October 14 2016 02:00PM
It happened so quickly, and yet with the Flames so slowly, that it is possible you may have missed it. With Brandon Bollig clearing waivers last Tuesday, it is possible that the last pure enforcer has played for the Calgary Flames.
To start this season, the Flames have decided that, at best, their lineup would have players who could punch faces if need be and not as their modus operandi. Big deal right? Well, to many who have grown up watching the Flames, or most NHL franchises for that matter, this is a departure from essential NHL roster construction and a direct path to how some fell in love with the game itself. Let's talk about this after the jump.
IS THIS IT?
Looking back, it seems that almost every Flames team in the franchise's history has had one of these players. In fact, I'm pretty sure most Flames fans remember which one was playing when they first started following the team. Each team had a guy who was there to "protect the skill guys" or "act as a deterrent" or "police the ice" or "make space for his teammates" or whichever half-cooked hockey maxim explained their purpose.
The first one I remember watching, and vigorously cheering for, was Sandy McCarthy. I remember a game when I was about seven where McCarthy threw his elbow pad into the crowd following a fight and I thought that he was just about the coolest guy in the whole world.
To my brain, it seemed totally logical: the Flames were better with Sandy in the lineup because he could beat people up and no one wants to get beat up. Like many others I assume, I grew up with an unambiguous view of enforcers on the Flames. We need a couple because other teams had them too and that was just.
What kind of game is this, in which finesse yields so blithely to a menacing fist? - Lawrence Scanlan, Grace Under Fire, 2002.
I know many Flames fans have different players in mind when thinking of their first enforcers, but if this season is your first season as a Flames fan, who would play that role? There is no Tim Hunter, Brian McGrattan, or Eric Godard among them.
In no way am I suggesting that the Flames won't be fighting anymore. In fact, they might fight more than most other teams given the proclivities of Micheal Ferland, Deryk Engelland, and Lance Bouma. Also, Bollig may find his way back to the Flames roster at some point this season as well, given that the organization has placed faith in him up to this point.
However, the symbolism attached to placing Bollig on waivers struck me as significant because the Flames were stating that they felt he, given all of his physical prowess and locker room charisma, was not needed to start this season. The question is, will new fans of the game even understand rationalizations for enforcers, or is it simply too anachronistic to survive on any NHL roster?
THE END OF THE PUPPET SOLDIER
All info is taken from HockeyFights.com/stats which is a great resource with amazing archives.
I understand that I am not exactly breaking news by demonstrating that fighting is on the decline in the NHL, but I believe that jettisoning the final designated enforcer on a team is still an important gesture. The Flames have consistently been in the bottom half of the NHL in total fights for the past few seasons but last season no one fought as much as Bollig (who has 14 fights in his past two regular seasons compared to Engelland's nine and Ferland's five ).
The pure numbers of fights isn't as important as the designation given to the player performing the ritualized act of performed masculinity. You may quibble about his skill-set, but essentially Bollig's entire on-ice purpose was directly related to his ability to punch faces if he needed to. Rather than a complimentary skill-set, it was his entire basis for play.
In Roy MacGregor's The Last Season, the novel's enforcer-protagonist Felix Batterinski realized upon sober reflection that: "I'd never been this close to my fans before, never seen what they looked like. Never cared. But I saw now, and I knew finally that I was not Batterinski. They were." It's an important insight made by MacGregor that Jason Blake (not this one, the professor of English in Ljubljana) picks up on explaining that, "Batterinski fights not solely out of self-will ... but because the crowd wants it. Even [Batterinski's] violence is not really his own; he is a puppet soldier reacting to the fans' whims."
Well, I know my "whims" have evolved a great deal from when I first started watching Sandy McCarthy battling hulking opponents during dreary young guns-era Flames hockey. I am sure you all have other memories from the more distant past or more recent Flames history but this may be one of the first seasons without a Batterinski on the roster. Whether or not the story ends with Bollig remains to be seen but with fewer and fewer fights each season, it certainly feels like the Flames are closing the book.