Lack Of Accountability In Today’s NHL Irks Brian Burke

January 6th, 2012 1 Comment

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke sent pugilist Colton down to the AHL to play with the Toronto Marlies on Thursday, and with him, a message that all is not well in the NHL, at least not according to Burke.

Burke spoke to the media Thursday, airing out what he feels is a total lack of accountability by the “rats” in the league.

“If you want a game where guys can cheap shot people and not face retribution, I’m not sure that’s a healthy evolution,” Burke said Thursday. “The speed of the game, I love how the game’s evolved in terms of how it’s played. But you’re seeing where there is no accountability, this is the byproduct… is people running around that won’t back it up.”

Burke’s comments come at a time when the NHL is making a huge transition from a league that embraced fighting, to a league that seems intent on getting rid of the enforcers in favor of a much more skill and speed oriented game.

The problem, as Burke sees it, is that the lack of representation from the enforcers has led to far too many players taking liberties with star players with little to no recourse.

Case and point, Burke spoke about the treatment Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf got from ultra-pest Steve Downie earlier in the week where Phaneuf was forced to endure numerous slashing incidents, holding, sticks to the body, verbal abuse and taunting from a player who refused to drop the gloves.

In days gone by, whether it was Phaneuf dropping the gloves with Downie or one of Phaneuf’s teammates (an enforcer) Downie would have had to answer for his behavior. With the instigator rule in place and NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan handing out long suspensions for acts of violence and questionable fighting, Downie was able to walk away from Phaneuf with zero retribution.

“(Shanahan) needs a telephone receptionist in his house because of all of this crap that’s going on the ice,” said Burke. “These guys that won’t back it up, won’t drop their gloves, run around and elbow people in the head and hit people from behind. They never have to answer for that in the game; they used to have to answer for that in the game.

In the past players would take it upon themselves to drop the gloves with those that chose to take liberties. The game evolved into one that saw the inclusion of enforcers who were given the job of putting offending players in their place and patrolling the ice in an effort to protect the games star players.

“You used to think if you are going to run around and cheap shot a guy you were going to have to fight him, or fight someone else on the team that was tougher than he was, and that seems to be gone right now”, said Burke.

Fair enough. That said, last time I checked, few pests were actually being pummeled by the enforcers. More likely, two enforcers would duke it out in an effort to “take one for the team”; how effective this ever was at intimidating the “pests” is debatable.

Fact is, accountability has been long gone in the NHL, at least in my opinion.

Look at the amount of cheap shots the game has seen in the past five years. Consider the fact that the NHL had to tweak its rulebook in an effort to dissuade players from targeting the heads of opposing players. Why the need to tweak the rules if these enforcers were doing such a great job at intimidating the pests?

Let’s face it, respect and accountability have not been a big part of the game since the mid-1980’s, that’s a fact.

Intimidation tactics were at an all-time high during the 1970’s when the Philadelphia Flyers constructed the Broad Street Bullies and found Stanley Cup success in the process. Over time, the NHL began to frown on enforcers, in part because of the perception of far too many fights being “staged” and the increase in concussions/head injuries.

While statistics show that fighting in hockey can cause head injuries, the greater problem has always been the illegal headshots, which have been handed out by enforcers, skilled players and “rats” alike.

Burke went on to speak about the lack of accountability in today’s game. Burke worries about the direction the game is going and whether or not the NHL is headed in the wrong direction.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Fact is, the enforcer has long been a problem area in the NHL. Many of these players are on the ice to do little more than fight, often engaging with like-players as opposed to actually making the agitators pay for their actions.

Few pests actually end up personally paying for their actions. More likely, two pugilists would face off. There was never really a message sent, and the behavior on the ice rearely changed from game to game.

Furthering the problem was the fact that the Refs and league has done little to disuade this type of agitating behavior over the years, which meant little change in the behavior.

To Burke’s point, there are few “dance partners” for the likes of Orr these days and with that being the case, Burke and many other NHL general managers have had to make the tough decision to scratch their enforcer from the lineup in favor of a player that can bring more than one dimension to the game.

