Enforcer is an unofficial role in ice hockey. The term is sometimes used synonymously with "fighter", "tough guy", or "goon". An enforcer's job is to deter and respond to dirty or violent play by the opposition. When such play occurs, the enforcer is expected to respond aggressively, by fighting or checking the offender. Enforcers are expected to react particularly harshly to violence against star players or goalies.
Enforcers are different from pests, players who seek to agitate opponents and distract them from the game, without necessarily fighting them. The pest's primary role is to draw penalties from opposing players, thus "getting them off their game", while not actually intending to fight the opposition player (although exceptions to this do occur). Pests and enforcers often play together on the same line, usually the fourth line.
National Hockey League
At present in the National Hockey League (NHL), teams generally do not carry more than one player whose primary role is that of an enforcer. Enforcers can play either forward or defense, although they are most frequently used as wingers on the fourth forward checking line. Prized for their aggression, size, checking ability, and fists, enforcers are typically less gifted at skill areas of the game than their teammates. Enforcers are typically among the lowest scoring players on the team and receive a smaller share of ice time. They are also not highly paid compared to other players, and tend to move from team to team.
Enforcers are nevertheless often popular on their teams. "The enforcer, sometimes mocked as a goon or euphemized as a tough guy, may be hockey's favorite archetype," wrote John Branch of The New York Times. "Enforcers are seen as working-class superheroes—understated types with an alter ego willing to do the sport's most dangerous work to protect others. And they are underdogs, men who otherwise might have no business in the game." John Scott's reputation as an enforcer and fan favorite helped him earn enough fan votes to secure a spot in the 61st National Hockey League All-Star Game despite having been demoted out of the league at the time of his election; he nonetheless unexpectedly played a key role in his division's victory by scoring two goals, where fan response also led to him being named most valuable player of the tournament. Fighting skills can help a less-talented or smaller player play in leagues that their hockey alone would not.
Enforcers sometimes take boxing lessons to improve their fighting. Some players combine aspects of the enforcer role with strong play in other areas of the game. Tiger Williams, Bob Probert, and Chris Simon are examples of enforcers who showed an occasional scoring flair, with Williams and Probert playing in the midseason All-Star Game. Terry O'Reilly once scored 90 points in a season, being the first player to finish in the top ten regular season scorers while amassing at least 200 penalty minutes, and later became captain of the Boston Bruins.
Sometimes enforcers can do their job by virtue of their reputation. Clark Gillies was among the best fighters in the NHL during his prime, but over time he rarely had to fight because opponents respected and feared him enough that they would not go after his teammates. Some skilled players, such as legends Gordie Howe and NHL all-star Jarome Iginla, are also capable fighters and can function effectively as their own enforcer. A "Gordie Howe hat trick" is a player scoring a goal, assisting on a goal, and being involved in a fight during a single game.
The role of the enforcer has diminished since rule enforcement changed following the 2004–05 NHL lockout to increase game speed and scoring. With a decrease in fighting, teams are less inclined to keep a roster spot available for a one-dimensional fighter who is a liability as a scorer and defender. This has led to a decrease in the number of players whose predominant role is enforcer. Instead, more well-rounded players are expected to contribute aspects of the enforcer role. Intimidation and fighting continue to be utilized as a strategy in the NHL. In the 2007–08 NHL season fights occurred in 38.46% of the games, up from 33% the season before, which was just below the pre-lockout fighting level of 41.14% of games in the 2003–04 season. The frequency has steadily declined over time, however, from 1.3 fights per game in the late 1980s to 0.5 in 2012. Major penalties for fighting declined by 25% annually in the first half of the 2011–2012 season.
Summer 2011 enforcer deaths
Another possible reason for the decline in fighting and the use of the enforcer role is greater awareness of the risks from head trauma and resulting chronic traumatic encephalopathy. During the summer of 2011, three NHL enforcers died. Derek Boogaard died at the age of 28 from an accidental mixture of painkillers and alcohol. Rick Rypien died at the age of 27 from what was later confirmed as a suicide. Wade Belak was found dead at the age of 35 in his Toronto hotel room in circumstances that caused a newspaper's police source to categorize his death as a suicide. A year earlier, Bob Probert had died on July 5, 2010, of an apparent heart attack in his mid-40s; later tests indicated brain damage and CTE from his years of fighting.
