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.
Yeah sick fuckin hack kessel if your gonna act like paul bunyan at least have the nuts to drop em. #noballs
— John Scott (@RealJohnScott) September 23, 2013
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.