The Ritual of the Dancing Bear


The recent events involving John Scott vs. Phil Kessel has raised the ugly issue of the role of fighters in hockey once again.

I’m unabashedly one of those folks who thinks the specialized goon is a complete anachronism that should be extinguished from the game. Way back in 2008 I wrote one of the first smarmy blogger missives arguing against the goon paradigm called "Ditch the Enforcer".

My opposition was couched in pragmatism, not principle: whenever I investigated the conventional rationalizations for tough guys, I always found them wanting. The overriding evidence was that enforcers don’t deter violence, they don’t improve their team mates performance and their presence doesn’t correlate with wins (or any of the things that lead to wins) in the league.

Try as I might, I couldn’t detect their value in the evidence.

These sorts of investigations have been repeated over and over again by various others over the yerars – no one yet has discovered that fighting/having a nuclear deterrent meaningfully benefits a club on the ice. In fact, most of the data points in the opposite direction. (1, 2, 3, 4)

I received a lot of hate mail for that piece. Because, it’s safe to say, the role of the fighter in hockey has been fetishized and ritualized to the point where even questioning his utility in many quarters is considered taboo. Hockey is indubitably a rough sport; a game of pain, violence and stoicism. It’s implicitly understood by both players and fans as a masculine sport.

As a result, there is an inescapable stigma attached to perceived passivity in the face of aggression. Players at the NHL level are expected, at the very least, to battle ceaselessly, to never give ground and to excel in the face of harm or intimidation. Few indictments are more damaging to an NHL player than the pejorative soft. Being fearful, intimidated or disinterested in violence is a grevious sin at the higher levels. At the base of the issue, it’s not about whether fighting actually helps a team win in any tangible way – it’s the gnawing uncertainty that the team that isn’t tough, that doesn’t want to fight, isn’t a team of men.


These near ideological conceptions of identity and normative behavior animate much of the decision making in the league and is the inoculating potion which renders disproving evidence of fighter utility inert. It’s one of the primary reasons tough guys, grinders and "big body" checkers are overwhelmingly chosen to populate the bottom-end of the roster across the league, even when many of them can’t meaningfully contribute to either defense or offense. At a primordial level, outscoring the other guy doesn’t seem as important as not being seen as a pussy

Because this virtual dick measuring contest is what undergirds the enforcer arms race in the NHL, it is also why tough guys tend to promote, not deter, on-ice violence. After the Kassian hack on Gagner, for example, Ben Eager publicly mused that Edmonton’s ruffians will aim to harm the Sedins when the two teams meet again (which, of course, would lead to further retribution by the Canucks, etc.). Because they can’t contribute in any other fashion, guys like John Scott solely exist to inflict and incite violence – without it, they are irrelevant. Notice Scott’s presence didn’t suppress anything versus the Leafs. It actually escalated the bad blood.

The tough guy’s presence virtually guarantees the continuation of dubious actions as a result; if the Oilers acquired Steve MacIntyre to protect their more "delicate assets" (again, there’s no evidence this actually works), the irony is they did so to protect them from guys like Steve MacIntyre. Unfortunately, everyone wants to be the guy who brings a gun to a knife fight.

There is, of course, the emerging moral angle to this debate given how potentially destructive it is for big guys to be deployed purely as fighters and cannon fodder. It’s also notable for those staunch traditionalists out there that the current iteration of the specialist enforcer is a relatively modern invention. Guys who couldn’t play didn’t really exist prior to 1980 and the true goon only arrived en masse in the 1990’s. It’s a grotesque twisting and deformation of prior traditions that saw capable NHLers defend themselves when necessary. It’s a vestigial organ that has grown cancerous.

Violence is encoded in the genes of the game, but its not the sole determinant of success. At some point on the W-L scale, being good at the core aspects of hockey becomes more important than being a bad-ass. The insecurity of being seen as weak or vulnerable continues to drive apparently sub-optimal decision making in the league, gives breath to the continued mutation of fighting as a method of vigilante vengeance and gives rise to further needless, embarrassing melees like what we saw in Toronto recently. To say nothing of the potential for future concussion or substance abuse induced pathologies. 

Ironically, Scott’s menacing of Kessel might do more to threaten the existence of goons in the league than any other factor – although the NHLs understands that violence and fighting help to sell the game, they also understand that the true breadwinners are the stars. I imagine that some drastic measures will be taken should another dancing bear dare to raise a paw in the vicinity of a big money guy again.

