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The Battered Brain of the Enforcer

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The New York Times series about the late Derek Boogaard is an absolute first-rate piece of writing and journalism.   In particular, part one (about his finding his niche as a fighter growing up in a small town 90 minutes from Saskatoon) and part three, about the end of his career, overdose, and horrific brain damage (“The night of May 12 began with a painkiller, a 30-milligram Percocet that Aaron Boogaard later told the police he handed his brother at their two-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis. Derek, hours out of rehabilitation, was bent on a party”) will be of interest even to those who don’t care about hockey.   Deeply absorbing and sobering stuff.

One interesting detail is that Boogaard was even in junior hockey a one-dimensional goon, scoring four goals in a four-year WHL career.   Contrast this with all-time PIM leader Tiger Williams, a 50 goal scorer in the major juniors who twice scored 30 in the NHL.   Or single-season PIM leader Dave Schultz, not as good as Williams but a 30-goal scorer in junior who was good enough to take a regular shift on a two-time championship team in the NHL.    The Boogaard-style player who does nothing but fight seems a bizarre allocation of resources, and yet before what turned out to be his last year two teams were willing to offer Boogaard (who last scored a goal in his rookie year in 2005-6) a multi-year contract at more than $1 million per.    With the Red Wings the most obvious example you don’t need a designated fighter to win, and one wonders how the species survives.

This is particularly true since in the modern game most of the fights that these players have are just staged fights with other goons.  To steal Brad Plumer’s idea, at a minimum I would support rules that mandate escalating suspensions once a player has been involved in more than a few fights in a season.

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  • Fighting Words

    Talk to me because I’m stupid – Hockey edition:

    1. I really don’t understand how fighting works in hockey. I was watching clips of these fights, and what appears to happen is that the players (enforcers) square up to fight, and the referees circle around them. The players then fight and the referees seem to watche and let them fight and then stop the fight only when a player gets knocked out on the ice. Is this correct, or is this just happening in the accompanying video and is an anomaly in hockey? Why don’t the referees stop the fights before they get out of hand/someone really gets hurt? I apologize because I’m not that sophisticated about hockey, but this just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

    2. So what exactly is the role of the enforcer? I get that he is protecting his team’s star player, but I watched the interactive video that accompanied the NY Times piece, and it seems like all Derek Boogaard did was fight the other team’s enforcer. Did he have other roles on the team? Did Boogaard try to hit/intimidate the opponent’s stars? For example, does anybody try and start a fight with someone like Sydney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin?

    Again, I apologize for my hockey ignorance.

    • Hanspeter

      1) Yes, the refs usually step in once there is a takedown or if the players end up bearhugging and not actually throwing punches (ie are spent). They do step in from time to time if it’s clear one player is hurt badly (but not necessarily down).

      2) In theory, if a star hit a player in a way that could be considered unsportsmanlike, the enforcer would either bodycheck the star hard at the next opportunity or challenge him to a fight (usu if it was a real dirty hit). The reciprocating hit would be easy, but would almost result in the star’s team enforcer to come out fighting. Or if the enforcer would challenge the star to a fight, the corresponding enforcer would come out immediately (very rarely does a star player fight, but they do from time to time).

      The first way (tit for tat hit) at least tells the original hitter: don’t hit my teammates or I’m going to come out and hit you really hard and you’ll be black and blue for a couple days. The second way (direct enforcer vs enforcer) does absolutely nothing to stop the original cause.

    • People intimidate Crosby and Ovechkin all the time. Gretzky used to keep someone on his wing (Taylor, when he was with the Kings…can’t remember off the top of my head who was on the Oilers line with him) who while not an enforcer, was beefy and could throw a punch. Ovechkin is just about the beefiest player on his team and can throw mean checks himself, so like a Gordie Howe, they can afford to let him have pure scorers on his line.

      Really! The guy throws himself into the boards hard when he scores! He doesn’t need an enforcer! He’s insane!

      Crosby’s a pretty tough kid in his own right but sometimes his temper gets ahead of him. He does have Kunitz and DuPuis on his line, tho, both are pretty good muckers.

      • Craigo

        Marty McSorley. Gretzky actually insisted that he be traded to the Kings also as part of his deal.

        • Oh yea! And I guess he counts as a goon, too, after the stick swing.

        • Scott Lemieux

          Before that, Dave Semenko. Thing is, as I was just discussing via email with Plumer the whole “people wouldn’t hit Gretzky because they were scared of Semenko/McLelland/McSorley” is bullshit. The Flames had plenty of players who weren’t scared of Semenko, but couldn’t hit Gretzky because nobody could; he was too agile.

