Joel Rechlicz is a hockey player right out of the 1970s, fresh with a wooden stick, a grizzled beard and tough-guy mentality. He believes in hitting first, fighting second and asking questions while serving his time in the penalty box.
Enforcers such as Rechlicz have become almost extinct in today’s NHL, which is a salary cap world predicated more on speed and skill than fisticuffs and body blows. But many believe there always will be a place for those kinds of players, even if the role has evolved.
“I think there is for sure. I think they’re out there to somewhat police things that go on,” Washington Capitals defenseman John Erskine said. “I think it helps if you’ve got like a Jody Shelley or a tough guy on a team, I think some guys will think twice about taking a run at the top players. I don’t think it’ll ever be out of the game.”
There are many more players such Arron Asham of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Steve Ott of the Dallas Stars, who can be heavyweights but also contribute in other aspects. Many teams can’t afford to use a roster space on a guy who just drops the gloves.
“It’s more expanded now than fighting. You seen Joel — he went after and hit people hard. That’s what you want,” Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. “You want a forechecker. … It’s more of that combination of physical presence of hitting more than even fighting sometimes.”
Rechlicz is as true an enforcer as there is in hockey. He’s muscle-bound and doesn’t have much speed or skating ability. He has 11 fights in 25 career NHL games and never has had a season with more than four points at any level.
“I know what I’m here for,” Rechlicz said. “I’ve just got to be positive and be there for the guys and be energetic when I’m playing — go hard, 110 miles an hour when I get a shift and make the most of it. That’s the role of an enforcer: you’re there for your teammates, you’re a positive presence in the room and you can’t take any bad penalties out there to hurt your team.”
No, Rechlicz’s job is to hurt other people — or at least hit them. And it just so happens that his signing and recall came Monday, shortly before Saturday’s matchup with Rene Bourque and the Montreal Canadiens. It has been a month since Bourque, then with the Calgary Flames, gave Capitals leading scorer Nicklas Backstrom a concussion with an elbow to the head.
Asked if someone had addressed the Bourque situation with him, Rechlicz didn’t exactly back away from the topic.
“Yeah. I heard it was a cheap shot,” he said. “Hopefully I’m in the lineup for that game.”
Rechlicz played just 1:49 in his Washington debut Tuesday at Tampa Bay and 2:37 Wednesday at Florida and never found a dance partner. At an imposing 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds and a pugilistic reputation, that’s not surprising. But it’s not a concern for the 24-year-old.
“Then I’m just going to go get my checks and if I’ve got to run a guy through the glass and force them to fight, that’s what you’ve got to do,” Rechlicz said. “I want to continue to play in this league, so if a fight’s there, it’s there and if not, then I’ve just got to go out there and get my hits and force guys to fight.”
On the ice, that’s all well and good, but many enforcers such as Rechlicz get no more than a handful of shifts a game. That doesn’t prevent them from making an impact.
“Even if he’s on the bench people know he’s there,” Erskine said. “He can get thrown out at any time, and he’s an energy guy. When he gets put out there, he’ll create energy, he moves his feet and tries to get the hits and stirs up some stuff. It’s always good to have … big boys in the lineup.”
But with just a few minutes a game, Rechlicz knows a big part of his job takes place in the locker room and on the bench.
“If you’re not playing, you’ve got to be upbeat and positive — give the guys a pat on the back, a pat on the rear and just be a positive presence on the bench,” he said. “You can’t be soaking it up with your head down; you’ve got to be up, you’ve got to be cheering the guys on. That’s how you stay in the game.”