Brian Burke Laments Decline of the Enforcer, Fears that “Rats” Will Dominate Hockey: What Does This Tell Us About Hockey Culture?

Brian Burke, the General Manager for the Toronto Maple Leafs, has never been one to shy away from the media spotlight or to hide his emotions. Nor has Burke made any secret about his view that a good NHL team requires a solid dose of toughness on its roster, famously declaring upon taking the Maple Leafs GM job in 2008:

We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. That’s how our teams play. . . . Our teams play a North American game. We’re throwbacks. It’s black-and-blue hockey. It’s going to be more physical hockey here than people are used to.

Burke backed up his words in the following years, trading away a number of skilled players and bringing in noted enforcers such as Colton Orr and Mike Brown in an effort to create a tougher on-ice team. Today, after Colton Orr was sent to the Maple Leafs’ minor league team, Burke weighed in on the current state of the game and lamented the decline of enforcers in hockey.

After the jump, I look at Burke’s statements and consider what they say about hockey’s culture of aggressive masculine behaviour, “the Code” that informally governs how players are expected to conduct themselves, the widely held assumption that players can police their on-ice actions better than the NHL can through suspensions or fines, and the need to disconnect an enforcer’s personal attributes from his on-ice role.

Burke on Hockey’s Masculine Culture

I do wonder where our game is going [with the crackdown on rough play]. I know the Greenpeace folks will be happy with this, but I wonder where we’re going when [NHL VP of Player Safety] Brendan Shanahan’s got six [disciplinary] hearings every two days.

In this soundbite, Burke pulls out a classic insult toward those hockey personnel or fans concerned with violence and player safety by casually dismissing them as “Greenpeace folks.” Regular viewers of Hockey Night in Canada are used to this sort of insulting bombast from commentators Don Cherry and Mike Milbury, the former of whom regularly bemoans the pacifist views of “bleeding heart liberals” and “left-wing pinkos.” The insinuation in such dismissive labels is that hockey is a tough game played by “real” men, and that those who do not agree with or understand this masculine culture should butt out and mind their own business. As Don Cherry always used to declare when showing video clips of fights, “if you don’t like it then go make yourself a cup of tea.”

Burke, then, is both simultaneously marginalizing those who would like to see the NHL take a more active in policing its game by labeling them as “Greenpeace folks” and appealing to his supporters by fearing for a league in which the NHL would be constantly bringing players up for disciplinary action for their violent on-ice actions. An unspoken implication in this statement is that players should have great leeway to police themselves on the ice, which leads to the second point arising from Burke’s statements: the promotion and romanticization of “the Code.”

Burke on “The Code” and the Need for Fighting as a Check on Transgressive Behaviour

You see the garbage that happened in here the other night and I wonder about the accountability in our game. I wonder where we’re going with it. That’s the only lament I have on this. The fear that if we don’t have guys looking after each other than the rats will take this game over. That’s my fear. I see guys that run around and start stuff and won’t back it up and it makes me sick to my stomach.

Burke is, in this statement, advocating for the NHL to allow players to sort out on-ice incidents through their own forms of frontier justice – what is commonly known as “the Code,” which has been written about extensively on this blog by Courtney Szto, Ted Nolan, and myself. In a nutshell, the idea is that the threat of retaliatory fisticuffs prevents “rats” from overly aggressive play, particularly that which targets a team’s star players. Burke fears that “accountability” in the form of frontier justice is leaving the game, giving the green light to “rats” to “run around and start stuff” without being willing to “back it up” by dropping the gloves.

As mentioned, we have covered in some depth on this blog some of the problematic aspects of “the Code,” including its “violence begets violence” philosophy and its damaging physical and social consequences for many players. It is also worth pointing out that “the Code” has, for a long time, allowed the NHL to pass the buck on player safety by refusing to interfere with the players’ self-policing code of conduct except in extreme circumstances. It has been heartening to see the NHL recently take some small (though not yet nearly adequate) steps to improve player safety and punish players who make dangerous and violent plays. Burke, however, clearly fears a world in which the league dolls out discipline and on-ice transgressions are settled by punches to the head rather than suspensions and fines.

Burke on Colton Orr as a “character” person

From James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail:

Burke took to the podium at the Air Canada Centre to deliver his rant on the state of the NHL, saying he had a tough time sleeping knowing he had to potentially end the career of a “character” player like Orr.

“My admiration for this kid just knows no limits,” Burke said. “This is a wonderful young man… We’ve got to get him back to the Marlies and get him playing. Try to get his game back and see where he can maybe help us later in the season.”

Here we see the argument, commonly made by media and fans, that getting rid of the enforcer role will deprive players who otherwise would not be in the NHL of employment. This is true, and the decline of the enforcer has doubtlessly prevented some quality men from earning highly paid NHL jobs. The obvious flip-side to this argument is that the presence of enforcers in the NHL deprives skilled minor league players of the same chance at NHL employment. It also ignores the players whose careers ended because of fighting, who left hockey as teenagers because of the violent nature of the sport, or who suffered serious physical damage in an unsuccessful attempt to fight their way to the NHL – presumably there are “wonderful” young men in those groups who are also deprived of a chance at NHL employment because of the presence of enforcers and the culture of fighting at various levels of hockey.

Furthermore, as the New York Times series on Derek Boogaard made clear, fighting is seen from a young age as a legitimate route for less talented players to make it to the professional ranks. As such, teenagers may put all their eggs in one basket, neglecting their education and physical and mental health in pursuit of a career as an enforcer. I am willing to take Burke’s word that Orr is a “wonderful young man.” From all accounts so was Derek Boogaard, which as I pointed out in my response to the NYT series makes his story that much more tragic – particularly as he seemed to possess a kindness and genuine concern for people’s well-being that likely could have served him well in a variety of non-hockey professions. Like Boogaard, Orr has likely closed off other routes for personal and professional development in pursuit of his NHL dreams.

If we continue to focus only on individuals, particularly the many individual enforcers who outside of their pugilistic role sound like wonderful human beings, we miss the impact that their on-ice role has on the broader culture of hockey. Orr, like Boogaard (and Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, for that matter) may be a fantastic person. But maintaining his employment as a hockey fighter because of this fact simply perpetuates the system that encouraged him – to say nothing of countless others who never reached the NHL or American Hockey League – to pursue his NHL dream in the first place. Fighters being “good guys” does not justify the need for enforcers in the first place.

Editor’s Note: All quotations are taken from James Mirtle’s article on Burke’s statements, which also contains the full audio of the press conference.


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