          • Craigo

            I’d agree with that – I was too young to watch Gretzky for most of his career, but the Internet is a gold mine, and what’s most striking about him (other than a supernatural ability to be where the puck is going to be) is how well he rolls his body away from men hitting him at full-speed.

            That said, post-whistle scrums are notorious chances to take a whack at star players.

    • Fighting Words

      @Hanspeter, Actor212, and danno,

      Thanks for the response.

  • oldmunni

    Isn’t the fighting as part of hockey thing a North American peculiarity anyway? I had always been under the impression that the rest of the world treated hockey as a sport rather than an excuse to watch bare knuckle fighting on ice.

    • bph

      No.

      Finland

      And the infamous bunch of goons in the KHL

      • In fairness, most of the exposure we get in North America to Euro hockey is thru the IIHF competitions, which do take a stronger view of fighting (and penalties, for that matter)

        Club hockey in Europe is pretty much pro wrestling with pointy sticks and sharp blades. Still, not as dirty as football…

  • chris

    Do teams care about winning, or do they care about selling tickets? Do you sell tickets by winning, or by presenting a blood sport that fans can pretend is a legitimate sport?

    The Red Wings in their heyday won a lot of games. A *lot* of games. A record-setting number, even, IIRC. And yet nobody else emulated their playstyle or strategy. Why is that?

    • witless chum

      Um, the Wings heyday included the back to back cups in 1996-97 and 1997-98, which included their blood feud with Colorado that included a huge brawl. The also employed an actual goon in the mid-90s, Stu Grimmson (best goon name ever) and a semi-goon during the Cup years, Joey Kocur. Kocur was actually good enough to play on the fourth line in the playoffs, though. Grimmson was always inactive.

      • Pith Helmet

        the Patrick Roy/Chris Osgood fight, for instance.

      • Richard

        Grimson’s nickname was the Grim Reaper

        • KC45s

          And he was a born again Christian.

    • Craigo

      Well, if you mean the early years of the 90s-00s Red Wings dynasty, it was because they had enormous talents Yzerman, Chelios, and Lidstrom, and for a time, Hasek. If you’re talking about the later years, it was because they had enormous talents Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Lidstrom (still).

      It’s kinda like asking why more NBA teams didn’t emulate the Bulls and play Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman.

    • Vlad

      The Red Wings are an interesting example, actually, because for many years I think people in the NHL saw them as a cautionary tale for why a more “European” style of play (i.e., attempting to generate offensive pressure through free-flowing skating and passing, rather than through dump-ins and corner scrums) couldn’t work in the NHL. The Yzerman/Federov Red Wings had several years of playoff flops before they finally broke through in 1997: in 1993 they were upset in the first round by Toronto (Toronto! We miss you in Detroit, Campbell Conference); in 1994 they were the number 1 seed, and lost in the first round to San Jose; in 1995, they made it to the Stanley Cup finals, but got swept by the apparently much tougher New Jersey Devils; and in 1996, they set the regular season record for points, but lost in the Western Conference finals to the Avalanche, a team that also seemed significantly tougher.

      In retrospect, I don’t think the Red Wings’ pre-97 struggles were as much about physical toughness (although God knows the hockey press loved to talk about it that way, especially in Canada)as they were about (1) the Red Wings’ lack of elite goaltending and (2) the effectiveness of the defense-first systems that came into vogue in the mid 1990s. The Red Wings didn’t start winning cups until they adopted a defense-first system of their own and got better goaltending.

      There was also the fact that no other team was really in a position in the 1990s to replicate what the Red Wings were doing, because the Red Wings were building ludicrously talented teams largely through the addition of European players, and the Red Wings’s European scouting and player development systems were a sold decade ahead of the rest of the NHL in the 90s. This allowed them to repeatedly add All-Star caliber players with ridiculously low draft picks; Niklas Lidstrom, Sergei Federov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Sasha Kozlov, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk were all taken in late draft rounds. For a while, it was like the Red Wings were the only NFL team that bothered to scout and draft players from the Pac-10.

    • bph

      No one emulates their style?

      Please explain why Buffalo $10,000,000 for Christian Erhoff, a puck moving defenseman, if no one wanted to emulate the Wings.

      Heck, Zetterberg said games between the Wings and San Jose were like team scrimmages. (And San Jose’s coach is the Wings former assistant.)

