What Is a Hockey Enforcer? Their Role and How Many Are Left

Two professional hockey players fighting.

Even those who aren’t familiar with the game of hockey have likely heard the term “enforcer” used in reference to the sport. The title of enforcer gives off a feeling of fear and intimidation when it’s used in hockey. This has many people wondering…

What exactly is a hockey enforcer?

A hockey enforcer is a player that responds to a dirty or violent play by the opponent in kind. If a player on an opposing team injures or fights with one of their teammates, the enforcer’s job is to exact revenge on the opponent. Enforcers are also referred to as goons or tough guys.

Enforcers in the game of hockey were popular and utilized throughout the 80’s and 90’s, but is there still a place for them in today’s game? Historically, enforcers were the most feared players in hockey. In this article, we’re going to look at some of the top enforcers of all time and whether or not they still exist today.

The Role of Hockey Enforcers

The role of a hockey enforcer is, essentially, to exact fear or revenge on their opponents through fighting or checking. They were most commonly used to retaliate against a player who hurt or fought with their teammate(s). The enforcer’s job wasn’t a glamorous one and it usually fell to less skilled players, but more fearsome players.

The main goal of having an enforcer on the team is to protect smaller or star players who coaches don’t want to get injured or into trouble. Star players like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are too valuable to throw into harm’s way, just to be a physical presence on the ice. It’s much better to have bigger, less skilled players to do the heavy lifting.

Typical Playing Time for a Hockey Enforcer

Because the role of an enforcer is often to intimidate or fight with their opponents, they don’t receive as much playing time as other hockey players. Enforcers are used on a limited basis because they usually don’t add much scoring or defensive value to a team, outside of their fighting skills.

As a result, NHL enforcers are also some of the lowest-paid players in the league. Enforcers are valuable members of the team, but they aren’t essential when it comes to playing or winning at hockey.

Why Is Fighting Allowed in Hockey?

Fighting is allowed in hockey because of the type of game that it is. Hockey is a fast-paced, high-intensity sport where emotions tend to run high. As such, fighting has always been part of the game, whether it was allowed or not.

In 1922, the National Hockey League officially made a rule change making fighting a legal and important part of the game. Ever since, fighting has seen its ups and downs in hockey, but it’s still a legal part of the sport.

While fighting isn’t looked as highly upon as it once was, it’s still a viable part of the sport. In the 2016-2017 season, there were 1,230 games played, In those games, there were a total of 372 fights averaging out to 0.3 fights per game. That means that you had around a 25% chance of seeing a fight if you went to a hockey game.

Out of the four major sports in the U.S., baseball, basketball, football, and hockey, hockey is the only sport that allows fighting as part of the rules.

While fighting is allowed in hockey, it doesn’t come without a major or minor penalty that gets assessed by the official or referee. It’s largely up to the discretion of the official as far as what type of penalty gets assessed to each of the fighters.

Pros of Fighting

A hockey player looking toward the puck.

Fighting is frowned upon more now than ever in the NHL, but it’s still around. Here are some of the most common arguments cited in favor of fighting:

It Keeps Players Honest.

Historically, one of the main reasons that players initiated fights was to exact revenge or to even the score, just not on the scoreboard. Players are less likely to perform a dirty or violent play on players if they know that an enforcer is waiting to even the score.

As part of their strategy, enforcers don’t always go after the player that inflicted the hit or injury. They sometimes go after a skilled member of the opposing team rather than the team’s enforcer.

Enforcers aren’t afraid of getting hurt, but they live to win the game which means they’re less likely to start a fight if they know that a valued member of their team might pay the price.

It Adds a Certain Flair of Entertainment

There are few things more exciting in hockey than when two players engage in hand-to-hand combat on the ice. Fighting is one the most entertaining parts of hockey and there are even fans who attend games solely in hopes of seeing a fight. Rodney Dangerfield put it best by saying, “I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out.”

Tradition Dies Hard in Hockey

The NHL started in 1917 and fighting was made legal in 1922. That means that it’s been nearly a century since fighting has been a legal part of the game. Simply throwing it out of the league altogether would be next to impossible without stirring up a hornet’s nest of angry fans.

Cons of Fighting

While there are many fans and players in favor of keeping fighting in ice hockey, there are also those who would be fine to see it eradicated. Here are some of the most common arguments in favor of throwing fighting out of the game:

Increases the Risk of Injury

Fighting in hockey usually sees both players throw their gloves to the ice and get into a fist fight. In recent years in both the NHL and NFL, concussion and player safety has taken a leading role in rule changes and adjustments to their respective sports. Because hockey fights are basically a boxing match without gloves, there’s a big risk of concussion to one or both players.

