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Fighting in Hockey: How I learned to stop worrying and love the enforcer

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How fighting specialists can and can't protect your players...

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Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy... the FEAR to attack. - Dr. Strangelove

Last Friday James Mirtle wrote an excellent piece on the demise of the enforcer. As with all great articles on controversial topics, the discussion inspired widespread debate; debate that I enjoyed watching transpire.

A common misconception on the topic of fighting in hockey is believing the argument simply boils down to pro-fighting versus anti-fighting groups. The validation of fighting's effectiveness is multifaceted and not everyone sits all on one side of the fence. You can be pro-fighting in regards to one aspect, while anti-fighting in regards to others.

Over the next few articles, we will look at these different topics with fighting individual, and the reasoning behind both sides.

Fighting as Enforcement

The concept of fighting for enforcement relies on fear. It is vigilante justice used as a negative incentive. The opposition must fear the repercussions. This fear can work as a deterrent, as long as the fear is large enough to counteract any other incentives.

There are some issues however with the reasoning behind this strategy.

In order for deterrence to be effective, the threat has to be looming, nuclear, imminent, and as immediately deployable as possible. Players with 10 or more major penalties last season played between four to thirteen minutes a game, with a median of 8.6 minutes. How effective is this deterrence if enforcers are rarely on the ice to deter?

I made a joke about this when Blake Wheeler fought after Mark Scheifele was nearly hit by a dirty knee-on-knee attempt, although the point was missed by some:

Fighters also rarely joust against non-fighters. The counter-attack may not be directed at the original offender. Even if the culprit cares about his low ice time teammate, how effective is this deterrence if the repercussions may not directly effect the one the enforcer is trying to deter?

Don't misunderstand the point; any threat is still a threat and all incentives will affect decision making. However, the deterrence is still inefficient. Is there an alternative?

There is: the Department of Player Safety. Penalties. Fines and suspensions are other forms of disincentives.

How many of you believe the punishments given out by the Department of Player Safety have been powerful and consistent enough to be an effective negative incentive? Probably none of you, and therein, the problem lies.

Currently the NHL has two systems of disincentives. Neither is a large enough threat. Neither is very efficient. Both methods also harm the efficiency of the other. As an extremely excessive hyperbole, the ultimate vigilante disincentive would be if enforcers could literately kill the opponent. Of course, the Department of Player Safety limits the extent of counter-measures these enforcers can enact on the opposition (and for good reason). In addition, the very existence of enforcers -players who sole purpose is to threaten the opposition with illegal means- counteracts the Department of Player Safety's.

There will always be dirty plays. The game we love is physical, emotional, and fast paced. Players will react sometimes without thinking and make mistakes. Disincentives will only do so much. Returns diminish as the severity of a punishment increases. Look no further than the death penalty where even threat of the ultimate punishment only deters so much. (yes, it is not equitable, but the point stands)

League enforcement will never be the perfect solution; however, it can make the need for vigilante enforcement redundant and unnecessary. But, in order for this to work, the league will need to increase severity in punishment and consistency; star player for a struggling team or not.

Summary

This is not an argument to remove fighting from hockey, but rather to display how fighting-specialists for enforcement is inefficient and not necessary. Unfortunately, the alternative method is not optimal as it currently stands. This will need to change for the betterment of hockey and the NHL.

The role of fighting and enforcement is a rather complex and controversial debate. Whether you like or not, the game is changing; everyone agrees with this. The real questions are: by how much, where will it end, and will it be for the better of the game?