Catching up with enforcers in exile

Levy And Melrose: Fighting Losing The Fight (2:31)

Barry Melrose makes the prediction that fighting will be completely eradicated from the game in the coming years, even though both he and Steve Levy believe fighting has its purpose on the ice. (2:31)

George Parros saw the writing on the wall.

July 1 came and passed without much interest from any NHL teams. In the months that followed the opening of free agency, Parros, an unrestricted free agent after a disappointing, injury-hampered season with the Montreal Canadiens, still held out hope of signing a contract and continuing his NHL career.

Even when training camp opened and he was without a job, he thought a preseason injury might open the door. Maybe he'd sign a professional tryout with a team that suddenly realized it was in dire need of some toughness.

That didn't happen.

"I'm not going to lie, it was a little surprising," Parros told ESPN.com in a recent phone interview.

Instead of continuing to skate with a local junior team or exploring his options in Europe, Parros decided to move on with his life, spend more time with his family, which includes 3-year-old twins, a boy and girl. He retired on Dec. 5, 2014, announcing the decision through an NHL Players' Association press release.

Parros hung up his skates as one of the most well-respected, toughest men in the game. He amassed 1,092 penalty minutes over nine years in the NHL but was known also as a terrific teammate and one of hockey's most thoughtful, articulate ambassadors -- not to mention a pillar of strength for the players' association, particularly during the last lockout. The Princeton-educated Parros was both feared and revered among his NHL counterparts, but, like many other players of his ilk -- men who made their money largely with their fists -- he witnessed a distinct shift in the game.

"I don't know if I'll be pushed out of the game or not. I'm proud that I played the role I did. Not everyone is able to do that."
Enforcer Jay Rosehill, on his future

Unlike the period that followed the Anaheim Ducks' Stanley Cup championship run in 2007, when Parros and his teammates cultivated a brand of team toughness that other clubs were desperate to emulate, the league now seems headed in a different direction.

Very few true "enforcers," players whose sole purpose is to fight, are found on NHL rosters these days. John Scott of the San Jose Sharks is one notable exception, but that type of player is now practically extinct. In all likelihood, the chances are slim that players like that will continue to get NHL contracts.

"I think it can be cyclical, but even if fighting comes back into vogue, I don't see it with the one-dimensional, big guys," Parros said. "I don't think it's going to get back to where things used to be, when there were these hulking monsters whose role was just to fight."

The statistics seem to support this decline as well. Almost halfway into the season, there have been 351 fighting majors (as of Dec. 22, per hockeyfights.com). Last season, there were 917 in total. Of the top five players who lead the league in fighting majors this season, three of those players -- Derek Dorsett, Brandon Prust and Tom Wilson -- average more than 13 minutes of ice time per game. Last season's fighting majors leader, the Toronto Maple Leafs (48), now have the third-fewest in the league with just six.

The latter is a prime anecdotal example of fighting's declining role.

The Leafs waived both Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren at the beginning of the season, signaling a paradigmatic shift in the composition of the Leafs roster. The Philadelphia Flyers, under new general manager Ron Hextall, opted for this route, as well. The team cut Jay Rosehill, a deviation from the old guard and one that challenged the team's very identity of toughness that dates back decades.

"They've always had a guy in that role, ever since Dave Schultz," Rosehill told ESPN.com in a recent telephone interview. "It's just head-spinning how fast it happened."

Why did it happen? And when exactly did it take place?

Rosehill, who now plays for the American Hockey League's Lehigh Valley Phantoms, thinks the media has played a large role, especially following the summer of 2011, when three fighters -- Wade Belak, Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard -- all died unexpectedly, albeit from different causes. He was unhappy with how the trio of tragedies were hastily combined to provide some sort of cautionary tale.

"The media lumped it together with the enforcers' life and their mental state, which I didn't think was fair," Rosehill said. "That's when you started to get a media storm. Some of the stuff that was written, it was almost a competition to see who can write the most scathing column."

Though the dearth of enforcers might seem abrupt, and Rosehill brings up a valid point about the media's role in the ever-changing narrative, many suggest that there has been an undercurrent of change, dating back to the rule changes following the 2004-05 lockout.

The game is faster, younger and more skill-oriented than in previous eras. The way the game is officiated now dictates a different type of play -- one in which deterrence is tougher to accomplish, and obstruction and interference is prohibited.

"The game is officiated differently now. You can't do what the Flyers did years ago," Columbus Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson told ESPN.com. "You can't intimidate teams. Intimidation doesn't work."

Davidson has been around the game long enough to witness the many phases in the evolution of the enforcer. Their diminishing role does not mean their work commands any less respect -- "those guys are warriors," he said -- but it has led executives to seek out players who can fulfill a larger skill set.

Davidson points out the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings and notes their ability to deploy four lines effectively.

