Old-school enforcers a dying breed in NHL

Updated: September 21, 2006, 12:02 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

At 36, Tie Domi still is game, and maybe even still has a bit of it.

Yet, because the Maple Leafs bought him out, he had an offer to get into television (as a commentator on Canada's TSN, not on "Dancing with the Stars"), and he decided not to pursue possibly donning another team's uniform. So the veteran enforcer announced his retirement Tuesday in Toronto.

Tie Domi
Dave Sandford/Getty ImagesTie Domi's retirement shows that some teams aren't reserving that one roster spot for an old-school enforcer.

Another one bites the dust.

Though Domi never was the prototype (he was more willing than intimidating) and certainly not a superheavyweight, his retirement is more evidence that the enforcer is on the endangered species list.

Fighting is down, and if famous boxing referee Mills Lane had an orange band on his sleeve, he would have just reached eight on the count for NHL enforcers.

If the role is filled at all, it's being done mostly by "gritty" wingers who are willing to consider the job part of their portfolio but not their primary duty. Darren McCarty, anyone? And to the credit of players like that, the era of the slug on skates who couldn't play a lick has been over for years, meaning even the tough guys have had to be able to play. At least a bit. But the evidence is mounting that in the "new" NHL, using a roster spot for a skater who draws the "enforcer" tag is a thing of the past.

"It seems to be leaning in that direction," scout Dave Semenko said Tuesday night. "Every team looks at it differently. Some teams think they can get by with team toughness, rather than having one guy designated as that. But the way the rules are, you can't be as effective in that role as you once were."

Semenko knows about effectiveness in that role.

He still works for the Edmonton Oilers, for whom he once served as an on-ice bodyguard for Wayne Gretzky, among others. Even the Oilers over the summer witnessed the departure of Georges Laraque, who signed a two-year, $2.4 million deal with Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes, presumably because The Great One still believes in the value of a tough guy on the wing, or perhaps he wants to keep Shane Doan from fighting too many of his own -- and others' -- battles.

Yet Krzysztof Oliwa is history. So is Peter Worrell.

The "tough guy" is a competition on TV, but not necessarily on "Hockey Night In Canada."

"You have to be able to play the game and be able to contribute," Semenko said. "Phoenix felt like they were being pushed around last year and felt like Georges could help them. You don't know how your team's going to be if you always had that, and maybe it's a luxury that may go unappreciated.

"If you do something stupid, you should be held accountable with something more than a couple of minutes in the box. In an incredibly important hockey game, that might cost you a goal, but that always doesn't happen."

The true enforcer, in fact, always was more deterrent than combatant.

Clark Gillies
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesTerry Frei says former Islander Clark Gillies wasn't a "goon," but he was definitely an enforcer.

Though nobody ever would have thought of considering former Islander Clark Gillies a "goon," he deserved the enforcer title when picking his spots while playing with Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier. He was much more of a true enforcer than was, say, the infamous Steve Durbano or John Kordic. Or even the erudite guys such as Jim McKenzie and Worrell.

Even Bob Probert, Chris Simon and, to a point, Domi have enhanced their value at some point in their careers by displaying an ability to put the puck in the net. But the funny part of that was, when they did, they periodically were accused of losing their desire to fight. Simon has been amazingly resilient in his career, given his injury problems, and the one-time 20-goal scorer has rejoined his junior coach, Ted Nolan, with the Islanders. But he didn't even crack 100 penalty minutes with the Flames last season.

The true enforcer wasn't so much part of the slug-vs.-slug sideshows that make it onto the unofficial Ring Record books of the sport, as he was the guy who ... always ... was ... there.

"I didn't fight a lot," Semenko said. "I don't know how much trouble I actually stopped by being there. A lot of times it was just talking to a guy. You'd say, 'I don't know what you're doing, but if you plan on continuing it ...,' and that usually would stop it. We had a lot of tough players on our team, so it wasn't just my sole role, but I got the most attention for it.

"There weren't a lot of games, but there might have been some, where if our game was going south, I might try and go out and try and start something, but that really didn't happen a lot. And as far as Wayne was concerned, I could only remember a couple of instances where I actually had to react to somebody doing something to him. That was very rare.

"Tim Hunter took a slash at him once when I was on the ice in Edmonton and I went after Tim. Paul Baxter was threatening [Gretzky] once, and he went by our bench and threatened Gretz, and I dropped him with a punch right from the bench, so I didn't even have to get on the ice. But there were very few instances where someone was threatening him or went after him. He was a tough guy to hit, and he had a lot of respect [from players]. But they knew someone was going to come after you, and that sort of backed guys off, too. But that was in that era, and that's something that isn't effective now, for some reason."

Yes, there are those who reflexively blame not just hockey's but also society's ills -- including transit strikes, global warming and the dearth of true quality rock 'n' roll -- on the instigator rule.

Some of us believe the game not only can get along but also would be better off with further legislation that all but eliminated fighting, enabling the sport to jettison its (unfair, but real) sideshow image in some corners of discerning general sports fandom. Yet we have to acknowledge that if fighting were limited to true enforcement, that would be a positive element. Maybe a major stick infraction or even the inadvertent double-minor caused an automatic matchup, by rule, with the other team's enforcer? Maybe Brooks Orpik had an immediate price to pay for his hit on Erik Cole? That makes sense, far more sense, than the sideshows.

The same would be true for football, if a spear or even a bush-league celebration triggered a confrontation. But too often in hockey, that's not the way it worked, and the momentum fight is silliness the sport needed to get beyond, as was the specter of two slugs dropping the gloves to mutually justify their existence.

The players need to attack the mind-set that playing with and displaying mutual respect is not, for the lack of a better term, "wussiness." And having that type of enforcer in the game can still be effective.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."