Which came first, Hockey or Fighting?

I have been thinking about the movie The Last Gladiators recently and decided I would use it to help me write my post. The movie is a documentary on the career of Chris “Knuckles” Nilan who was an ‘enforcer’ in the NHL in the late 80’s and 90’s. The movie is unique in that I believe it gives a great perception of the things some of these types of players have to mentally go through in order to get a paycheck. Sure, everyone loves the old Rodney Dangerfield saying, ‘I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out,’ and the movie Slapshot. This is a game where fighting is tolerated.

Fighting will get the un-educated spectator in the seats. It will draw people looking purely for entertainment value to rinks all over the world. I am not going to argue that. What most people do not understand, however, is that this is just part of the system. It’s part of the government, if you will, of hockey.

For example, in the United States government you have three branches, legislative, judicial and executive. Hockey is quite similar. You have Gary Bettman, the commissioner who acts on the behalf of the league. He is the executive branch. The owners and the committee they form are similar to the legislative branch in the fact that they dictate the change in rules, or laws of the game. Finally, the judicial branch is your kangaroo court in hockey. The kangaroo court is run by the players and makes sure they are all held accountable for their actions.

This is two-fold. Not only are players monitored by their teammates, but they are also monitored by their opponents. You put yourself in front of the team and you face the court in the locker room. You run around the ice like a loose cannon, you face the court on the ice. This session usually takes the form of fisticuffs.

Hockey is one of the few sports where you are constantly wielding a potential weapon. In football the closest thing they have to weapons are their helmets and those usually come after there is a huge brawl already in progress. I don’t think a shoe, sweatband, or basketball would be considered a weapon and in baseball you have to drop the only thing that can (and is) used to beat someone with.

That brings us back to the beloved sport of hockey where players holding lightweight night sticks skate around on steak knives. Sounds to me like the potential for all hell to break loose is definitely there. Alas, that is why this wonderful sport allows fighting. It’s not to fill the stands or for entertainment purposes. It’s because without it, there would be no way of holding the opponent accountable.

As the sport is progressing, it has gotten faster paced and more open. The days of hooking and holding a guy’s jersey in the corner until your teammate can take the puck away are long gone. As a matter of fact I was watching NHL Gamecenter yesterday and the ‘classic’ games from the early 2000’s blew me away. It still seems like they just changed the high-sticking, crease and gameplay rules, but watching games from 15 years ago really put it into perspective quite how far this game has progressed even in the last 15-20 years.

With the progression of the sport, teams are looking for quicker, more agile players. Your fourth line once consisted of judge, jury and executioner. Now the fourth line on the majority of NHL rosters has at least one guy with 20 goals and 20 assists. The landscape of the game has changed and this has effected the need for the fighter in the league.

Though the need has diminished, it still remains present and quite honestly, I think it should always be a part of the game. Until you have that guy step up for you in that situation where your life flashes before your eyes, you wont understand.

To be an enforcer it take a specific breed of individual. You have to be willing to take more punches than you throw. You have to be willing to challenge the biggest, baddest guy to a fight. You cannot hesitate and will not falter when it is time for you to do your duty. There is no time to second guess it, feel uneasy, or get cold feet. If you do, there are a multitude of guys below you that are ready to take a beating.

If you listen to the enforcers from the glory days of the ‘Broad Street Bullies’ and ‘Big Bad Bruins’ those guys will tell you that when you were the heavyweight champ of the league, every guy trying to make a name for himself was coming out of the woodwork looking to fight you. The legacy that you built unbeknownst to you is now the legacy that you cant leave behind.

This is where it starts getting psychological. Before I go any further, let me explain; I am not stating that the enforcers are the only guys with mental issues in this sport. What I am saying though is that when you literally have to put your nutsack on the line day in and day out, including at the drop of a hat the anxiety can build. The depression can takes over knowing that if you don’t fight, you don’t eat. Look around the league in the last 15 years with what has happened mentally to the enforcers of the league. I bet it’s a little easier being Steve Yzerman than Joey Kocur.

Montador, Boogard, Probert all have paid the ultimate price. Avery and Carcillo are recent enforcer/pests that have opened up about the struggles of their roles in hockey and the issues they have had during and since leaving the game. Carcillo most recently just started a foundation to help current and former players deal with the transition of fighting every day to life in the ‘real world.’

I honestly don’t know where I was going with this when I first started writing, but by now, I hope that the person who doesn’t understand why hockey players fight, why its allowed, what they actually go through, etc. will have a better understanding of this unique and often mis-understood aspect of the game.

If you want more information, be sure to click on the hyper-links throughout the text that will explain the people, events, etc. in more depth and give you a better understanding. I urge you to check out the movie The Last Gladiators which can be found on Netflix or the link below.


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