What Is an Enforcer in Hockey – Hockey Enforcers 101

Posted on May 16, 2024 by Dan Kent
hockey enforcer

Since hockey is a very physical game and one of the few sports in the world that tolerates fighting, many teams throughout history have iced players who excel in this area. They ice them for many reasons, and we'll go over them, plus much more, in this article. 

What is an enforcer in hockey?

A hockey enforcer is a player who tries to protect their teammates by typically engaging in fisticuffs with opposing players, often the other team's enforcer. Some clubs still employ an enforcer, but they are slowly being phased out of the game. They are typically some of the largest players in the NHL, and are often used in very aggressive forechecking schemes as well.

ice hockey fight

An ice hockey enforcer is sometimes called a "policeman" and, in uncomplimentary terms, may also be referred to as a "goon."

What is the role of an enforcer?

The primary role of an enforcer is to try and respond to and deter the opposition from engaging in dirty play.

When an opponent physically manhandles one of their teammates or uses illegal tactics, the enforcer will usually drop the gloves and square off in a fight with the guilty culprit or the other team's enforcer.

Enforcers are generally employed to protect their smaller and more skillful players from violent conduct by their opponents.

However, an enforcer may not necessarily react by fighting an opponent. They may also seek retribution by dishing out a hard body check or an illegal infraction such as a crosscheck or slash.

In general, enforcers have been larger, aggressive players in physical stature. They are often one of the least-skilled members of their squad.

They also usually receive just several minutes of ice time per game by playing on the team's fourth line or third defensive pairing and are typically one of the lowest-paid members of a team.

Also, since on-ice fighting skills are essential to an enforcer, many take boxing lessons to enhance their chances of success when engaging in fisticuffs.

Are there still hockey enforcers?

Since the NHL introduced a salary cap in the 2005/06 season, enforcers have become scarce in the league. The main reason is that clubs prefer to spend their money on more-skilled players.

In the past, every National Hockey League (NHL) and other North American professional league carried at least one enforcer on their roster.

Not all enforcers are without other hockey skills though, as some of the NHL's top tough guys of the past also exhibited a fine scoring touch.

Did NHL enforcers have talent?

Players such as Dave'  Tiger' Williams, Chris Simon, Terry O'Reilly, Chris Nilan, Dave Schultz, Dale Hunter, John Ferguson and Bob Probert all enjoyed at least one 20-goal season in the league.

These players more or less had dual roles on their teams since they were considered to be enforcers as they were adept at fighting but were also among their team's top scorers.

The difference between these players and many other enforcers was the amount of ice time they received per game and their primary role on the team was to produce offence.

In fact, O'Reilly once amassed 90 points in a season for the Boston Bruins in 1977/78, becoming the first player in NHL history to score in the top 10 while serving at least 200 minutes in penalties.

Who is the greatest enforcer in NHL history?

Although you'll find a multitude of opinions as to what the greatest enforcer in the NHL is, Dave Schultz will undoubtedly be the most popular answer among many. Dave "Hammer" Schultz finished his NHL career with nearly 2,300 penalty minutes and was a 5th-round draft pick by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1969.

He did have a bit of offensive talent, scoring 200 points over a 535-game career, including a season in which he tallied 20 goals. His primary job was to protect Flyers star, Bobby Clarke.

Who was the most feared enforcer in the NHL?

The most feared enforcer is highly dependent on the era. But if I were to choose one for all time, it would be Bob Probert. Bob Probert was a whopping 235 bounds and 6'3. The enforcer had a very long career in the National Hockey League, playing 935 games while tallying 384 points.

Along with those points, he also racked up 3,300 minutes in penalties during the regular season and an additional 274 during the playoffs. He is widely considered one of the most intimidating hockey players to ever play against, and the video below highlights some of his best fights.

What is a grinder vs enforcer in the NHL?

The two classifications are very different. An enforcer is often tasked with protecting teammates, starting fights, and generally "policing" the game to ensure nothing gets out of hand. Conversely, a grinder will be a lower-skilled player that deploys a hard-nosed, defensive style of play.

fight strap hockey

Because of the style of play of an enforcer, they are forced to fight. A grinder, however, does not have to fight to prove their worth as they typically have more talent and can help the team in other ways. Keep in mind there are a lot of solid grinders in the National Hockey League that take fights. However, not all of them do.

The Detroit Redwings had a line in the late 1990s they called "The Grind Line." The line featured 3 of the NHLs most prominent grinders. Darren McCarty, Kris Draper, and Kirk Maltby. But make no mistake about it, these 3 had talent. In fact, all of them would go on to have long NHL careers and tally at least 250 points, with Draper coming in at 364.

