Time For NHL to Treat All Players Like People, Regardless of Role

Coyotes L Todd Fedoruk and Blue Jackets R Jared Boll mix it up during the Phoenix Coyotes versus the Coumbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, OH.

Over in New Jersey, Todd Fedoruk is trying to survive the pressures of addiction and an NHL comeback, as he works to catch on with the Canucks.

Fedoruk is a 32-year-old enforcer who was out of hockey last season while he worked on some personal issues.

Down in Tampa, Steven Stamkos is trying to establish his new contract doesn’t mean more pressure for the young star.

Both players are under a tremendous amount of pressure. While Stamkos has a contract, he now has to live up to the dollars that appear on it. Who’s to say that’s more or less pressure than trying to catch on with a team, liked Fedoruk is trying to do.

But obviously, there’s a huge difference between the two players. Stamkos is a talented offensive player. His talents are relatively rare within the hockey world, which is how he is able to command a large salary.

Fedoruk’s skill set is less rare, making it harder for him to find a job. When you’re an NHL enforcer, there’s usually someone who can do a comparable job for less money.

This summer, we saw three NHL enforcers die, with some speculating the life on an NHL enforcer was too much for the young men to handle.

I’m not sure we’ll ever understand the forces that drove those men to make the choices they made, but I’m sure the pressure of holding onto an enforcing job did weigh on them, to some extent.

Cam Janssen, the Devils’ enforcer trying to win back his old job in training camp, said being an NHL enforcer is a stressful job. He’s probably stressing about winning a roster spot over Eric Boulton.

The NHL and NHLPA are trying to come up with a way to help players.

I truly believe the league and the union are sincere and any mental health services they can provide to players will surely help improve the quality of life in the NHL. But the real issue is that enforcers are simply too common in hockey. They’re so common, the players become almost disposable. Players, like Janssen and Fedoruk, are always fighting for their jobs, and even when they have regular ice time and long-term contracts, they know they can be bought out or sent down to the minors.

The NHL is a business, but coaches and GMs, under tremendous pressure themselves to win, forget that enforcers are human beings, and not chess pieces or commodities.

Zenon Konopka, a fighter for the Ottawa Senators, had an interesting take on the pressures of life in the NHL, focusing on when the game ends for a player: “The whole retirement thing has to be looked at as well…The transition from playing to retirement is obviously a tough one, especially when you’re in your mid-30s, compared to most people who retire in their 60s or 70s.”

The retirement issue is significant, because many players retire because they feel done with hockey, while others retire because they’re unable to find a job with another team.

The solution? Guaranteed jobs for enforcers might be nice, but it’s not very realistic. Instead, my hope is that GMs and coaches will look at the events of this summer and realize just how vulnerable players are. While one can’t expect GMs to hold onto players who can’t do what they’re needed to do, perhaps they can make more of an effort to retain players, even if there’s a slightly younger, slightly cheaper alternative in the pipeline. Instead of using players and discarding them when something better comes along, perhaps GMs can try and hold onto players who have served a team.

And perhaps even better, maybe they can work with those players, helping them to improve their skating and backchecking, giving them more of a skill-set than simply fighting.

And finally, when enforcers are no longer needed, perhaps teams can figure out roles in the organization for them. Coaching might not be the best fit for some enforcers, but surely there is some kind of wisdom they can pass on to other players, even if it’s just how players can protect themselves from enforcers.

It’s commendable that the NHL and NHLPA see a problem in the game and want to do what they can to help players. But all the mental health services in the world won’t mean much if a certain class of NHL player continues to be treated like they have the humanity of a trading card.

Happy Labor Day, everyone.