Sets a Bad Example for Youngsters

Having adults involved in a fistfight or altercation is one thing, but ice hockey is a game played at all age levels. The last thing that fans and parents want to see is teens and preteens involved in hockey fights. As a result, fighting is getting cracked down on because of the bad example it sets for youth hockey leagues.

It Simply Isn’t as Important as it Used to Be

Many people are also questioning the need for fighting in modern hockey. The game is more about speed, scoring, and offense in general than it’s ever been before. As a result, there’s less focus on enforcement and fighting than there used to be.

Why Aren’t There As Many Enforcers in the NHL Nowadays?

There are a number of reasons that there aren’t as many enforcers in the NHL as there were in years past:

Salary Cap Restrictions

Before the start of the 2005-2006 season, the NHL decided to introduce a salary cap, limiting the amount of money that teams could spend on players.

As a result, most NHL teams were forced to cut down on the number of players on their rosters and many enforcers were suddenly out of a job. Only enforcers that served the dual role of enforcer/scorer or defender remained on most teams.

Style of the Game

Prior to the 2004-2005 season, the NHL had a lockout. Following this lockout, there was an added focus on increasing the speed and scoring of the game. As a result, the role of the enforcer was greatly diminished. Teams no longer put as much of an emphasis on fighting and intimidation and focused more on tempo and offense.

Brain Damage

Possibly the saddest but most important reason for the diminished number of enforcers in the league is because the NHL is striving to reduce if not eliminate fighting in general. Since the start of the 2000s, studies have emerged that link suicide to brain damage.

There have been a number of prominent, retired enforcers who have taken their lives via suicide, and part of the reason has been linked to brain damage resulting from hockey fights.

Studies and documentaries have been conducted and released that link Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)  to suicides. One of the leading causes of CTE is blows to the head, such as punches during an ice hockey fight. Much like the NFL, the NHL has attempted to limit fighting ever since.

Top 5 Famous Hockey Enforcers

5. Dave Schultz

Schultz was better known as ‘The Hammer’ during his time in the NHL in the 1970s and 80s. In the history of the NHL, the 400 minutes worth of penalty minutes in a season has only been eclipsed a total of four times. Incredibly, Schultz has done it two out of those four times. He also owns the record for most penalty minutes per game at a shade over four minutes per game.

4. Marty McSorley

McSorley had the unique job and opportunity of playing with and protecting the greatest player in NHL history, Wayne Gretzky. During his tenure in the NHL, McSorley accumulated the fourth-most penalty minutes ever. He’s also the only enforcer in league history who faced criminal charges for acts committed on the ice.

 3. Terry O’Reilly

With a nickname like ‘Bloody Terry,’ you know that this guy meant business. Part of what made Terry such a great enforcer with the Boston Bruins was how much he contributed on offense. He’s one of the only enforcers ever to lead his team in points and penalty minutes in the same season.

O’Reilly managed to rack up an impressive 2,000 plus penalty minutes in his NHL career with the Boston Bruins, and even had five consecutive seasons with at least 200 penalty minutes.

 2. Bob Probert

Throughout his impressive career of 935 games, Probert engaged in a fistfight 285 times, averaging over one fight every four games. He is best known for his impressive size and fighting skills. Standing at 6’3”, 230 pounds, Probert was perhaps the best fighter in the 90s and frequently took on and bested fellow enforcers.

1. Dave ‘Tiger’ Williams 

Williams is number one all time in penalty minutes, second in penalty minutes per game, eclipsed 300 penalty minutes in a season six times throughout his career, and earns the number one spot on our list of enforcers. More than just an enforcer, however, Williams scored 241 goals in his playing career, and tallied 513 points.

Most Penalized NHL Players in History

Here’s a list of the top 10 most penalized players in NHL history. Interestingly enough, each of the players on this list were also enforcers on their respective teams.

  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

Hockey Enforcers as Portrayed by Pop Culture

Not only are ice hockey enforcers a cherished part of NHL history, they’ve also been the darlings of pop culture. Here are some of the more memorable and famous movies featuring hockey enforcers:

  • Goon
  • Goon: Last of the Enforcers
  • Mighty Ducks 2-3
  • Slap Shot
  • Ice Guardians

Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

Recent Posts