  • danno

    Fighting Words: sadly, you have it exactly correct. The two players square off and the refs just stand there until it’s over. It’s beyond stupid.

    To answer your other question, a Boogaard would never start a fight with a Crosby. That’s simply “not how it’s done.” Let’s say the Ranger’s Marion Gaborik puts a late hit on Sidney Crosby. Gaborik and Crosby might mix words, but the odds are they aren’t going to square off. However, the next shift the Penguins would send out Eric Godard to start a fight with Boogaard. The NYT article puts it best: imagine a defensive linemen illegally hits a running back. The coaches then send out two players from the sidelines, who haven’t been in the game all afternoon, to fight at the 50-yard line.

    Here’s what I don’t understand: the NHL has, rightly, taken the position that if you hit a player in the head during play, you’re going to face a multi-game suspension. (See Jordin Tootoo’s recent hit against Ryan Miller–although Tootoo should have gotten a longer suspension, but I digress.) But if you pummel someone in the head with your bare fists? No problem. Given the long-term brain damage these players are facing, why does the NHL continue to allow this to happen? It’s appropriate to be concerned about Crosby’s long-term health, but who gives a crap about Wade Belak? Come on, NHL.

    • mark f

      I like when a game gets really out of hand and the two goalies skate out to brawl with each other. During the game they stand almost literally as far apart as possible and never interact. Why do they fight each other? Because that’s hockey, baby! It would be like two American League pitchers coming out to fight each other, except perhaps even stupider because at the least the pitchers sometimes hurt players on the other team.

      But seriously, take fighting out of the NHL and hockey will be just another bitches’ game like pro football.

      • The goalies square off mostly to protect each other. The choices are: stand in the middle of the melee and chat with the refs (and guarantee a charge later from the other team) or do a pas de deux with your counterpart. This keeps other players away (third man in rule) and basically, they chat about dinner later.

        Once in a while you’ll see a goalie take a run at another, but it’s usually after a spear or a buttend was missed by the ref. Again, it’s self-protection, because when a goalie is vulnerable, he doesn’t want to be thinking about the revenge the other team might be plotting.

      • Craigo

        Mark DiPietro, an Islanders goaltender, was actually injured this season in a goalie fight.

        Of course, DiPietro probably injures himself getting in his car to go to practice, so…

        • DiPietro once got carpal tunnel syndrome unlocking the door.

          (not really, but…)

    • witless chum

      Punching someone with a bare fist is a lot safer than hitting them with a shoulder pad (or a boxing glove). You just can’t generate the same kind of forces with a bare hand.

      • LKS

        Also, try getting any force behind it when you’re standing on ice.

        • Mike

          Like, say, enough force to destroy someone’s cheekbone to the point where it has to get rebuilt with plates and steel mesh?

    • I don’t blame the refs for standing there. They have to be on the ice the full 60+ minutes. It’s hard enough work prying the two jerks apart when they’ve started wrestling. Imagine getting in front of a freight train.

    • Bobs

      That’s essentially true. Most fighters are classy enough to not cross ‘weight’ classes.
      However, one of the favorite moments of the 2010 season for Red Wings fans was when Cory Perry (not an enforcer, but an edgy player- actually he’s kind of a cheap shot artist prone to whining- with fighting experience) instigated a fight with Pavel Datsyuk, a perennial Lady Byng contender. Datsyuk embarrassed Perry by not only holding his own but by taking Perry hard to the ice.

  • This is particularly true since in the modern game most of the fights that these players have are just staged fights with other goons.

    I think you should huddle up with Farley on the subject of deterrence.

  • witless chum

    I like the theory of hockey culture’s approach to dirty hits, which is that if you do something dirty, you’ll get dealt with. The practice is something different.

    I guess I like a hockey fight that seems motivated, but the goon square offs tend to be going through the motions type things.

    • LKS

      Rarely. Most of the time, they’re deliberate attempts to get the other team’s enforcer in the penalty box. He can’t harass your scorers if he’s in the sin bin.

      It’s often just that simple.

  • Craigo

    Maybe it’s because I watch more Penguins games than the rest of the league combined, but it’s not really true that enforcers are responsible for the vast majority of fights. For Pittsburgh, forward Arron Asham and defenseman Deryk Engelland, two hockey players who are actual useful at hockey, fight the most, while designated enforcer Steve McIntyre is benched most nights. The same was true during the past few seasons when they had Eric Godard, or before that with Georges Laraque.

    So-called “heavyweight bouts” or fights between enforcers are actually pretty rare, simply because teams prefer to have real hockey players on the ice most nights.

