A Seat in the Sin Bin: The NIHL Enforcer

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With the enforcer role becoming one that is seriously considered in the NIHL, what is it that makes this player type so desirable and how are such characters set apart from the archetypal ‘troublemaker’?

Characterised by indisputable strength, both physical and mental steel, and a sound understanding of the game, the enforcer has become one of the most important roles in ice hockey, attracting more attention than ever before in the lower divisions this season with the arrival of former Sheffield Steeldogs player-coach Andre Payette to the National Ice Hockey League.

A superb on-ice leader alongside player-coach David Longstaff, Payette has contributed to the ignition of Whitley Warriors’ zeal from the very beginning of the team’s 2015-16 campaign, already contributing five goals and five assists. However, Payette’s fundamental role is undoubtedly swayed by his ability to fight and, moreover, his capacity to read the game and drop the gloves at exactly the right moment. With an objective to boost morale and protect the Warriors’ greatest goal threats, particularly as some of those goal threats happen to be some of the youngest members of Longstaff’s line up, Payette is one of the NIHL’s strongest enforcers, his actions influencing the mood and pace of gameplay thereafter.

It is this tactical intellect and skill which distinguishes the enforcer from the archetypal ‘troublemaker’, a character often presented as a pantomime villain who adds to the entertainment of the sport but, often centring efforts on brute force, rarely contributes to offensive play. As a result, players who often fall short of the ‘enforcer’ category sometimes make mistakes which can prove costly in the long term. An isolated two minute minor penalty can be easily overlooked by both players and coaches in the context of a season, even if the punishment results in a power play goal, but repeated trips to the sin bin for avoidable misdemeanours by a single player can become wholly ineffective and detrimental to the overall success of a team.

At present, there are several players which can arguably be described as supposed ‘troublemakers’, largely because they cause unnecessary disruption to both their opposition’s gameplay and their own. A prime example of this is Telford Tigers’ youngster Bradley Betteridge who has racked up an incredible sixty two penalty minutes in fifteen games. For a young forward who should be concentrating his efforts on goal scoring, Betteridge has accumulated four ten minute penalties, only scoring twice and assisting once. As Telford currently sit in third position, Betteridge’s behaviour does not seem to have inhibited his team’s performance, however the frequency of these penalties could have a negative impact in the long term.

Effective enforcement this season is evidenced by the recent rise of Solihull Barons as they climb the Moralee Conference into fourth place, having just achieved promotion at the end of last season. Whilst the combined efforts of goal scorers Thomas Soar, Josh Bruce and Edward Eaton have enabled Solihull to compete against the more established sides of the NIHL’s North Division One, it should be noted that none of this would have been possible without the might of player-coach Perry Doyle. His only fight so far this season against heavyweight Payette, Doyle’s presence on the ice enhances Solihull’s fortitude as, behaving in a controlled and reasoned manner, he only goes toe-to-toe with another player if there is a chance it will give the Barons an advantage over their opposition.

Another significant influence in the NIHL is Solway Sharks’ spirited forward Ross Murray who, building up his knowledge of the game as a junior in Canada’s Greater Metro Hockey League, displays his skill as an enforcer by totalling up the points and the penalty minutes in equal measure. A force to be reckoned with, Murray is dangerous in front of goal and packs a punch out on the ice, so far dropping the gloves with Senators Sam Hurst and Thomas Robjohns, Barons’ goal scorer Thomas Soar and Stars’ forward Jack Davies.

This contribution is complemented by Murray’s thirteen points which make him Solway’s third highest points scorer so far this season, the all-round team player creating eight opportunities for his fellow Sharks and netting five others of his own. Thus, Murray’s role as enforcer is a crucial one this season. Solway’s slow start has required the alternate captain to ignite the spark to spur his team mates on but, as the Sharks gradually begin their climb of the NIHL table, he appears to be fulfilling his role at the Dumfries club.

The difference between the role of enforcer and the role of ‘troublemaker’ is perhaps demonstrated best by Blackburn Hawks’ Chris Arnone and Reece Cairney-Witter. Whilst captain Arnone has played the role of the enforcer successfully in recent seasons, Cairney-Witter makes his return to his former club to play the ‘troublemaker’. Whilst many might argue that the enforcer role consists solely of a player’s ability to fight, by which definition Cairney-Witter may be understood as an enforcer, the position also requires the player executing this duty to soundly decide when the time is right to enter into combat and when it is not, a skill which Arnone has.

In contrast, as captain of the Bradford Bulldogs, Cairney-Witter appeared to deliver far more irrational performances, ultimately conceding, what may be considered, purposeless penalties. This is evidenced by a twenty minute penalty against Nottingham Lions for third man in, a twenty five minute penalty in an encounter with Widnes Wild for roughing and two ten minute misconduct penalties in a clash against Coventry Blaze ENL, each of these games resulting in losses for the Bulldogs. This suggests that player-coach Daniel MacKriel has enlisted Cairney-Witter to eliminate the risk of losing Arnone to the sin bin this season, as the defenceman continues to pose a threat in front of goal whereas Cairney-Witter adds power, his total points tally never making it above ten in his senior career.

Further to this point, enforcers can often be distinguished from the archetypal ‘troublemaker’ through their appointment in long term leadership roles. In his career, Andre Payette has been trusted with the role of alternate captain at EPL side Manchester Phoenix, player-coach at Sheffield Steeldogs and home alternate captain at Whitley Warriors. Likewise, Perry Doyle was also alternate captain for Solihull Barons before taking on the role of player-coach whilst Chris Arnone was alternate captain for Blackburn Hawks in their 2011-12 campaign and has since captained the side for four consecutive seasons.

Meanwhile, Ross Murray has just taken on the role of alternate captain alongside import Juraj Senko at Solway Sharks, his value recognised by Head Coach Martin Grubb. On the contrary, Reece Cairney-Witter was first awarded captaincy in his career at Bradford Bulldogs this season and left the position for a none-leadership role at Blackburn Hawks. This suggests that the forward is perhaps a little too volatile to meet the responsibilities expected of an on-ice leader. Similarly, Hawks’ long serving defenceman Ollie Lomax has also racked up the penalty minutes in recent seasons and, a renowned ‘pantomime villain’, has entertained crowds with his antics for thirteen league campaigns but, again, has never been bestowed with the responsibility of leadership.

It would therefore appear that the enforcer role is a desirable one because it combines the power and strength needed to survive in the NIHL with the skill and ingenuity of a goal scorer. Enforcers do not show the inefficiency and inexperience which is often displayed by the so-called ‘troublemaker’, instead focusing their efforts on winning the game; if a fight is required to boost morale, or as a means to offer protection to fundamental forwards, the enforcer will not hesitate to drop the gloves.

However, a self-styled ‘troublemaker’, whilst causing problems for players on the receiving end, usually chooses an unsuitable moment to draw their opposition into a clash and, quite often finding it difficult to hold back their frustration, displays this type of behaviour at the expense of their fellow team mates who have worked hard to create a foothold in the game.

All in all, a gradual distinction between such players and effective enforcers is beginning to reveal itself in the NIHL as teams seek out players with both power and skill to contend with the ever-evolving competition in the Moralee Conference.

Photo Credit: Keith and Jenny Davies.

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