On March 30th, Goon will come to Pittsburgh. The movie stars Seann William Scott as a semi-pro enforcer, and while it looks entertaining, the concept--in the world of professional hockey--is already obsolete. The type of goon Scott portrays is a dying breed.
Fighting still has a role in the modern NHL. According to HockeyFights.com, there have been 1000 fighting majors so far in the 2011-12 season. Fewer than were called 20 years ago (1,619 in the 1991-92 season) but enough to satisfy fans who--like me--love it when the gloves come off.
Goons are a different story. Only 16 teams in the NHL have a player on their roster with 10 or more fights this season. Five of those enforcers also have 10 or more points, and just one (Brad Staubitz of the Montreal Canadiens) has gone pointless in 2011-12.
The same holds true of the agitator, the on-ice pest who talks trash and makes big (sometimes dirty) hits. Sean Avery exemplifies this role. During the 2008 playoffs, his unique screen of goaltender Martin Brodeur made the NHL revise their definition of "unsportsmanlike conduct." For an agitator, this is an accomplishment.
In 2011, the Rangers waived Avery. No other club claimed him. Avery went to New York's AHL affiliate, who sent him home on March 5, 2012. Avery played only 15 games for the Rangers this season.
Pests who remain in the NHL have changed their game. Here in Pittsburgh, Matt Cooke is a prime example. He was a controversial figure prior to the 2011-12 season. Cooke's reckless hit on Marc Savard in 2011 resulted in a 17-game suspension, and likely ended Savard's career. During that season, Cooke received 129 penalty minutes. His current stats (37 points, 36 penalty minutes) represent a new, more careful approach, one which secured his place on Pittsburgh's roster and a nomination for the 2012 Masterton Trophy.
Part of this shift is out of concern for player safety. Daniel Sedin's recent concussion is the latest in a string of high profile injuries that raised questions about the NHL's future. The Department of Player Safety's swift response to such incidents makes players like Sean Avery a liability.
Changes in the game have also limited the role of goons and pests. The elimination of the two-line pass sped up the game, making the questionable hits in a pest's arsenal more likely to seriously injure the recipient. Power forwards--with both toughness and scoring ability--have been a key component of most NHL rosters since the 1990s. These figures don't need enforcers to protect them. They'll do the job themselves.
The coach in Goon tells the protagonist, "You're not here to play hockey. You're here to fight." No coach in the NHL would utter these words today. When Goon hits Pittsburgh on Friday, I'll watch it through the lens of nostalgia. It's world is from the era of Tie Domi, Craig Berube, and Bob Probert, an era that is--for better or worse--a thing of the past.
Jessica Simms has been a hockey fan since 2005. She enjoys a good goalie fight and roots for the Pittsburgh Penguins.