What is a Hockey Enforcer & Do They Still Exist?

by Simon Naylor | Posted On: March 16th, 2020
hockey enforcer

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Since hockey is a very physical game and one of the few sports in the world which tolerates fighting, many teams throughout history have iced players who excel in this area of the game.

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 slowing being phased out of the game.

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

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 as 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 when it comes to physical stature and is 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 of them take boxing lessons to enhance their chances of being successful when engaging in fisticuffs.

Decline Of The Enforcer

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

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

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.

These include players such as Dave ‘Tiger’ Williams, Chris Simon, Terry O’Reilly, Chris Nilan, Dave Schultz, Dale Hunter, John Ferguson and Bob Probert, who 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 due to the fact their primary role on the team was to produce offense.

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 finish in the top-10 in scoring while serving at least 200 minutes in penalties.

Most penalized NHL players

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

The 10 players listed 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

Several Enforcers On One Team

During the 1970’s and 80’s 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’.

Reduction In Fighting

The game has changed over the years though and 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 don’t employ a one-dimensional enforcer any more.

This isn’t to say there aren’t any players who can score and also 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.

Enforcers and Brain Damage

Fortunately, the hockey world has come to realize just how much head trauma can be caused by fighting and this 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 his death was also ruled a suicide.

However, it’s generally believed that some of 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 phenonem and explores the two opposing camps of those who are for fighting and those who argue against it.

The Code: Documentary on Fighting in Hockey

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

Simon, the founder of Brave Stick Hockey, started playing hockey in 2003. He launched this website in 2018 to help new hockey players and fans learn more about the game and have more fun while learning.