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When players in the National Hockey League practice, they skate to increase speed and stick-handle pucks to improve grace. Weight training is a given. And so, too, are a few rounds in the ring.
Ice Guardians takes a look at an NHL position that you won’t find mentioned in any official playbook. Don’t call them “goons”—though we know they’re goons, and they know they’re goons. Many interviewed here take offense at the label or even get philosophical about it. (“Wherefore goon?”) The accepted description is enforcer, and though the term didn’t come about until the 1970s or ’80s, the enforcer has been a part of the sport since the first professional hockey game, which ended in a brawl.
Director and co-writer Brett Harvey hardly presents a balanced view of the fisticuffs that are regarded as part of the sport. It’s analysis as valentine: The nearly two-hour documentary is little but footage of fights and interviews with career NHL enforcers such as Scott Parker (Colorado Avalanche, San Jose Sharks) and Kevin Westgarth (Los Angeles Kings, Carolina Hurricanes, Calgary Flames). There are some outsiders, such as a neurosurgeon, a criminologist (?), a TV/radio host, and a behaviorist. The oddest talking head is actor Jay Baruchel, who seems like a totally random commentator unless you know that he co-wrote 2011’s enforcer-themed Goon, which I suppose gives him some authority on the subject.
Most of the players admit to a bit of guilt, but they all sound like schoolboys who mumble an insincere apology after being sent to the corner. Brian McGrattan, who floated around the NHL before landing in the Elite Ice Hockey Team, is open about his violent streak: “I look at another guy and I want to beat his face in every time I see that guy on the ice.” Scott Parker, who played with the Avalanche and Sharks, says that he used to toughen his hands by wrapping them in chains and punching things so that they became “like hammers. To people’s faces.”
The film offers several rationalizations for playing the brute, such as it being the only way that less-skilled players can stand out at AHL levels, or that the mental intimidation of an enforcer on ice is as crucial to winning as the physical aspect, or that finesse players would have shorter careers if they didn’t have others watching their back. Nick Fotiu, who also bounced around the league, rhetorically asked how the multiple Stanley Cup-winning Edmonton Oilers would have performed in the 1980s without enforcers: “Where do you think Wayne Gretzy would be? Where do you think his head would be?”
Harvey also approaches fans on the street to ask their opinion about fighting in hockey. There was a lone dissenter, with the general consensus being that it’s “fun” and part of the game. One woman—not some testosterone-overloaded dude—says, “There isn’t enough of it.” Adrenaline seems to be what both the fans and teams crave. Jeff Marek, the radio/TV personality, remarks, “I’m not sure how I can rationalize something as emotional as a hockey fight. Logically, it makes no sense. It’s a sport. Where does this violence come from?”
Ice Guardians furthers this aspect of the phenomenon by citing tribal instincts that still exist in humans’ subconsciouses. It also touches on concussions, “the code” among enforcers (who sometimes actually chat about at what point in the game they should fight), and the 1996 instigator rule, which essentially allowed someone to play dirty without repercussions because anyone who went after him would be handed multiple minutes in the penalty box for starting a fight.
For all its insider insight, the film never quite explains why people who would be horrified watching a bloody confrontation in everyday life cheer on the very same act within the confines of a rink. Fights electrify the crowd and may alter the momentum of a game. Few fans would disagree with this. But why hockey and not any other sport?
Ice Guardians is a thrilling highlight reel with some bonus game strategies thrown in. (And Buffalo Sabres’ fans will finally learn why Rob Ray always seemed to end fights with his jersey off.) You might hear a tiny violin near the end, which talks about the relatively new NHL rules for deeper and tighter lines that are effectively phasing out enforcers. There’s footage of some of the commentators skating with the Cup, a privilege that current goons-in-training may no longer get the chance to enjoy.
But the film goes further than noting the “profound loyalty” of enforcers and dismissing the number of injuries they cause by comparing them to innocent hits. The tough guys are practically elevated to saintlike status, being deemed “the most ethical and moral member(s) of the tribe.”
Ice Guardians opens Friday at AMC Hoffman.