    (I should note that Laraque, for one, was a decent fourth liner who’s scored an NHL hat trick at least once.)

    • Fights between enforcers usually arise after the ref blows a call in a game, and often happen in the next meeting between the two teams.

      The guy I see get into the most fights is Sean Avery, because he’s such a pain in the ass to most teams (not excepting his fellow teammates.) Useful? Sometimes he’ll win you a game, but he has these long streaks when you wish he’d just sit down and shut the hell up.

      • Henry

        Sean Avery is not really a goon. He is a “pest” and his role is getting opposing players upset and do stupid things.

        • Craigo

          I also dislike the use of “goon” for enforcers, most of whom are not dirty or thuggish players, just unskilled and useful only for fighting.

          Avery, who is dirty on the ice and classless off it, always seemed to fit that label better.

          • a) Avery cut an ad promoting gay marriage in New York. Hardly “classless” (you refer to the girlfriend incident, I’m sure)

            b) Goon is not inaccurate when you consider that “enforcer” can stretch from Dave Taylor of the Kings all the way up to Donald Brashear.

            Goon at least limits to the Brashear end of the gene pool.

        • Yea, that was kind of my point, agreeing with Craigo.

        • Richard

          He also takes stupid penalties himself. When he was with the Kings, he cost them several games with absolutely stupid behavior plus alienating his teammates for behavior like imitating one of the players (current team captain Dustin Brown) who had a slight lisp.

    • Craigo

      Just checked, McIntyre has not fought once this season. In 2010-2011, the Pens fought 71 times, and Godard took 7 of them, third on the team.

  • The sad truth of hockey is, so long as you have players who are creative, can score buckets of goals and skate like the wind, you’re going to need to protect them from cheap hits.

    Those cheap hits do not necessarily have to be intentional, either. I’ve played the game and let me tell you, there is nothing more frustrating than being deked out of your jock for the third time by the same player, and hearing the coach’s last lecture ringing in your ear. Sometimes you grab a jersey. Sometimes, you stick a stick in the wheels. One is unintentional, reflex, the other is premeditated. Often, it’s hard to tell the difference. That’s why the refs call penalties and have flexibility to call the intentional ones more harshly.

    The big note to take away from this is, if you have a good refereeing team that calls the game fairly and is closely observant, you don’t have fights. Period. Refs are human, tho. And when every point in a season can make the difference between that million dollar playoff bonus at the end of the year and scheduling an extra couple of weeks of tee times, you’re going to want to take care of your own business if the ref can’t.

    • Stag Party Palin

      +1. Although I played very little hockey, and mostly as a goalie, the frustration angle is my view too. Think of it like that commercial where a golfer gets body-checked when lining up a putt. You get *so* pissed off.

      For you younger guys, I remember Gordie Howe, who almost never got cheap-shotted in spite of being a supreme skill player, because he was built like a gorilla. He looked normal except he had no shoulders because of all the neck muscles. My dad tells me he saw Howe one-punch an offending player to the ice, something that’s almost impossible to do on skates. Basically, you didn’t mess with Gordie.

      • Gordie had his own “hat trick,” if you recall: a goal, an assist, and a fight.

        • Stag Party Palin

          Yes, it’s named after him, but he only did it twice (and Crosby’s done it once!). I checked, and Howe only has 22 fights on the record. That’s when you know you’re tough – nobody will fight with you.

          • I’m stunned to see that Brendan Shanahan has the all-time record of 17.

            I knew he was a scorer and a fighter, but an assist man? Maybe later in his career.

            • norm

              Good players having more assists than goals is the norm. Awarding up to two assists per goal and crediting a player who shoots with an assist if his teammate scores on the rebound inflates the number. In his 21 seasons, Shanahan only had more goals than assists during his five most prolific goal scoring campaigns.

              Of the roughly 75 players with more than 1000 points only 5 have more goals than assists and two of those are Hulls.

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  • Richard

    A number of years ago I went with my kids to a Kings game at the Forum. At the opening face off, McSorley and some other enforcer whose name I can’t remember faced off for a fight. After the usual flailing about, both were sent off and the arena announcer came on to state “dual fighting penalties at 19:58 of the first period”. The crowd, fairly uninterested in the fight, went absolutely nuts on hearing the announcement.

