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The Straight Edge: Eager to shed 'enforcer' role

Ben Eager of the Blackhawks has 19 goals and 35 points in 175 NHL games. (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Ben Eager of the Blackhawks has 19 goals and 35 points in 175 NHL games. (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

Ben Eager is an enforcer who thinks he’s a power forward. Or maybe we’ve got it twisted – maybe Ben Eager is a power forward who people think is an enforcer.

Either way, the kid puts up numbers and this year he’s been an important element to the rising Chicago Blackhawks.

Eager has already eclipsed his NHL season-best for goals and points, scoring 10 times and adding four assists through 55 games. And though that may not seem like a lot of offense, the left winger is also the Hawks’ nuclear option when an opponent zeroes in on one of Chicago’s stars, such as Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews.

“I don’t really consider myself an enforcer,” said the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Eager. “I just play the game hard, play a physical role. We’ve got a lot of skilled players and if guys take liberties with them, you have to stand up for your teammates.”

And though Eager has no problem dropping the gloves – he’s done so at least eight times this season against tough competition such as Cam Janssen and Zack Stortini – the gritty Ottawa native would much rather be appreciated for the full scope of his game.

In junior, Eager could put points on the board and even finished second on his team, the Ontario League’s Oshawa Generals, in scoring in ’03-04 with 25 goals and 52 points – along with the requisite 204 PIMs.

A first round draft pick of the Phoenix Coyotes (23rd overall) in 2002, Eager was traded to Philadelphia in 2004 alongside Sean Burke and Branko Radivojevic in a deal that saw Mike Comrie go the other way. In his Flyers career, Eager bounced between Broad Street and the American League’s Phantoms, where his use was largely restricted to fighting. In fact, he led the NHL in penalty minutes in ’06-07, despite playing in just 63 games.

“Coming up as a young guy, you do whatever it takes,” he recalled.

Last season, one that saw him traded from Philly to Chi-Town, Eager averaged just less than six minutes of ice time per game.

“I had a long year last year,” Eager said. “It was frustrating. I didn’t want to go through that again.”

So he worked hard in the off-season and is now playing more minutes – nearly nine per game – on a line with Colin Fraser and Adam Burish. Eager is having fun coming to the rink everyday and has found more confidence in himself. But really, he is just rediscovering his past.

My talk with Eager came at a rather coincidental time. Players who can fight often get pigeonholed into that role, usually to their detriment in the long-term. Then you see Eager hit double-digits in goals or watch Anaheim’s George Parros roof a sick breakaway wrister against Toronto early in the season and remember that these players were elite before they became enforcers.

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Friday night, on CBC’s The Fifth Estate, reporter Bob McKeown looks into the fight debate in hockey. I watched a sneak preview of the show Thursday and it certainly raises all the issues on the matter in an emotional and visceral way. Also, if you ever wanted to see a poignant Nick Kypreos, the interview with the ex-enforcer-turned-talking-head provides some of the more raw and real moments of the piece.

After watching the show, I played devil’s advocate to my wife on the fighting issue, much in the same way I do in the THN office from time to time. There are a lot of good arguments against fighting in hockey, but I still know the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association tacitly endorse fisticuffs by not banning them and I still like to watch a good throw-down.

Boston’s Milan Lucic may be the perfect metaphor for my stance on the issue: The ‘Looch’ can score and deliver big, beautiful hits. The home crowd gets out of their seats for both. But they also rise and go full-throat when he drops the gloves; it’s a part of his game, but not the only thing he does.

Same goes for the sport itself. You can take fighting out, but it was a part – not the only reason – of why I fell in love with the game in the first place. Hockey didn’t choose me to watch it; I chose hockey.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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