More on Enforcers Around the Nation

  • piscera.infada

    Kent, I agree with much of what you say here. I hate the idea of a guy like John Scott, who can hardly skate, let alone play the game. I also agree that the staged fight is ridiculous, and a staged fight in and of itself has nothing but a deleterious effect on the game. That said, I believe fighting as a product of the emotion and flow of a game is part and parcel of the game itself on some sort of meta-level.

    I’m not really here to argue that point. I really just wanted to know your opinion on the Kessel suspension. Are you a Kessel apologist because of the fact that he “had to defend himself” against a goon that has no real part in the game? Do you think the league sent the wrong message? Are you somewhere in between? Or, do you just not care at all?

  • Colin.S

    Can’t wait for all the comments of “You just don’t understand” or “You’ve never played the game at such and such a level, you wouldn’t understand” or “You don’t know how the players feel, it makes them feel stronger and free and others can score more goals” or the ever so often used “These guys are great in the dressing room, they bring the team together”.

    Seriously though, if all the staged goonery was just gone, players like McIntrye, McGratton, Parros, etc…. all just stopped playing, I don’t see any negative affect for the NHL.

  • Derzie

    Intellectual arguments only appeal to the intellectual. Bloodlust (the opposite of intellect) is at the heart of the human condition (see MMA, boxing, hockey goons). Every pre-season we forget how the prior season played out. The refs put away the whistles in the playoffs and the bigger, meaner, aggressive teams get an advantage by cheating. All for the sake of entertaining those lusting blood and testosterone. Only elite skill and coaching can, if ever, overcome in that bullying environment (this year it was the Blackhawks). Calgary played differently when Big Ern joined last year. They held their head higher and were less timid. Measuring that with numbers is a tall order but it was observed. I hate the goon but I hate the teams that take advantage of no goon by bullying worse. As long as there is bloodlust (which is always) and bullying d**kheads (perpetual), goons will have a role. Sad but true for those more interested in intellect and skill.

    • piscera.infada

      I don’t want to sidetrack the real debate here, but to insinuate that boxing and MMA are inherently dumb belies any knowledge of the nuances of those sports. I dislike watching both of those sports as much as anyone – in fact, I’m quite vocal about my distaste for them. That said, I would argue that both of them are extremely strategic and are likely more cerebral than hockey. So, if we’re talking about the athletes being stupid then, no, I would argue there are many very stupid, very skilled athletes in every sport (see, Owens, Terrell; Smith, Aldon; Rose, Pete; et cetera).

      If we’re arguing that some sort of pervasive stupidity amongst humans draws us to such “bloodsport” – then I agree, somewhat. I would argue that the very nature of sport and all the ideology that is mixed up in it (local identity, national identity, culture of competition, etc.) makes it extremely susceptible to such displays of overt bloodlust. As such, it isn’t hockey-centric, but rather a sport-wide affliction. Incidents like what happened Sunday night appear to point to structural weaknesses in the league, more than some ideological difference with the sport.

  • Craig

    I LOVE THIS DEBATE. Definitely brings out all the characters.

    For the record I think Phil Kessel is hilarious, he doesn’t look at all athletic, he’s incredibly unphotogenic, he swings his stick at enforcers, and he plays hockey really well. He is just an entertaining Human.

    As far as fighting goes I love it when a guy like Glencross/Ferland does it. I hate it when two Bears go at it for the sake of fighting, it feels so forced.

    God I wish the Flames were on the forefront of innovation in this league. Oh well let the Bears dance and let the BEARtschi’s score. At least we have hockey this year!

    I also love it when Matty Franchise fights.

    • icedawg_42

      I agree – a “real” fight can be inspiring, and get the blood flowing…unfortunately the only way to remove the dancing bear is to outlaw fighting in the game.. There would still be plenty of physicality and violence to satiate the lusty mob….I’ve never been a “BAN FIGHTING RAH RAH” flag waver type of guy, but then, I don’t see what it brings to the game either.

    • Colin.S

      I agree, there are guys like Glenncross who are naturally tough, but can also play hockey. Having a bunch of those guys on your team is not a bad thing or a detriment to winning either.

  • Great article. The game needs to evolve and leave the Don Cherry’s of the world behind. Hockey is a great sport and can maintain its physicality and honour without every team having to keep a Neanderthal on its roster “just in case”.

