After a year since its release in 2016, the hockey documentary ‘Ice Guardians’ is available on Netflix (regions may vary). Fighting veterans Brian McGrattan and Kevin Westgarth, who both endured one season spells in the Elite League, feature in the film which explores the controversial role of enforcers within the sport.
Described in the film as a dying breed, enforcers are quick to be scapegoated when it comes to injuries sustained within the sport. The documentary revealed that fighting in the NHL was only responsible for 5% of injuries that players suffered from with body checks being a more serious issue. Without enforcers, the film suggests that players are more susceptible to cheap physicality from opponents which can go unanswered if officials don’t spot it. They are also given the credit of helping some of the sport’s greatest players achieve their true potential. So why is the role being sacrificed?
A new type of enforcer
Teams clearly feel that an enforcer burdens a line by lacking skill and speed; they can also jeopardise a performance by spending valuable minutes in the penalty box.
Because of this, the role has evolved into a new breed of player who is required to protect his teammates while simultaneously performing at a high standard. This could be a D man whose ability, as well as his intimidation and presence on the ice, can allow forwards to thrive.
A great example of this can be found in Zack Fitzgerald of the Sheffield Steelers, who was the EIHL’s most penalised player last year with 197 penalty minutes. Standing at 6’2’’ and weighing 205 pounds, the bullish D man, who’s spent most of his career in the AHL, was signed by Sheffield from Braehead in 2015 for his leadership and defensive qualities. He stamped his authority on the team by helping them win a consecutive Elite League title in his first season despite only contributing 11 points. His aggressive style combined by his willingness to drop the gloves make him a formidable opponent to play against.
If a D man is sat in the penalty box then his team is forced to defend without him until he returns. When it comes to a forward however there’s somebody else on the ice potentially scoring points instead of them, especially in the case of coincidental penalties. Fighting therefor has become more of a tactical tool used by teams to interrupt an opponent’s momentum; an attempt to dictate the pace of play. What this essentially means is a forward needs to have more aspects to his game as opposed to just enforcing; introducing power forwards.
Power forwards add a new dimension to the game in the form of a player who’s built strong physically whilst being extremely skilled on the puck. Combine these attributes with someone who also has an eye for goal and you have an extreme challenge for opponents to deal with. A few examples of these players within the elite league are Joey Haddad, Chris Lawrence and Matt Marquardt to name a few.
Will enforcers eventually fade out?
Over the past few years the league has lost many enforcers; this year seeing one of the greats in Adam Keefe step up to the head coach role of the Belfast Giants. Keefe fought for over 20 years in his career, racking up 1035 penalty minutes in the Elite League alone.
The days of matchups including Brad Voth and Derek Campbell certainly seem to be over and its becoming harder to find an identifiable enforcer in each team. Out of the top 10 players who committed the most penalty minutes last year, only 5 remain; 3 have retired and the other 2 transferred elsewhere.
On top of this, Zack Fitzgerald’s 197 penalty minutes last season were the lowest amount by a scoring leader since 2004/05 and his contract with the Steelers expires after the ongoing season. The decision on whether to renew his contract could well forecast the future of the iconic role within the sport.
You can watch the documentary on Netflix here (subscription required).