Tight Lines: The timely demise of the NHL enforcer

Of the 15 games played on Saturday, a day that saw every team in the NHL take to the ice, there was a total of eight fights.

Consider it a sign of the times, but when the Edmonton Oilers’ young star Ryan Nugent-Hopkins went toe-to-toe with the Canucks’ forward Dan Hamuis in Vancouver’s 5-4 shootout win on Saturday, you knew the age of the ‘enforcer’ was slowly but surely coming to an end.

Of the 15 games played on Saturday, a day that saw every team in the NHL take to the ice, there was a total of eight fights. Sure there were the  usual suspects like Shawn Thorton, Chris Thorburn, and even St. Louis Blues defenceman and Fruitvale native Barrett Jackman taking on the Flames’ Derek Engelland; but rarely, if ever, does one see Hamuis and R-N-H go at it, or guys like James Van Riemsdyk and Simon Depres, Mats Zuccarello and T.J. Oshie who also danced in the opening week of the NHL.

A year ago, the Canadiens-Leafs home opener was marred by a fight between Toronto enforcer Colton Orr and Montreal’s George Parros in which the Canadiens tough guy took a scary nose dive onto the ice and suffered a concussion that would keep him out of the lineup for a month.

It’s no accident that both Parros and Orr were left off the rosters this season, Orr reassigned to the Toronto farm team, Parros left unsigned. Other teams followed suit, St. Louis Blues released Paul Bisonnette and the Bruins unloaded Shawn Thorton on Florida in the wake of a brutal slew foot and punch-out of a helpless Brooks Orpik of the Penguins last December.

The need for a designated hitter is ebbing in the NHL. Fighting majors decreased by almost 40 per cent over the past six years, guys like Parros are out, talented tough guys like the Canadiens Brandon Prust are in.

Concussions have a lot to do with it too. Ending careers and enduring profound psychological and physical trauma is no way to retire from the game.

Still, I’m not sure the NHL will ever get rid of fighting completely, yet, the absence of an appointed pugilist will curb “staged fights” where enforcers line up in their only shift of the game and drop the gloves before the ref does the puck, only confirming that most of these guys have no place in the NHL.

Players in the game today are skilled, in supreme  shape, and, most, as tough as nails. They can take care of themselves, and while fighting is not their main concern, they will oblige others if provoked.

The trend is also affecting junior leagues.  The BCHL adopted the CHL’s  one-fight only rule at its AGM in June making teams think twice about losing a player for the rest of a game because of a bruhaha. Through eight matches this season, the Trail Smoke Eaters have yet to record a fight although they do have those who are capable.

Trail’s captain Scott Davidson is a shining example of a player that has both skill and grit. Last season he led the Smokies in points, 35, and penalty minutes, 101.

At first glance, the revamped Smokies may seem young, lacking experience, size and toughness, but when coaches Nick Deschenes, Barry Zanier, and Craig Clare assembled this team, they had a plan.

They built a team based on skill, speed, and the premise that four balanced lines playing fast, intelligent, and tenacious hockey will be more successful than the previous formula – consisting of a stacked top line, descending in skill to a tough-checking fourth line.

Adam Wheeldon ultimately may have been a victim of his own tenacity, a character young man with a great work ethic, but a forward who added too little offensively.

The former captain was shipped off along with 10 others, and the team rebuilt around Davidson, and similarly talented Jake Lucchini, Bryan Basilico, and Craig Martin.

Smokies coach Nick Deschenes learned a lot from last year’s debacle, saying; “I realized that to be competitive you really have to recruit properly and have players that are as ready as possible to play in the BCHL and have an impact.”

He went out and recruited guys with pedigrees, already committed to NCAA teams, signed a strong local contingent, talented rookies, character vets, and four former B.V. Nitehawks that know how to win.

So far the new formula seems to be working, the Smokies are disciplined – one of the least penalized teams in the league – skilled and fast, and have the highest goals scored per game average, 4.5,  than any team in the BCHL.

While it is still early, the Smokies are off to a great start, and playing exciting and entertaining hockey.

Times change, sometimes for the better.

My Stanley Cup Bold Prediction: Like the sun rising, the Montreal Canadiens will emerge in the East, not the Bruins, but the Cup will remain in the West and the Chicago Blackhawks will win their third in the last six years. – Hawks in six over Montreal.

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