  • schevvy

    If someone is saying they would rather have big guys who only fight (McGrattan, Ivanans, McIntyre), over guys who can fight and score (Jarome, Lucic) they’re lying.

  • I feel like there was a reasonable chance Kessel was about to get Bertuzzied, and I’m surprised to say that I think I would have reacted simliarly. I’m hoping for some serious fines to the Buffalo bench and minor suspensions to Scott and Kessel.

    • piscera.infada

      There was a fine to the Buffalo bench, which is completely ridiculous. Scott was already on the ice (on the previous play). Carslyle had last change and decided to put Kessel on the ice when Buffalo was clearly still rolling their goons. How Rolston can be fined for “player selection” is beyond me.

    • Colin.S

      I don’t think Scott would haven permanently injured Kessel, I think he would have put a small hurting on him though, mostly throw him around a bunch. I don’t know if Scott is dumb enough to know that if he actually hurt Kessel he probably played his last game of hockey ever. However roughing him up and getting a couple game suspension probably earns him an extension in todays NHL.

  • Derzie

    Case point, Detroit Redwings. I hear theyve made the playoffs a few times over the past 2+ decades…
    Theres certainly a place for fighting in the NHL, but I agree with Kent that the “Enforcer” is a waste of skin and a roster spot for a team. Guys like Lucic and Iginla to guys like Neil and Ott…diverse levels of players who are all beneficial to their team game-in-and-out but are also more than capable of stepping up and dropping the mitts whether to defend the RNH’s and Kessel’s or for their own purpose. Good article, as always.

  • mattyc

    One thing I’ve noticed is that the ‘true’ heavyweights don’t even fight that much. Someone like Laraque, or Brashear, or even McGratton, don’t often have to fight because no one wants to take them on – which may have also been Scott’s problem the other night. I’m not sure it has much of an effect, but every time I watch McGratton play, he goes out of his way to intimidate players with that half-crazy, half-“I’m gonna kill you” stare. I mean everyone’s a big boy and probably doesn’t change too much, but potentially does make guys think twice about doing dumb stuff. Reminds them that there’s bigger dogs out there.

  • mattyc

    I personally like what Scott did. It appears as if Kessel was mouthing off all game apparently with the firm belief that he was untouchable. I don’t necessarily think a dancing bear is necessary, but I do appreciate the fundamental logic behind being accountable for you own actions.

    Somehow over the past 10+ years the NHL has become a game where small mouthy goal scorers can run around throwing cheap shots, slashing and being complete a$ses. And then the dancing bear types have to step in and fight each other. What does that prove?? If Kessel runs around like a clown all night, then Scott fights Maclaren what does it prove? Nothing. But if Scott snaps and literally kills Kessel for HIS OWN actions that is a good thing.

    I’d like if Macgratten did the same thing. If Taylor Hall starts being a mouthpiece and slashing and spearing players, I’d be happy if Macgratten jumped him and tuned him. I know people say but then other teams goons will go after our skill. But only if they deserve it. I’m of the opinion that if Sven wants to run out flapping his mouth and slashing 6’8″ goons in the back of the legs that he deserves whatever he gets.

    I get what the article says about goons being pointless, but somewhere along the line the NHL has lost its way with this whole “code” system where skill players are free to be cheap and then goons step in to deal with it by fighting each other. We need the 80s back, where any player, no matter who they were could get killed by the biggest goon if they asked for it.

    • mattyc

      Although in the Kessel/Scott case, Kessel’s slashing/spearing(it was a pretty innocuous spear)/mouthing off was *in response* to Scott trying to kill him. Scott wasn’t policing, he was instigating.

      Furthermore, the idea of Hockey Justice through some big guy hurting little guys is a little absurd. The best way for any player to ‘retaliate’ is on the scoreboard. Trying to kill a guy who’s ‘flapping his mouth’ just ends up hurting your own team through penalties.

      • piscera.infada

        Kessel was running around, slashing and running his mouth before the altercations – at least according to what the Sabres are saying (whatever weight you give to that). The point is that players need to be accountable for their actions on the ice, and that’s something I agree with.

        As far as the spear goes, I thought the same thing when I saw it the first time. After seeing many replays it was actually quite a bit harder than I thought at first, he just got lucky it hit Scott in the waist-belt of the pants (a place with optimum padding). That fact however completely disregards the point: there is a good reason that spearing is considered one of the dirtiest plays in hockey – it doesn’t take a ton of force to do a great deal of damage. The act of spearing another player (regardless of how innocuous it looks on replay) is a distinctly malicious act, with the express intent to injure.