Retired enforcer Georges Laraque has suggested the National Hockey League Players' Association provide counselling to enforcers, and sports journalist and writer Roy Macgregor opines that in light of recent tragic events there should be more done about it, including eliminating the role altogether. New York Times sportswriter John Branch covered Boogaard's death and the epidemic of chronic traumatic encephalopathy that has come as a result of frequent head trauma sustained by hockey enforcers.
In popular culture
- The late songwriter Warren Zevon promoted the role with a ballad of a fictional goon "Buddy" in his song "Hit Somebody (the Hockey Song)".
- Goon, a 2011 comedy film written by Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg and starring Seann William Scott, based on the career of Doug Smith. The film was followed up a sequel, Goon: Last of the Enforcers, in 2017.
- Gut Check, the sixteenth episode of the eighth season of House, Bobby "The Hatchet" Hatcher (Greg Finley) a fictional minor league enforcer is treated.
- The Last Gladiators, is a 2012 film chronicling the role of the enforcer in the golden years. Special focus is paid to Chris Nilan: his role in the NHL, and the important negative effects the fighting and aggression had and have on his life after the NHL.
- Slap Shot, a 1977 comedy film starring Paul Newman about a failing hockey team that acquires the three Hanson brothers, who help their team by excelling as goons on the ice. Since the release of the film, the Hansons have become hockey icons in their own right, with the actors who portrayed them frequently attending hockey games and other events, usually in character. Two direct-to-video film sequels with the Hansons, Slap Shot 2: Breaking the Ice and Slap Shot 3: The Junior League, were released 2002 and 2007, respectively.
- On a 2014 episode of The Goldbergs, "Lame Gretzky", Adam is pretty bad at hockey, so his older brother Barry teaches him how to be a goon. That didn't go well either for him, as he got dragged into his own net.
- In a 2012 episode of Leverage, "The Blue Line Job", the team are asked to help an enforcer put at risk by a team owner.
- In a 2016 episode of The Detour, a flashback shows that Nate was a minor league hockey enforcer in his youth.
- Ice Guardians, a 2016 feature documentary film directed and written by Brett Harvey about ice hockey enforcers.
- List of NHL enforcers
- Violence in ice hockey — about violent acts that are prohibited by all ice hockey leagues
- Tom Cohen (1 September 2011). "Three hockey enforcers die young in four months, raising questions". CNN. Retrieved 1 September 2011.
- Scott, Nate (2015-01-15). "The Ivy Leaguer who fought his way to the NHL". USA Today. Retrieved 15 January 2015.
- Branch, John (December 5, 2011). "Derek Boogaard: Blood on the Ice". The New York Times. p. 4. Retrieved December 8, 2011.
- Traikos, Michael (December 2, 2015). "John Scott, an enforcer with five career goals and a sense of humour, might be just what the NHL All-Star Game needs". National Post. Postmedia Network. Retrieved January 3, 2016.
- Mirtle, James (December 2, 2015). "If fans vote enforcer John Scott into all-star game, NHL says he's going". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved January 3, 2016.
- "John Scott wasn't a NHL All-Star MVP finalist, but still won with overwhelming fan support". SB Nation. January 31, 2016. Retrieved February 1, 2016.
- After The Whistle: Al Secord - Points 'n Punches Archived 2007-09-28 at the Wayback Machine
- "The mystique of the Gordie Howe hat trick". cbc.ca.
- Higgins, Matt (19 December 2006). "As N.H.L. Picks Up Speed, Fighters Are Phased Out". The New York Times.
- "Upon Further Review". CBC News.
- Klein, Jeff Z. (2012-01-22). "Numbers Indicate That Skill Usually Packs a Bigger Punch Than Fists". The New York Times. pp. SP9. Retrieved June 18, 2012.
- Roy Macgregor (1 September 2011). "Wade Belak's death another warning sign for NHL". Toronto Star. Retrieved 13 September 2011.
- Branch, John (December 3, 2011). "Derek Boogaard: A Boy Learns to Brawl". New York Times. Retrieved December 6, 2011.
- "The Goldbergs Review: "Lame Gretzky"". pastemagazine.com.