Personally, I like the idea of having fewer pugilists on the ice. While an argument can be made to validate the role of the enforcer there is every indication that their skill set has become obsolete, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Everyone likes a good fight, but when you have to watch the same players beating each other up for the indignities of others the whole process becomes bland and, in the minds of many, an act of stupidity.

I am a fan of fighting, but I am also a fan of fighting your own battles, not having your big brother take care of things for you.

Burke has always been a proponent of tough hockey and I respect that. What Burke and other general managers are struggling with is the fact that the enforcer has essentially become obsolete overnight. Perhaps it is the fear of what the future may bring, perhaps it is the quickness with which the enforcer has all but become extinct, but like every other change in the game, Burke has to find a way to suck it up and adjust accordingly.

Brendan Shannahan’s efforts aside, in the absence of the enforcer it is becoming very clear that the referees are going to have to assume a much bigger role on the ice, making those who chose to take liberties with their opponents pay for their actions in the form of penalties, suspensions and hefty fines.

As it stands now, the refs seem to be falling short of expectations in that department. Should the refs continue to put away the whistles there is bound to be a backlash from the NHL, NHLPA and the GM’s.

The bottom line is the players must be able to perform in a safe environment. To Burke’s point, the elimination of the enforcer from the game has made some players (typically the games stars) more susceptible to cheap shots, which may in turn see a spike in injuries and vigilante justice being extracted.

The NHL, its players and the NHLPA must step up and empower the refs to make an example out of those players that chose to use the absence of the enforcer as an excuse to run players.

If the rules are enforced, it will not take much time before heavier fines, an increase in penalties and more suspensions will deter teams from dressing their thugs. With the outcome of most games coming down to special teams an ill-timed penalty predicated on an act of stupidity will not sit well with coaches and owners for long, which should see the illegal stick work and hits reduced and a level of respect slowly returned to the game we all love.

This will not be an overnight process, but one thing is clear- enforcers were never the answer and keeping them in the game is no longer an option. Making players and their teams pay for their actions in the form of lost income and through costly penalties looks to be the way of the future in the NHL.

Let’s hope the NHL gets on this issue before it gets out of control. The rules are already in place to make a difference, now it just comes down to going out there and enforcing them until it hurts.

Short term pain should eventually see long term gains. The players deserve to play in a safe environment; it is the NHL’s and NHLPA’s duty to make sure that is possible.

Keeping the enforcers in the league just perpetuates a long standing problem with the game. Besides, for the most part these guys just fought each other, so which of the offending players ever really paid a price for their actions? Players like Sean Avery, Steve Downie, Matt Cooke and Steven Ott (all considered “pests”) are rarely forced to drop the gloves, so how exactly were they ever paying the price with the enforcers on the ice?

My advice to Burke? If you are worried about not having an enforcer in the lineup you need to bring in more players that can make big hits, get physical and bang along the boards. You will need to bring in more players that can skate like the wind or out-skill the opposition—if you can’t beat ’em with your fists, join ’em in putting together a more skilled oriented team, right?

There is nothing wrong with bringing in more skilled players as long as you temper those moves with a measure of toughness. In fact, I think we’d all be better served if that was the case throughout the league.

With the enforcers gone the NHL will have cleared up an ugly part of the game. The evolution of the NHL will be for the better and if that means the likes of Colton Orr will not be lacing up his skates, so be it. Let’s face it folks, given Orr has only played a handful of games with the Maple Leafs I think it is safe to say nobody missed him.

Sorry Mr. Orr, we respect what you brought to the game and admire your courage, but your time (for better or for worse) has come to move on.

Until next time,




1 Comment

  1. peterj says:

    Excellant article and I agree with you 100%, sorry Mr. Orr but what you and your ilk brought to the game was not hockey, roller derby maybe but certainly not a part of the game I appreciated, now if we could get rid of Mr. Cherry………… I can dream can’t I?

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