The "Mental" Side of NHL Enforcers

Wednesday, 01.19.2011 / 3:00 PM / Los Angeles Kings | News
By Rich Hammond
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The \"Mental\" Side of NHL Enforcers
The mental side of NHL fighting? To the uninitiated, that might sound like an oxymoron.

Stereotypes don't always fit, though. Hockey enforcers, too often, tend to be dismissed as brutes, players with no other discernible skills, who remain employed in professional hockey only because of their willingness to get punched in the face on a regular basis.

That's a part of it, yes, but there is a certain science behind on-ice pugilism.  For evidence, consider that within the past decade, the Kings have had two Princeton-educated enforcers. The guys throwing punches are also the ones thriving at crossword puzzles.

To be certain, fighting itself is an act of raw strength or courage, even if some -- perhaps rightfully so -- believe it has no place in the NHL game. But the decisions, the cat-and-mouse games, that lead up to fights require a lot of mental strength as well.

Los Angeles Kings left wing Kyle Clifford, left, and Anaheim Ducks right wing George Parros, a Princeton graduate and former King, fight during the second period of their  Dec. 26 game in Los Angeles.
(AP Photo/Jason Redmond)
``Fighting is not just fighting,'' Kings winger Kyle Clifford said. ``It's actually a big part of the game. It's a momentum-changer when you step up for your teammates, when someone is taking advantage of them, when someone is running around out there.''

Consider the case of Kings enforcer Kevin Westgarth. In a game against St. Louis last week, the Kings trailed by two goals in the third period. They needed a spark, and Drew Doughty had just been hit. Westgarth figured a spirited fight might get things going.

Westgarth spotted his opposite number, the Blues' Brad Winchester, on the ice.  For nearly a minute, Westgarth did his best to cajole Winchester in dropping gloves. He pushed and shoved. He gave a couple whacks with his stick. He circled Winchester, no doubt employing some creative language as he essentially ignored the play around him.

How did Winchester respond? Sort of like a cow being pestered by flies. He pretended not to notice Westgarth's presence, and calmly skated back to his team's bench.

To be certain, Winchester is no wallflower. He measure in at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, and he has almost 40 fights under his belt at the NHL level in six seasons. Westgarth, though, didn't need an explanation as to why Winchester declined to ``dance'' with him.

``I didn't get a fight with him that time,'' Westgarth said. ``They were up in the game, so it's a little tough to bait somebody into it.''

Just as there are proper times for defensemen to leave the posts and join the offensive attack, and times when being aggressive can backfire, enforcers must also weight the pros and cons of dropping their gloves. It can either inspire or backfire.

What is the score? How much time is left in the game? Are my teammates mentally down, or just the victims of a couple bad breaks? Am I going to win or lose this fight?

These, among others, are the questions that an enforcer has to weigh when considering a fight. If he's the aggressor, he has time to consider the answers.  If he's been pursued by a fight-hungry opponent, he might only have a split-second to find those answers.

``There's a time and place for heavyweights and middleweights such as myself,'' Clifford said. ``Really, you just want to fight at the right times. Third period of a 3-1 game, I don't think Winchester really wants to go (with Westgarth) there. They had the lead there, so he just wants to maintain what they were doing. It's just the way it goes sometimes.

``Even if you're willing to throw down, you don't want to go out there right after you score a goal and fight. If you lose a fight, you lose momentum. If they score a goal, and you go out and fight, you can kind of change that momentum and get your team back on track.''

A good, well-timed, cleanly-won fight can do wonders for a team. It can excite teammates and get the home fans back into the game. On the other hand, getting punched in the nose and dropped to the ice within five seconds does nothing to help anyone.

In the cases of Clifford and Westgarth, who are the two Kings most likely to drop the gloves -- Wayne Simmonds is certainly in that conversation -- it's a learning process.

Kevin Westgarth v. John Scott II was held during the first period of the Kings' Dec. 19 game vs. Chicago.
(AP Photo/Jim Prisching)
``I'm probably always far more on the willing side than maybe I should be even, sometimes. Hopefully that's part of my charm,'' Westgarth joked. ``That's part of the learning process, knowing when it's going to help your team. If you're up in the game, and you feel your team has a ton of momentum, it's not the time to take a risk of losing the fight and maybe losing some of that momentum. At various times, I've had the confidence to take a fight when I was pretty sure I was going to win it, no matter what.''

Westgarth, 26 years old, is in his first NHL season. So is Clifford, who just turned 20 and is still eligible for junior hockey. Throwing right jabs and uppercuts, that part doesn't change from level to level, but the NHL game is different for enforcers as well.

Westgarth, as the team's ``heavyweight,'' must be a deterrent, to keep opposing players honest and not let them think they will get away with taking shots at the Kings' most-skilled players. The best enforcers, though, are the ones who can do more.

An enforcer is never looked toward for scoring, but if he can be proactive, be an agitator, draw opponents into taking penalties or momentum-changing fights, he can make even more of a positive impact on the team despite his limited minutes.

``It's all part of the learning process for me. I know it puts a strain on my linemates, and the guys I'm out there with,'' Westgarth said. ``I'm kind of learning the NHL role, as we go here, and I know that I've got to do other things here, to make them come to me and be more of an impact for the team. I know that getting better at hockey helps you do that.

``You get the timing, the feel for the game, and that allows you to play closer to the edge, with hitting guys and taking advantage of physical opportunities like that. It is a learning process.''

There's also a certain on-ice etiquette to be learned, at least if a player wants to be known as a fair fighter. Fighters like to square off; sucker-punching is discouraged.

And in an era when players are increasingly seeing the value of protecting themselves with visors, it's generally considered protocol for visor-wearing fighters to toss aside their helmets before the fight begins. Of course, not everyone follows the same ``rules.''

``Everybody has their own thing,'' Clifford said. ``It depends on the situation. Obviously there is respect there. You've got to have respect. Most guys in the league do have respect for the fighting part of it. If you're wearing a visor, usually you will take your helmet off. If you don't, it usually comes off anyway.''

Clifford is still learning the ropes, while Westgarth is a veteran of four previous pro seasons in the American Hockey League. Still, there's much to learn.

Westgarth knows that his primary role is, and always will be, to protect his teammates. Kings general manager Dean Lombardi has referred to players such as Westgarth as ``battleships,'' the big deterrents who skate around and make their presence known.

It's not just about looking big and fearsome, though, as Westgarth is quickly learning.

``I have to get more effective out there, and making them worried about me, and also being more of an impact for my team,'' Westgarth said. ``I hope my teammates are a little safer when I'm on the bench.''