You know him.
He’s that (usually) large guy who probably should have been handed a football in his childhood but someone was crazy enough to strap skates on his feet and hand him a stick. “Silky Mitts” is not a phrase used often when referring to him. In fact, most times he doesn’t play enough minutes to use his gloves at all and if he is on the ice, he’s usually taking his gloves off so he can better connect with an opponent’s jaw. This, ladies and gents, is not the brains, the looks, or really the wildcard of your rag-tag crew. This guy is the brawn and that’s why they pay him, but make no mistake, his job is one of the most important.
With the passing of three NHL rabble-rousers in the past year, whose worth was greater than any of them realized, the duty of the enforcer was brought into question. On a physiological level, testing had proven that the roles these three, Derek Boogard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak, played on their teams were damaging. [See this article for further clarification]. Many asked themselves if fighting was all that necessary in a game where elbowing someone to the head results in a massive pay cut. If injuries are such a large concern for the National Hockey League, why should we condone a square dance slaughtering in the middle of the ice?
In addition, the NHL is a business. Every facet of the game from picking a Winter Classic venue (more on that later), to the hot dog you buy during 2nd intermission is a numbers game. The “worth” of a player is also decided by number crunching. With updated technologies, we know how many goals, assists, cross-checking minors, nose pickings and dropped sticks EVERY player has had while donning an NHL uniform. On paper these “enforcers” usually (and there are exceptions) have few goals, assists, power play minutes, and shots on goal which are all statistics that deem a player “good” or “an asset to his organization.” However…
This guy is essential to his team. If you don’t believe me, ask his teammates. Here are just a few qualities this guy brings to the table:
- He’s not some wild fist throwing machine. Even though it looks like his victim just sneezed in the wrong direction to set him off, many of his flailing fits are premeditated. Case in point: Jody Shelley on December 17, 2011 against Zdeno Chara. Chara, the captain of the Starley Cup Champian Bruins (just ask Brad Marchand’s tattoo) stands at a striking 6’9″ and to that point had five fights in the previous three years. Shelley had 26 in the same amount of time. The Flyers had been struggling against the powerhouse defenseman Chara who was consistently on the ice with the Flyers top line. Shelley was able to get Chara to drop the gloves and engage in a fight with the comparatively miniscule 6’3″ Shelley. In return, the Flyers were ensured five Chara-free minutes.
- The timing of their fights is not always coincidental. As of today Jared Boll and Derek Dorsett of the Columbus Blue Jackets are tied for 3rd place on the list of this season’s fighting major totals with 11 each. As the team with the worst record in the league, one could argue these two fight out of frustration, however, 6 of the 22 fights were in winning games. 8 of Dorsett’s 11 and 5 of Boll’s 11 occur in the 1st period. These are signs that they do not simply fight to express their emotion but to raise the intensity of the game. The fights could be sending a message to their teammates that it’s time to kick it into gear and on 8 occasions, they helped to encourage their teammates.
- They deter other players from misbehaving. Last Tuesday, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette left fans scratching their heads when he healthy scratched Zac Rinaldo for the sake of bringing in Jody Shelley against the Minnesota Wild. Facing the former Western Conference leaders, many felt the Flyers needed scorers in the lineup, not enforcers. It was not strictly the Flyers lines that Lavy was focused on. In the Wild locker room suiting up that night was Cal “Elbows” Clutterbuck. The mustachioed right-winger had a record breaking 336 hits in the 2010-2011 season and to this point has not dissapointed in that department. In addition to Clutterbuck, the presence of Brad Staubitz, Clay Stoner, and Kyle Brodziak make them quite a physical team. The four have recorded a combined 216 penalty minutes to this point in the season. In that game there were 14 total minutes of penalties, eight by Clutterbuck, four by teammates and a meager two minutes for the Flyers. So why put Shelley in a lineup when he wasn’t fighting? His presence helped to keep the opposition at bay. True, Clutterbuck continued to play in his normal style of aggressive hockey, but the fact that Staubitz, Stoner, and Brodziak did not remotely make a blip on the radar that night speaks in favor of Shelley.
- They have an irreplaceable sense of loyalty. How many people can say they have a friend who risks their health, safety, and career for them on a daily basis? The top point scorers on any team have that sense of security from their enforcer. Every Sid Crosby has an Arron Asham. Getzlaf has his Parros. Stamkos has his Downie. To get an idea of the impact they have on teammates, here is a video of the impact Derek Boogaard had on his Rangers teammates after one year:
Team unity is essential to success on and off the ice. Without the character player who lightens the locker room mood and reminds his teammates to have fun, hockey becomes a job and the job becomes fruitless.
Just remember the next time you criticize the role of a player on your team. Before you even utter, “WHY would we keep this guy?” keep in mind he has a job, he’s there to do it, and if he’s doing all of the above, he’s just as important to your team’s success.