NHL enforcers becoming an endangered species

So Brian Burke believes the NHL is being taken over by rats.

Leafs' GM Brian Burke felt he had no choice to release Colton Orr and says the NHL is in danger of being taken over by "rats."

The Leafs GM was holding court recently with the media, his trademark bombast at full throttle about how saddened he is that there’s no longer a use for enforcers like Colton Orr whom he had to axe from Toronto’s roster.

Burke paid $4 million over 3 seasons for this unskilled, spare part who’s participated in all of five games this year. He finally had to pull the plug because Orr was a drain on the team’s salary cap and a serious deficiency on the ice. Bottom line, Orr is not good enough to be an NHL player and will live out his playing days on AHL rinks or who knows, maybe the KHL.

Fighting is down by 25% this season in the NHL according to a USA Today article. For teams like St. Louis and San Jose, fisticuffs are down a significant 60% and 50% for Pittsburgh. The Leafs have had 13 fights this season compared with 28 a year ago at this point in the season – a 53% drop. The point, few teams want to pay for much less carry a guy who plays 2-3 minutes a game because players just aren’t dropping the gloves as much.

With NHL sherriff Brendan Shanahan laying down the hammer with more punitive fines and suspensions the game is evolving from players policing themselves to the league.

But that doesn’t satisfy the pro-fighting stance of Mr. Burke who seethes over the chaos and criminality taking place on NHL rinks.

Former Maple Leaf enforcer Colton Orr was waived by GM Brian Burke last week.

Burke contends that it’s a “dangerous time in our game” because ratty little perpetrators are getting away with murder and going unpunished. It apparently turns his stomach to see this.

Yet he also thinks the game is better than its ever been. He must have a bottle of Maalox handy at all times to calm that churning stomach when the rats run rampant.

“Players run around but won’t fight,” Burke says in the article. “Shanny needs six phone lines. Players used to take care of lots of this crap and they aren’t anymore.”

Nothing like over-stating things a bit when you make your argument, eh?

Most of us have long ago learned to turn down the volume when Mr. Burke delivers one of his state of the game lectures.

When he first took over as Toronto’s GM three years back his avowed goal was to make the Leafs truculent and difficult to play against. To that end he signed guys like Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill to fit that philosophy. Problem is, he couldn’t see far enough around the corner to realize post lockout the league was quickly evolving into a speed and skill game and the need for knuckle-draggers like Orr who served no other purpose than rabble-rousing and fighting had become scarce. The heavyweight era was dying, replaced by 3rd and 4th line players with grit, toughness and yes, skill! They contribute in ways other than fighting and taking dumb penalties. The writing was on the wall a couple of years ago about the diminishing role of the enforcer but Burke is only coming to that conclusion now.

Others have weighed into the debate.

Former enforcers Georges Laraque and Colton Orr square off in "better" days for NHL tough guys.

Hall of Fame goaltender and writer of all things profound, Ken Dryden contributed to the discussion in a Globe and Mail piece, What hockey needs is to give up the fighting but keep the fight.

In it, Dryden basically argues that “fight” is not synonymous with two guys dropping the gloves and going at it. Players fight for the puck, fight to get in front of the net, fight pain,  to survive a tough game or series.

He says the time for eliminating fighting in the NHL is near but hockey need not fear that. Toughness, aggression and the “fight” that so characterizes the Canadian approach way won’t be lost in the process.

Knee jerk reactions, retaliation and violent revenge and how these things are achieved are under attack from all sides in today’s game. The best revenge is beating your opponent on the scoreboard, not by trying to beat his brains in.

Some of the so-called hard-liners are beginning to soften their pro-fighting stance. Brian Burke has nothing to worry about. The rats are not taking over. Shanahan’s strong measures are having an effect, placing a “chill” on the volume of fights and arguably violent plays but still very much a work in progress obviously. Gradually the message is starting to sink in as declining fight stats support. You don’t need a designated goon on ice to patrol the welfare of your star players.

Yes, there will always be incidents and liberties taken that shouldn’t. That is aggravating and gets under one’s skin as a player, coach, manager and fan. But in the long run, I have faith that throwing the book (and the pocketbook) at offenders is how it will eventually correct itself. It’s early days yet using this approach. Give it time.

The Brian Burkes, Don Cherrys etc.  of the hockey world won’t be able to turn back the clock to the good old days where the threat of imminent violence was the only answer to players patrolling themselves.

The league and teams are learning there’s other ways of being successful on the ice that doesn’t involved smashing each other in the head on a regular basis.


About Rolf Sturm

Sportswriter & blogger, news writer, video journalist, photographer, podcaster
This entry was posted in Hockey and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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