Is this the end of the Flames’ enforcer era?

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.

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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.

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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?

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All info is taken from 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.

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  • Backburner

    I loved McCarthy.. he had no cartilage in his Nose so he could take the face shots no problem lol.

    I think like anything in the league, the “Enforcers” will just evolve into “Skilled Enforcers”. Ferland is as tough as they come, but he has some skill too. It’s still a contact sport, if you can have big, tough skilled guys you have an edge.

    • Thunder1

      Two things I remember about Krys and both of them I saw from less than 50 feet away.

      Him throwing $100 bills at strippers for about an hour out of a roll that must of been $20 grand and him…

      getting ended by a Smackintyre truck!

  • McRib

    Poor Keegan Kanzig and Hunter Smith just a couple years too late, man I wish we could have those two Top. 90 picks back. I hope spontaneous fighting stays as I think it makes the sport unique, but it’s long overdue that we phased out enforcers. Someday I’ll be able to tell my kids that NHL teams used to waste 2-4 round Draft picks on fighters, they likely won’t believe me. Give me a bottom six filled with Andrew Mangiapanes all day.

  • Nighteyes

    Rough stuff will always be part of the game, especially when the stakes are high. But I agree that “functional toughness,” or whatever other term is used for it, is a much better path the game should go down rather than having enforcers. We’re here to see skilled hockey, not skating tanks who can’t contribute in any other meaningful way. I think one of the Flames’ greats, Jarome Iginla, was a great example of this. He was our lead scorer and captain, but also kind of our enforcer because, well, he was a badass.

  • KACaribou

    Sports teams are copy-cats, so I warn that just because it is exiting now, doesn’t necessarily mean it is gone forever.

    Going way back when the NHL was definitely tougher, and there was more dirty stuff and more fighting, the Flyers amped things up further by building a team strategically of super-skilled but super-tough and super-dirty players (emulated and exaggerated by the Charlestown Chiefs in the movie Slap Shot).

    Well, it forced teams to try to do the same until the Habs’ dynasty just made everyone look ridiculous. Then things settled down once again.

    There is great entertainment value in fighting, as much as there is in watching great hockey. I mean who wasn’t holding their breath when Engelland had to drop them with Lucic?

    I personally hope it never goes away.

  • BurningSensation

    Yes, this is it.

    Lots of terrific heavyweight fighters have rolled through the Flames, but of them Tim Hunter was the all-time best.

    As for the NHL, Bob Probert in his early prime was the most terrifying thing on the planet.

    Among skill players who could fight, the title has to be Lindros, though Cam Neely was a legitimate heavyweight as well.

  • JKG

    I’m completely over staged fights so good riddance, but some of my favourites were:
    1. Eric Goddard
    2. Rocky Thompson (the dude could barely lace his skates)
    3. Tim Hunter
    4. Big Ern

  • beloch

    The pure enforcer does seem to be less viable than ever, but perhaps we’re just saying that because we’re used to Bollig, who isn’t a particularly effective enforcer. He doesn’t seem to send messages, when deserved, quite as reliably as, for example, McGrattan did. He also takes more undisciplined penalties. If the Flames had such a beast as McGrattan in his prime, would the Flames still play him?

    I suspect the answer would be no. This lineup has several functional hockey players who can also drop the gloves. A functional tough guy on the ice when stuff happens is worth more than a great enforcer sitting on the bench. Being stapled to the bench makes it hard to be in the right place at the right time.

    Then there’s Tkachuk… This season, he may very well be a guy who needs protecting because other teams are going to target him. Granted, he’s probably going to deserve being targeted, but he’s still just eighteen. Is he ready to drop the gloves with a veteran NHL enforcer yet? Troy Brouwer isn’t exactly a master of dropping the gloves, but I like his chances against a seasoned goon a lot better than Tkachuk’s, at least for now. This is one more reason why Brouwer is a good guy to have riding caboose on Tkachuk’s hate train.

  • imeubu

    Zack Kassian took a run at Gaudreau in the opening few minutes of last nights game that would have been the end of “little Johnny Hockey’s” career. Just missed him. Ran at him for more than 1/2 the width of the ice. Had him lined up to do only one thing…

    No one on the Flames did anything.

    Patrick Maroon has a hall pass to do whatever he wants to whomever… whenever. No push back whatever.