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Over the past few years, NHL enforcers — players hired for their fighting skills -- have been having trouble finding work. Concerns about the long-term effects of concussions have led to stiffer penalties for fighting, and advanced analytics suggest that teams that focus on puck possession skills are more successful. The Wall Street Journal chronicled one result: as fewer players spend time in the penalty box, power-play opportunities are at their lowest level since at least the 1968-1969 season.
To discuss these numbers, Bill Littlefield spoke with Terry O'Reilly, an extremely valuable asset to the Boston Bruins between 1972 and 1985, who was regularly among the league leaders in penalty minutes.
BL: During your 13 seasons with the Boston Bruins, you spent 2,095 minutes in the penalty box. This ties you for 45th on the career penalty minute list. Are you happy that today's players are not likely to surpass you?
You can have the ultimate competition in your sport without fighting.Terry O'Reilly, former enforcer
TO: Well, it's not a record that I'm proud of. It's just an indication of the nature of the game back when I played. Say we went into Philadelphia and you body-checked somebody like Dave Schultz or Behn Wilson. They felt obligated to be outraged in front of their home fans, and it was almost like their gloves were spring-loaded. You bump into them and they popped off. And away you went, and they had a fight.
But the change in the game I think has been nothing but good. The skill — some of the prettiest goals we've ever seen the last few years. So the game is headed in the right direction.
BL: So it sounds as if, with penalties for boarding, charging, cross-checking, elbowing, etc at their lowest levels since 2001-2002, you can see the difference when you watch a game.
TO: You can. You know if you were to watch a two-minute clip of a game from the '70s and then watch two minutes of a game in the '80s and then go to the '90s, every 10 years you can really see a visible increase — uptick — in the overall speed of the skaters. And, you know, there's 20,000 people that have paid to come and watch hockey, not two people dancing in the corner.
BL Over the course of your career, you developed into an all-around player. You were a two-time All-Star, in fact. Would you have had the opportunity to develop your skills had you not first found a job as an enforcer?
[sidebar title="Derek Boogaard's Troubled Life" width="630" align="right"] John Branch's "Boy On Ice" tells the story of NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard, who died of an accidental drug overdose in 2011.[/sidebar]
TO: Well, there's no question that my willingness to scrap bought me more time. But if I were to come along in this era, with my skating skills that I had when I was 19, 20 years old, I would not make the Boston Bruins farm team.
BL: Do we lose excitement, though, when there are fewer power-play opportunities?
TO: I don't know how many fewer there are. What used to be a two-minute penalty for attempted murder is now two minutes for putting your stick on the side of a player as he's skating by you — wouldn't even be considered a hook back then — but once you put your stick in that area, the referee's arm goes up, and a call is made. So there's a power play. So, statistically, how much is it reduced?
BL: In December, ESPN declared the classic enforcer position is "practically extinct." Do you think this is a temporary change or has the game changed in such a way that we don't see these players anymore?
TO: I think it's a permanent change just because of the direction in the nature of the game. It's evolving. The most exciting hockey that we could hope to watch would be Stanley Cup Final hockey, Olympic gold medal games — watch the Final Four and how many fights do you see in those games? So you can have the ultimate competition in your sport without fighting, and it's evidence that we don't need it.
The other thing is, with all these lawsuits for concussions floating around, the NHL really doesn't have a good defensive position if they have a game that allows two grown men to drop their gloves and punch each other in the head when down the road these players start to show long-term symptoms of concussion. So it's on its way out.
This segment aired on December 26, 2015.
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