UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The Florida Panthers opened their season missing a component more and more NHL teams are doing without.
Like a growing number of teams around the league, the Panthers don't have a so-called enforcer on their roster. Usually a fourth-line forward whose main job is to not get in the way of the play on the ice, an enforcer is there to police the play on the ice. If an opposing player wants to take liberties with a teammate, the enforcer comes in and challenges the opponent to square off.
With the league instituting different rule changes over the past few years, the traditional enforcer is finding roster spots harder to come by.
In the past few seasons, the Panthers have used Steve MacIntyre, Nick Tarnasky, Darcy Hordichuk and the late Wade Belak in the role. In their season opener, the Panthers' most-feared puncher was Matt Bradley, a former member of the Capitals who not only can fight but also can score, as well.
Some critics of fighting celebrate as the enforcer's role fades, although it isn't the fighting that has necessarily done them in. It's the speed of the game itself.
"The nature of our makeup is that we don't have that quality to our lineup, but a lot of guys will have to play physical," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "The enforcer on this team won't be premeditated, won't be fighting at the puck drop as a foregone conclusion. You can't afford it. Everyone in our lineup is important and has to play quality minutes and be an important piece of the puzzle. We can't afford a one-trick pony."
The role fighting plays in hockey has long been scrutinized, but no more than this past summer when three enforcers died b" two by their own hand and another by overdose.
Belak, who spent part of two seasons with the Panthers before retiring last season as a member of the Predators, was found in a Toronto condominium on Aug. 31.
Unbeknownst to the public, Belak had been said to be suffering from depression, telling Canadian TV host and friend Michael Landsberg he had been taking "happy pills" for four years. Lorraine Belak, Wade's mother, confirmed in an interview with CBC that her son had been taking anti-depression medication.
Rick Rypien, who was found dead in his home in Alberta, had a long history of battling depression. He had signed with the Winnipeg Jets not long before his death.
Derek Boogaard, considered one of the league's toughest and nastiest fighters, died of an overdose after mixing alcohol with Oxycontin. He had been part of the league's substance abuse program in the past.
Their deaths -- considering the close timing of them and their professional habits on the ice -- led to talk about the NHL needing to curtail fighting. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known at CTE, is a brain disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the skull.
In studies done on donated brains -- former Panthers defenseman Noah Welch was one of the first living players to pledge his to research -- CTE has been found in many former hockey and football players. Long-term conditions of CTE include dementia, rage and depression.
It appears in some cases, CTE can affect athletes who take a pounding earlier than middle age as had been previously thought.
Former NFL players Dave Duerson and Andre Waters each committed suicide; both were found to have brain damage. A recent report said hockey players don't necessarily have to fight to damage their brain, either.
"It's easy for people to jump to conclusions, I understand that. It was a tragic summer," said former Panthers enforcer Peter Worrell, now a high school and college coach in South Florida.
"It's easy to look for the easy answer. We do that with everything. We always want a quick answer because that makes it easier for us to wrap our heads around it. In time, more things will come out and that may change our perception.
"This summer brought the trauma fighting can bring out into the light, it put pause in people's minds. But there's a lot of research that needs to be done. Let's not just take the easy way out. Let's not make bold statements without hard data or research to back it up."
Although the NHL allows fighting to an extent (there are penalties for it), some professional and amateur leagues ban it outright. And although the NHL publicly would like its image not to be portrayed as "barbaric, the only sport that does it, Neanderthal knuckle draggers," as Worrell said, it knows fighting is immensely popular.
The number of players willing to fight just to make their dream of playing in the NHL come true is also a hindrance to the practice going away completely.
"I look back and I'm happy with my career. To me, fighting was a job," Worrell said. "I didn't think it was more important or less important than any other job. Like a car engine, everything helps it run. I was a piece of that machine and did it the best I possibly could. Now, there are a lot of ramifications when you take fighting out. The more we minimize it, we create more problems that plague the game."
Panthers TV analyst Bill Lindsay wasn't an enforcer during his playing days, but by playing in Germany at the end of his career, he says he saw firsthand what not allowing fighting did to the game. Because there were no repercussions, players basically did whatever they wanted.
"You'll see a 5-foot-5 guy who is fearless with his stick doing anything he wants," Lindsay said. "There's no fear factor, no retribution."