Toughness is still valued, but a player must bring more to the ice than simply a willingness to drop the gloves. A guy has to bring energy, show an ability to kill penalties, win faceoffs and be defensively responsible to retain a spot on the roster.

Agent Peter Cooney, who has a stable of brawlers that includes heavyweights such as Trevor Gillies, Patrick Bordeleau and Bobby Robins, as well as scrappers such as Micheal Haley, tries to reinforce to his clients the importance of bodychecking in finding that balance between physicality and utility.

"It's a more intimidating skill than fighting because you still remain on the ice; you're not in the penalty box, or thrown out of the game," Cooney said.

Versatility is key, and there are some players who have anticipated the change and adapted accordingly.

Former tough guy Jody Shelley singles out guys such as Florida's Shawn Thornton, Ottawa's Chris Neil and Columbus' Jared Boll who do that well.

"The guys now, they totally get it, and it's one of those positions you've got to stay ahead of the curve," said Shelley, who now works as a broadcaster for the Blue Jackets. "I felt that every year I played; I had to be quicker, more responsible, bring something else off the ice, but I still feel players like to have that guy around."

Indeed, every time an internal poll is conducted by the union to gauge how players themselves feel about the fighting, the support for its place in the game is overwhelmingly positive. And it's not just the fourth-liners who embrace the need for it. After all, it's often the star players who are the biggest benefactors, their minds put at ease when there is at least the threat of retribution and a sense of protection from their own bench.

"That was my payoff, when I got that look from those stars," Shelley said. "That's something the naysayers and the people that have never been out there or inside the room never understand."

And there are plenty who fear that injuries, penalties and the proliferation of "rats," antagonists who target another team's skill players, might be the unintended result if enforcers become altogether obsolete.

"I'm a proponent of fighting, a proponent of what I've done," Parros said. "When you don't have that fear factor out there or have that policing, I think you do have agitators running around and taking runs at guys. [Star players] are concentrating less on making plays. I think you have to have some degree of -- element of toughness. Right now, there aren't as many checks and balances. If I [were an agitator], I'd be having my way."

With all the change happening at the NHL level, one has to wonder whether it will have a trickle-down effect on the lower leagues, where fighting is traditionally more of a presence.

That's where many of these former NHL heavyweights -- such as Orr and McLaren, Rosehill and Gillies -- find themselves these days.

Even then, the role has changed. Rosehill is playing more minutes, being used in critical situations, seeing specialty-teams time. Orr, according to those within the Toronto Marlies organization, has really blossomed into a veteran leader, setting an example for young guys about what it means to be a professional and providing advice from someone who has witnessed and experienced the many pitfalls that beckon at the next level.

"It's like having a surrogate coach out there," Marlies coach Gord Dineen told ESPN.com.

Even still, the AHL is evolving in line with the NHL, as coaches find themselves de-escalating their arms race with an opponent when they see fewer and fewer tough guys on the other side of the hallway.

Players who can fight are still necessary, but they must do other things well.

Take Chris Bruton of the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins. The 27-year-old knows that, playing for the farm club of the Detroit Red Wings -- one of the organizations that has always valued skill and speed over all else -- the brute force of his fists is not going to lead to his dream of playing in the NHL.

"You have to be able to play," Bruton told ESPN.com. "To be an enforcer in this league, you still have to be able to play good in your defensive zone. They want to see puck plays. You can't just be a guy who runs around and is a detriment to your own team defensively. It's evolved in the sense that a lot of fighters have worked on their skills a ton, worked on their skating, to become players, as well."

Bruton, who formerly captained the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, tries to bring leadership and energy to his squad in addition to toughness.

And if fighting is necessary, so be it, but it can't be without good reason.

"I call it PIMs with purpose," Bruton said after a recent morning skate with the Griffins.

Rosehill, too, finds the fisticuffs now more spontaneous and organic than some of the arranged, orchestrated fights that he found distasteful at the NHL level.

"If my gloves have to come off, they do, absolutely," Rosehill said. "But it's different than in the NHL."

When Rosehill watches the NHL now, he always notes the distinct lack of intensity. It's nothing like the hockey of the late 1990s, games he found to be absolutely captivating while growing up -- "electric," as he said.

Rosehill never questions his decision to play the role he did, but he knows that it might mean more limited options with respect to his future.

"I don't know if I'll be pushed out of the game or not," Rosehill said. "I'm proud that I played the role I did. Not everyone is able to do that. I'll make the most of this opportunity. ... That's all I can do -- just keep my head down and keep working."

Whether that will lead to another shot at the NHL one day, Rosehill doesn't know. The landscape shifted so dramatically, and so quickly, for Rosehill and others like him.

"It just turned out the game was changing around me," Rosehill said. "I don't know how much longer I'll be able to play. I'm not in the NHL, and the way things are headed right now, it looks like it will be tough to do."