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.
Why physical enforcement isn't effective
As we discussed last, the whole point to physical enforcement is fear.
To properly discuss physical enforcement, it needs to be defined. Teams try to prevent foul play by creating a repercussion. The fear of being physically harmed by the enforcer means to keep a potential assailant at check. This is strictly the fear of vigilante counter attack measures. This is not the same as asking for abolishment of fighting in general.
There are some huge logical issues with physical enforcement.
Pugilists are rarely on the ice. Last season players with at least 10 major penalties tended to play about 8-9 of the available sixty minutes. That means for about 85% of the game, there is not an enforcer on the ice able to make a player account for their actions. Teams also shelter enforcers exceedingly, causing most enforcers to play mostly against other teams enforcers.
Low minute fighting specialists also rarely fight outside of their own demographic. Some of this is because enforcers will fight each other for an attempted "energy swing". The opposing enforcer usually accepts the challenge as part of the code, perpetuating their niche's existence by simply existing (we'll get more into this in a different article). The other part is due to the other team's enforcer stepping in to defend the original assailant. Remember, most enforcers are extremely sheltered and spend most of their ice time while the other enforcer is on the ice.
Try to work this out logically. The enforcer serves as a potential consequence to dirty play. However, the enforcer rarely is on the ice to police the game. The enforcer also rarely directly impacts the player who attempted the dirty play, even when they are on the ice together.
The movie Dr. Strangelove (source of the title above and the quote) centres around the Cold War, specifically the issue of deterrence. The film satirizes the nuclear arms race used to deter potential attack. As Dr. Strangelove says above, deterrence is about fear; enough fear that the fear of counter attack is sufficient to prevent attack.
There is a issue with any form of counter-attack being used as a deterrence. Once the initial assailing occurs, the counter-attack serves as no purpose but as revenge. The assailant judged the deterrence as insufficient and therefore there is no deterrence.
Because of the reasons we discussed above, the fear is rarely enough. The dirty penalties happen regardless of whether you cary goons or not.
In fact, the number of fighting majors seems to have almost no relationship with the number of dirty penalties that are enacted upon a team. The Los Angeles Kings exemplifies team toughness, but was one of the most assaulted teams for "non-obstruction penalties". Toronto Maple Leafs often dressed two heavy weights and also was above average in receiving dirty plays. Meanwhile the Boston Bruins, another typically accepted tough team, received less. You can ask any Bruins fan whether or not dirty plays ever happened to them or injured some of their stars.
Why physical enforcement isn't needed
Regardless of whether you want believe the above section or not, the logic is irrefutable that enforcers are not necessary. Again, enforcement is simply fear being used to dissuade an opponent from attempting to hurt a teammate.
Any type of fear can be replaced by another. Any type of deterrent can be replaced by another. As long as the new deterrent is at the very least equally efficient, it will work.
Then the logical follow up question would be: can league relegated deterrence be more effective than player regulated physical deterrence. I would be interested in seeing how many who answer no here would be okay with abolishing the current legal and judicial system for vigilante justice...
The league derived disincentives from foul play only needs to be as large as the disincentives. As long as you have that, player derived disincentives become unnecessary and actually counter productive.
Again, I'd like to repeat that the above argument is not to abolish fighting from the game. It is also not to discuss other subjects on fighting like momentum, intangibles, and otherwise (we'll get to that). It is to show how logically enforcers are extremely inefficient at their jobs in policing and protecting.
It is not to explain how the league could improve their disciplinary system (we'll also get to that). It is to show how logically any possible value in policing and protecting can be derived elsewhere.