        • mattyc

          I interpreted the slash as a “what do you think you’re doing, buddy” type of thing. I don’t think he was trying to hurt, but he was definitely trying to incite.

          Regardless, it doesn’t really matter. I strongly disagree that the way players are held accountable for offending someone (essentially what mouthing off is) is by someone bigger injuring them. It reminds me of ‘roided up guys trying to fight each other after the bar for some perceived offense. You just end up looking like an idiot later.

          • piscera.infada

            Oh, I agree on the first slash, of course. The second slash, I can even get past – it’s the spear that gets me. A spear in open play is horrible enough (and often justly treated with a certain harshness from the league) – keep in mind, regardless of how it looked on replay, it happened after the play when Scott was being held by the ref.

            I also agree that accountability shouldn’t mean you get hurt by a bigger guy. That said, it’s pretty well established that if you’re being a prick (for lack of a better term) someone’s going to take exception to it – and I feel like Kessel may have had it coming to him. As I said, the whole situation was ridiculous. I just have a huge problem with Kessel only getting three games, and Rolston getting fined (for what amounts to leaving his players on the ice) – it all sets a bad precedent from the league (not that that’s anything new).

    • piscera.infada

      You spelt McGrattan wrong genious!!!! Taylor Hall doesn’t run around yapping and spearing guys! He plays hard and fair and with tons of skill!!! He only gets cheap-shotted by pretenders like Sarich who hide behind McGRATTAN! Lets see Sarich run over a skilled Flame this year!!!! McGrattan would beat him senseless!!!!!

      • piscera.infada

        As the cliche goes, those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones… When accusing some of spelling something wrong, perhaps check your own first, “genius”…

        I am quite excited for this season. Sure, we lack a bona fide top line and a bona fide known # 1 goalie… But the same was true at the start of our cup run season. We have an exciting mix of rookies who might well surprise us… And if they don’t, I can enjoy the draft again this year.

        Hell yes, hockey is almost back. The tension is palpable.

  • It surprises me that Kessel would be spearing anyone in the groin, given the fact that he’s had testicle cancer. He knows first hand what it’s like to be worried that you might have major damage to your junk. Big d-bag.

    In general, I think the superstar attitude of “I’m untouchable, so I’m going to mouth off, whine, and dive and you’re just going to take it” is lame. There should be no expectation to fight, or have to take abuse, but there should be some punishment. Like others have said, paste these guys into the boards. Smash Kessel with a huge, clean hit – make him look stupid. There’s playing tough, and then there’s playing dirty. Dirty is what tarnishes the good name of hockey.

    RE: tonight’s game, looks like Monahan is on the top line. One last tryout to see if he can hang with the big boys. Should be interesting. Backlund playing wing, but it appears to be of little importance. I think he’s making room for Monahan to have his grand finale of an audition.

  • supra steve

    I agree that players like Iggy, Lucic, Neely, etc that play with skill and are tough, are the greatest asset to have. However, as we all know, these are also one of the hardest assets to find. That being the case, if you managed a divisional rival of BOS and Lucic was just killing you every game, what do you do? Perhaps you bring in a big player from your system that you had hoped would turn into a “Lucic type”, but he didn’t quite turn out as you had hoped. So this big unskilled player comes in to try to even the balance somewhat and keep Lucic from running over your players on a regular basis. Next BOS decides Lucic is too valuable to be risking injury vs your goon, so they bring one in also. That is exactly what we have, and how can it not come to that?

  • I have zero problem with what Kessel did right up to the point where he “spears” Scott. Not because I think the spear was hard enough to injure Scott but because at that point the situation had been defused and for the most part he made himself look moronic (he looks like a little weasel hiding behind his big brother).

  • SoCalFlamesFan

    It’s easy to pick on the “goon” they aren’t trying to hide. They “do” and “agitators” smack talk and bark but don’t do.
    What the NHL is lacking in more Sean Avery’s in the league. Then we can get back to old time hickey, right?

  • piscera.infada

    As a Leaf fan growing up (original 6, gosh I’m old) my response to the Kessle thing will be simple this year;I will not watch the Leafs play. I’m also now really glad that Shanahan did not want the Flames job as he is so wishy washy and gutless and if Burke pursues Kessle in the off season I will puke.