Enforcers fighting for place in game
With fisticuffs reduced drastically, tough guys work on other skills to stay in the lineup.
Matt Higgins / The New York Times
BUFFALO -- The game had all the ingredients for a classic hockey punch-up, an intense division rivalry, a national television broadcast in Canada and two heavyweight enforcers. But the Ottawa Senators' 3-1 victory against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night turned out to be relatively tame.
That is the way it has been in the NHL since play resumed after a lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. Scoring has increased. Fighting has dropped drastically.
Last season, major penalties for fighting fell 41 percent compared with 2003-04, the season before the lockout, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Although fighting majors have increased 12 percent this season, they remain well below pre-lockout levels.
"In the past 8 to 10 years, fighting has almost disappeared," said Colin Campbell, the NHL's director for hockey operations. "We have less than one per game."
With so few fights, the need for enforcers -- the fistic specialists in the NHL -- would appear to be in jeopardy.
"That day of just the fighter guy is gone," said Rob Ray, a fearsome enforcer who amassed 3,207 penalty minutes during a 15-year career with the Sabres and Senators before he retired after the 2004-05 season. "There's a couple who are just hanging on, who will be gone this year or in the near future."
Some teams already have dispatched their enforcers. The defending Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes have played without a heavyweight for two seasons. And coach Peter Laviolette has discouraged his players from fighting.
The Florida Panthers have no enforcers, either. "We feel we have some tough players, but we don't have that role right now," coach Jacques Martin said. "The days of guys just being able to fight aren't as predominant."
There is no consensus why fighting has waned, but a few factors crop up during discussions of the issue: A collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the players association that ended the lockout resulted in a salary cap, so some teams cannot afford to pay a player who does little more than throw punches. The NHL also has emphasized enforcing the rules to stress speed and skill. Slow-footed fighters have become a liability and must improve their skating or find another career.
Left wing Andrew Peters, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound enforcer with the Sabres, learned last season that a blistering right hand was no match for fast footwork.
Peters, 26, made the Sabres roster in 2003-04 as one of the team's two enforcers. Last season, as Buffalo's only enforcer, he was in uniform for only 28 games. After the season, he met with coach Lindy Ruff to discuss ways to earn more playing time.
"He said, 'We need you to get faster,' so I worked out with our strength coach all summer and lost 24 pounds," Peters said. "I feel great, even though I'm not getting any points. I feel like I can keep up better now."
As a result, Peters has played more often. But his contributions to the Sabres (24-6-2) remain modest. He has no points and 50 penalty minutes.
I say bring back the fights!!!! Oh, those were the good ol' days. I miss Probert and Kocur whooping up on the other team. Thinking of those days brings a smile to my face