Goons gone from NHL game?

Rules changes and the salary cap might combine to make on-ice enforcers obsolete.

Published September 26, 2005

TAMPA - Mitch Fritz understood exactly why he was called up to the Lightning last week. The 6-foot-8, 260-pound left wing can throw down.

General manager Jay Feaster didn't try to hide it either. The Sabres entered Sunday's preseason game at the St. Pete Times Forum with a serious jones for the rough stuff, and Feaster wanted to ensure Tampa Bay had the firepower to meet any challenges.

Fritz, who last season had 179 penalty minutes and three goals in 45 games for AHL Springfield and is headed back to the Falcons, was happy to be of service.

"I know why I'm here, and it's not to score 40 or 50 goals," he said. "So whatever it takes. As long as I'm here, I don't really care."

Fritz's response was old-school. The question is, does it have a place in the NHL's new world?

Never before has the role of enforcer been in such flux.

Between the instigator rule, which adds a two-minute penalty and a 10-minute misconduct to those who start fights, and a one-game suspension for those instigating in the final five minutes of regulation or in overtime (not to mention a $10,000 fine for the coach), dropping the gloves has become costly.

And with the salary cap complicating personnel decisions, players who bring nothing more to the ice than brass knuckles are luxuries teams cannot afford.

Even Fritz acknowledges, "They can't have you taking up a roster spot and just sitting there and fighting once a game or playing two shifts a game. You have to play, maybe not a regular shift but at least enough to give your top guys a break."

"The game is evolving," said left wing Chris Dingman, who with Andre Roy took on the Lightning's enforcer duties last season. "If you're not willing to change and make your game more well-rounded, you're going to find yourself on the outside looking in."

The supposed crackdown on stick infractions and obstruction also should lessen opportunities for temper tantrums. The league already had done much to limit the pushing and shoving that used to occur on the boards and ignite bad feelings.

The NHL insists it is not trying to stop all fights, just the gratuitous brawls that serve no purpose but to release testosterone built up during games.

"We don't want to lose the physicality," said Colin Campbell, the league's director of hockey operations.

"We want to keep the toughness in the game. You're allowed to check. You're allowed to bang. You're allowed to get in there and push. You're allowed to fight."

Players just have to pick their spots.

Fritz said even the threat of retaliation can keep opponents from roughing up a team's stars. And he said a good fight can provide an emotional boost for one's team or can slow down the opposition.

"Lots of viewers really don't understand the game," Fritz said. "They see fighting as just entertainment more than anything or revenge. But it could be a big swing in a game. If you take it out anymore, guys will start getting hurt because guys will get stupider with their sticks and running star players if no one polices it."

"It's not a fighter," Lightning coach John Tortorella said of those who take that role. "It's not a tough guy. It's not an idiot. It's a guy who is willing to bring a presence and in certain situations step up and stick up for his teammates and create room. But he also has to be a good player to play within a lineup."

Dingman is a good example.

The wing played on two Stanley Cup teams and both times, with the Lightning and the 2000-01 Avalanche, he piled up more than 100 penalty minutes and still played extensively in the playoffs.

"I've always tried to be just as reliable on the ice," he said.

"The role has changed a lot, but I think there will always be a place for it."

Sure enough: With 1:19 left in the first period, Fritz and Buffalo tough guy Andrew Peters squared off near center ice, one of two fights in the Sabres' 3-2 victory.

Fritz was asked if wanted to be remembered as someone who could fight or play.

"It doesn't matter," he said, "as long as they say he played in the NHL."