How frequent are NHL fights?

Data from hockeyfights.com revealed 238 fights in 1271 games in the 2018-19 season. This is about 0.19 fights per game, or around 16.7% of games having fights.

This is down materially from the average 0.5-0.6 fights per game fans witnessed in the prior two decades. Fighting is undoubtedly dropping in the NHL as the game leans more toward skill and less toward enforcement.

Who is the toughest enforcer in the NHL?

As of the end of the 2023 NHL season, it would be hard to argue with the fact that Ryan Reaves is one of the toughest and one of the only true remaining enforcers in the league.

Ryan Reaves is 6'3 and weighs over 230 pounds. His offensive production is relatively non-existent, and his leading role on the ice is to provide a physical presence. Despite doing his job very well, Reaves is not a detriment to his team in terms of penalties, as he only takes around 30-40 penalty minutes a season, a far cry from the enforcers in the older NHL, which often took 250 or greater.

Are there still goons in hockey?

While some goons still exist on hockey rosters, they are few and far between. Because the game is turning away from fighting, enforcers and goons are not considered necessary in today's NHL. Not only do they eat up a valuable roster spot that could be given to someone with more talent, but they take up valuable cap space that a team could utilize to add more skill to the roster.

In today's NHL, physical toughness must be accompanied by skill for a player to have any hopes of making it long-term in the NHL.

Some teams may utilize an enforcer on their farm roster and call them up for particular games or stretches where they feel they are needed.

Why the enforcer is dying

The game has changed over the years. While fighting is still allowed in hockey and punished by a major five-minute penalty, the number of fights has steadily been decreasing over the decades.

Since hockey fights and intimidation tactics are rare these days, most NHL teams no longer employ a one-dimensional enforcer. This isn't to say there aren't any players who can score and fight since there are still plenty of those in the NHL.

But since the 2010/11 campaign, the league leader in penalty minutes for the season has served more than 200 minutes just four times.

In comparison, in the 25 seasons between 1973/74 and 1997/98, the league leader in penalty minutes served at least 300 minutes on 21 occasions, with four of those seasons reaching more than 400 minutes.

An era of multiple enforcers

During the 1970s and 80s, the style of NHL hockey was much different than it is today. It was a much more physical game, and many teams employed several enforcers.

Fights and bench-clearing brawls were quite common, and teams such as the Boston Bruins were known as the 'Big Bad Bruins' while the Philadelphia Flyers were nicknamed 'The Broad Street Bullies.'

Enforcers and brain damage

Fortunately, the hockey world has realized how much head trauma can be caused by fighting and violent play, which is generally considered another reason we are seeing fewer enforcers in the sport.

In 2011, former enforcers Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak all passed away, with Rypien's and Belak's deaths being ruled as suicides, while former enforcers John Kordic and Bob Probert passed away in 1992 and 2010, respectively. Todd Ewen then died in 2016 and was also ruled a suicide.

However, it's generally believed that some of these players may have suffered from depression or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which is a degenerative brain disease which can be caused by repetitive blows to a person's head.

The documentary below goes into more depth about the phenome. It explores the two opposing camps of those fighting and those who argue against it.

The role of the hockey enforcer hasn't wholly vanished. It likely won't do so until hockey completely eliminates the fighting. But with each passing season, fewer enforcers can be found in the NHL and most other pro hockey leagues.

Who was the enforcer that played with Gretzky?

Dave Semenko was the player tasked with protecting Wayne Gretzky during his days as an Edmonton Oiler. Semenko was 6'3 and weighed around 215 pounds during his playing days, and he is often referred to as one of the toughest men in the NHL.

Semenko also benefitted from playing with Gretzky, tallying a total of 153 points over a 575-game NHL career. In addition to those 153 points, he amassed 1175 penalty minutes.

Unfortunately, Semenko passed away in 2017 at only 59 after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Most penalized NHL players

When it comes to penalty minutes, this statistic is often used to determine which players were considered enforcers during their careers.

The 10 players below have accumulated the most penalty minutes in NHL history.

  1. Dave'  Tiger' Williams – 3,971
  2. Dale Hunter – 3,565
  3. Tie Domi – 3,515
  4. Marty McSorley – 3,381
  5. Bob Probert – 3,300
  6. Rob Ray – 3,207
  7. Craig Berube – 3,149
  8. Tim Hunter – 3,146
  9. Chris Nilan – 3,043
  10. Rick Tocchet – 2, 970

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada, Stocktrades.ca.

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