In the fall of 2016, the documentary "Ice Guardians" was released. The documentary delves into one of the most respected, yet dangerous, positions on an NHL team. But, as we have seen the roles these players once filled are quickly going away.
It took 22 games.
The team that once employed Tie Domi, Joey Kocur, PJ Stock and Colton Orr had zero fights through their first 21 games.
It took until Game 22 for the New York Rangers to get a fighting major, and Brandon Pirri barely threw a single punch.
Add in the fact that the New York Islanders have three, and the New Jersey Devils have two - it's fair to say the NHL in the Tri-State area is changing.
But why has this happened? Why has a position that is so connected to the game, to the culture of the sport, being pushed aside? Where have the enforcers gone?
"There's a few of us left," noted Eric Boulton, who is currently playing for the Islanders' AHL affiliate in Bridgeport. "[But] that role - it's more like a middle label now. There's guys that maybe get a little more ice time, and now all of a sudden they have to do that job, and they're probably not going to like doing that job."
A perfect example came on Nov. 1. With Boulton in the minors, the Islanders' Travis Hamonic fought former Ranger Brian Boyle. It was only the second period, the Islanders were losing 4-0, and they were getting pushed around. Hamonic may have a few fights under his belt, but considering he is a key to the Islanders' defense, can the team risk losing him for five minutes - or even worse, to an injury from a fight?
"He shouldn't be fighting every night," remarked Boulton, who has more than 140 fights in 654 career regular season games. "But if there's nobody else in the lineup, he's going to step up and do it if somebody hits John Tavares the wrong way, or is getting out of line. So, whether you're an enforcer or not, fighting is still in the game."
Fighting is still in the game -- after all, the Anaheim Ducks had 16 fights in their first 20 games this season. But its presence is drastically declining.
According to Hockeyfights.com, the 2015-16 season saw 0.28 fights per game. Less than 10 years before that, there were more than double at 0.60 fights per game in the 2008-09 season. In that same season, more than 40 percent of the games saw a fight. Last year, less than 25 percent saw the gloves drop.
"I think it'll always have a role," explained enforcer Luke Gazdic. "It helps eliminate guys taking cheap shots and runs at guys that can't protect themselves...that's what tougher guys are in the lineup for. ...there's always a place for enforcement and retribution on things happening to teammates.
As long as there's hockey there will be fighting in my opinion, and as long as there's hockey there will be room for guys that do the things that I do and play in a similar role that I do."
But not so fast. Gazdic was recently cleared to return to the Devils' lineup after breaking his foot in the preseason, but he was subsequently sent down to the minors. The expectation is his demoting was a conditioning stint, but there are no guarantees. There is no one who currently sits on the Devils roster who is deemed their enforcer. In fact the two fighting majors they have belong to Vernon Fiddler and Sergei Kalinin - two names that don't scream "fighter."
"There's a lot of guys that have found their way out of the game, but I think...it's more so on their inability to be able to keep up with the pace of the game," said Gazdic at the November premiere of the hockey documentary on enforcers, Ice Guardians. "Hockey has gotten so much bigger and stronger and faster over the last - I would even say four to six years."
But what is the impact of losing these players that, to an extent, controlled the game?
"I have this fear that if we don't have guys looking after each other that the rats will take this game over," then-Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said in 2012 after demoting Orr to the AHL. "That's my fear. I see guys running around and starting stuff and won't back it up. It makes me sick to my stomach…
These guys that won't back it up, won't drop their gloves, run around and elbow people in the head and hit people from behind. They never have to answer for that in the game. They used to have to answer for that in the game."
Burke may have been foreshadowing a bit. Case in point - In 2013, the Rangers' Rick Nash missed 17 games after taking an elbow to the head from San Jose Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart. Stuart received a two-minute minor, and despite having Arron Asham and Derek Dorsett on the team, it was Brian Boyle - a key penalty killer - who retaliated and earned roughing and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the third period.
"In [my] day, when I played with Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, my job was to play with Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier, but also make sure nothing happened to those two," Hall of Famer Clark Gillies said in an interview with SNY in 2013. "Fighting has always been a huge part of the game. From an intimidation standpoint, when things get a little out of hand the greatest way to shut things down a little bit is [to] send somebody out there, and grab somebody. Let them know that this stuff's got to stop. [But] they've kind of clamped down on it."
Clamped down? Has the NHL gone soft? Why wasn't there immediate retribution against Stuart for the hit on Nash?
Rule 46.11 - A player who is deemed to be the instigator of an altercation shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major penalty for fighting and a ten-minute misconduct.
The instigator rule.
Let's go back to the Pirri fighting major that happened in Game 22 against the Flyers, when center Travis Konecny didn't like a hit Pirri threw on Brandon Manning. So he went after Pirri. Pirri did get a boarding minor in addition to the fight. But Konecny got five minutes for fighting, two minutes for instigating and a 10-minute misconduct. 17 minutes in penalties for the 19-year-old. While an enforcer may not play that much regardless, having to shuffle lines for that long is tough on teammates and coaches alike.
In a 2013 interview with TSN, Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman -- the same player who was protected by enforcers Joey Kocur and the late Bob Probert -- said "I believe a player should get a game misconduct for fighting. We penalize and suspend players for making contact with the head while checking in an effort to reduce head injuries yet we still allow fighting. We're stuck in the middle and need to decide what kind of sport do we want to be. Either anything goes and we accept the consequences or take the next step and eliminate fighting."
His words created a shock wave through the hockey community. In the Ice Guardians documentary, it made a point to discuss concussions can come from boarding, elbows, open-ice hits, charging, etc. -- trying to pinpoint it on anything but fighting. But with the link between repetitive blows to the head and CTE, the deaths of at least seven former enforcers before the age of 50, and the countless others -- like former Devil Mike Peluso -- day-to-day, the question of whether fighting has a role is called into question.
"I don't think you want to give up a roster spot for someone who may not even see any ice time unless things get out of hand," commented Gillies. "With the two goaltenders, you've got 18 spots and I, as a coach or a general manager...I'd want to make sure I can use each and every one of those spots on my bench if I need to and not be afraid to put a guy out there in any situation...to have a spot on your bench being taken up by somebody that's really not going to use for any other purpose than just for fighting doesn't make sense to me."
So where does the NHL go from here? Will fighting go extinct? Will the enforcer position become a story of legend?
"They epitomized all of the values that we hold dear in hockey and it's from teamwork, sacrifice…the willingness to kind of step up and protect each other," former enforcer Luke Westgarth, who starred in the documentary Ice Guardians said. "The enforcer is something that you see for all of these values and that to me is the number one thing. I hope it isn't lost. It's so inherent in our sport that these values are what we find - what we hold dear - so it's odd to think that maybe if I was coming up today, I wouldn't make it, but that's the way sports and the world kind of evolves."
And it looks like we're evolving away from dropping the gloves.