  • mark f

    The New York Times series about the late Derek Boogaard is an absolute first-rate piece of writing and journalism. In particular, part one (about his finding his niche as a fighter growing up in a small town 90 minutes from Saskatoon) and part three

    Just finished the whole thing. From part one:

    Len Boogaard, a quiet man smoldering with a cop’s intensity, sometimes saw that his son needed a boost. So he would pull into an icy parking lot and spin the police car in a dizzying series of doughnuts. Or he would park at the edge of a pasture and moo at the cows through the loudspeaker. Or, with the back seat filled with boys, he would shout for them to look up before hitting the brakes, smashing the smiling faces into the clear partition and sending the boys into shrieks of laughter.

    Derek Boogaard loved that part of hockey.

    From part three:

    Len Boogaard, knowing that his son had been enrolled in a substance-abuse program since September 2009, was surprised to see so many prescription bottles in the bathroom with the names of Rangers doctors. He was also surprised to hear from his son that he had been given four days’ notice for his next drug test.

    Len Boogaard played a DVD of family photos and home movies. He reminded his son of everything he went through to reach New York — the family moves, the bullying, the naysayers of youth hockey, the struggles through juniors and the minor leagues.

    Boogaard cried, and his father held him.

    [. . .]

    The Boogaards learned of the surprising severity of [Derek’s] brain damage. And they heard about the prospects of middle-age dementia.

    It was then that Len Boogaard stopped listening. Something occurred to him that he did not expect.

    For months, he could not bear the thought of his son’s death. Suddenly, he was forced to imagine the life his son might have been left to live.

    Man, I used to be the unsentimentalest person you ever met. Maybe it’s because I have a baby, maybe it’s because my brother ODed two years ago at age 26, or maybe it’s because my mother is hospitalized with middle-aged dementia; but stories like this accompanied by pictures like this just devastate me. Thanks for pointing this series out. I probably would’ve missed it otherwise.

    • Hey mark, my condolences on your story (well, except the baby) but particularly on your mom. My mom developed late-onset dementia and the psychological toll was astounding on me, as one of the only kids who didn’t move out of the area.

      I hope it’s something they can shape a long-term plan for.

      • mark f

        Thanks. In my family’s case it’s a hereditary condition that I think I have a 50% chance of developing. If I do, and at my mom’s (and aunt’s and grandmother’s) age, I’m alreay half done. I figure I’ll take the Terry Pratchett route if it comes to that. Mostly I worry that in selfishly wanting a family I’ve passed it on to my daughter. Maybe they’ll solve in the next 55 years or so.

  • SEK

    Some days I really, really miss teaching long-form journalism. I mean:

    Paradoxically, he was picked on largely because he was so big. At age 11, after another family move, he was quickly challenged to a schoolyard fight by a boy named Evan Folden, who considered himself king of the school jocks.

    Boogaard won his first fight. He bloodied Folden’s nose.

    That detail’s something that, with the subject dead, must’ve been exhausting to unearth. The name of the person he fought when he was eleven? People might remember the fight itself, having been right after the family moved, but the name? That took some digging.

    • Scott Lemieux

      It’s just a model piece of journalism.

    • BW

      If you look at the accompanying video they interview Folden, and they also mention that Boogaard left behind several pages of notes detailing his experiences growing up, so I suspect that made Folden easier to turn up. (Not meaning to take anything away from the great job the writer did, though.)

  • The real reason for keeping fighting in hockey has nothing to do with the flow of the game and everything to do with putting butts in seats. The NHL is scared spitless that if they take measures to take away the likelihood of violence within the game, they’ll lose casual fans in soft markets to professional wrestling and ultimate fighting.

    Take away fighting and you’ll have a better, faster game. But it won’t get the eyeballs of people who, in the words of Rodney Dangerfield, go to the fights and are surprised to see a hockey game break out.

    As well, there’s a racial/cultural component to this. The ‘enforcer’/goon is inevitably a Canadian or someone from Minnesota or the northeastern states, and a kid with little else going for him in his life. IIRC the NYT article on Boogard said he didn’t even have his Grade 10. Ban fighting and enforcers will be replaced with players who can actually skate and playmake.

    There’s going to be a big difference between the Joe Palookas that are currently the fourth line players on most teams and who those teams will want if/when fighting is banned. They’ll be expected to bodycheck and all that, but those players will be expected to skate and possess greater skills than fourth-line players currently have.

    The problem is, though, is that most of those players of that type on hockey’s margins are in Europe, and a lot of those fighters are Canadians. That’s why you’re no more likely to see the NHL and its commercial sponsors eliminate fighting from hockey than see Viktor Tikhonov replace Don Cherry on CBC’s Coach’s Corner.

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