they work with, somebody in competition with them; they never get to do it. But they like to see someone else do it.”
The sport of hockey and the NHL will continue the trend of changing the game in the best way they see fit. The way the game presents itself looks to continue down a path away from enforcers who are becoming less and less a part of the game. I don’t see fighting ever being completely removed from the game, but I do see its frequency diminishing even more than it already has. My perspective upon this subject and the reason for this article is to conclude that maybe it’s not so much the enforcers that need to be reacquainted with the sport, but the code that made the game what it is today.

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