He is the first of a dying breed.

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This article was published 19/12/2016 (2020 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

He is the first of a dying breed.

In an era in which the NHL enforcer is increasingly going extinct, Winnipeg Jets winger Chris Thorburn currently finds himself the heaviest of the league’s few remaining heavyweights, leading the NHL this season in fights with nine.

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press</p><p>Winnipeg Jets Chris Thorburn lands a punch on Calgary Flames Deryk Engelland as the two fight in Calgary Dec. 10.</p>

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press

Winnipeg Jets Chris Thorburn lands a punch on Calgary Flames Deryk Engelland as the two fight in Calgary Dec. 10.

That’s two more fights than the next busiest league heavyweight and on pace to potentially give Thorburn the most pugilistic season of his 715-game NHL career.

Now, 30 years ago, a guy with nine fights in 29 games would still be an outside contender for the Lady Byng Trophy as the league’s most "gentlemanly" player.

Those days are long gone in an NHL where the focus is now all on speed and skill and these days, guys such as Thorburn are starting to look like a dinosaur exhibit.

Consider the numbers: the nine fights Thorburn has had represent almost two-thirds of the 14 fights the Jets have recorded thus far — and are more than the combined team totals of 13 NHL teams this season. The Washington Capitals, New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes have had as many fights combined this season as Thorburn has had all on his own.

It’s not just the role of NHL policeman that is dying — it is increasingly the policemen themselves.

The list of NHL enforcers who have died prematurely in recent years is a long and disturbing one. From Todd Ewan to Steve Montador to Derek Boogaard, the evidence, direct and indirect, that fighting — and the repeated concussions it causes  — shortens lifespans is becoming impossible to ignore.

Why then, with that as a backdrop, would an otherwise bright and genuinely likeable man such as Thorburn continue to volunteer for the most thankless job in professional sports?

Simple, says Thorburn — for all the changes in hockey, sometimes the other guy still needs a punch in mouth. "Fighting happens when it needs to happen for the most part," Thorburn told me Monday morning at the MTS Centre, where the Jets held one final full practice at home before flying to Vancouver for a rare two-game set.

"Sometimes it’s two guys who want to get things going for their team. Other times it’s two guys who have played against each in the past and have a rivalry. There’s different reasons for a fight.

"But while it’s gone down a bit, I think it still has a place."

Which brings us to the next question — why would that place be on the Jets? Why would a team that otherwise prides itself on youth and speed and innovation be the home to the league’s most prolific tough guy right now?

I wondered if the answer might be in the question — a team with such highly skilled and valuable youngsters as Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers and Josh Morrissey is exactly the kind of team you could argue might need a Semenko to look after the Gretzkys.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice shot that idea down, telling me Monday Thorburn has been given no special marching orders this year to hand out beatings, lest the Jets opponents get any notions of taking liberties.

"I’ve certainly never felt with this lineup that you have to get out there and get the gloves off early," Maurice said. "The game is going to youth and everyone has young players on their team. They have to get used to the physicality."

So why all the Thorburn fights this year? "Sometimes you get on a run," ventured Maurice.

For his part, Thorburn sounds a bit perplexed himself to be leading the league in fights.

"It honestly hasn’t really felt like that many fights. Obviously, there’s some bumps and bruises. But in terms of the sheer number (of fights) — nine — that’s not a really high number," said Thorburn.

Hmmmmm. There were just 137 fights during the first 440 games this NHL season, according to the website www.hockeyfights.com, which is exactly as it sounds — an entire website devoted to hockey fights. (Coming soon — www.ChristiansandLions.com).

The website says that’s an average of .31 fights per game this season, a slight increase from the .28 average per game last season, but miles from the .52 fights per game that were going on in the NHL at the start of the decade.

Now, the elephant in the room here is while fighting might be bad for your health, the reality remains for players like Thorburn it can also be their ticket to stay in the everyday lineup.

With three forwards due to come off the Jets injured reserve very soon, someone currently playing is going to have to sit. Thorburn is hoping he’s shown enough — with his gloves on and off — that it won’t be him.

It’s worth noting at this point Thorburn is not without his offensive skills. His three goals this season are just one fewer than former Jets captain Andrew Ladd has scored this year as a high-priced free-agent signing for the New York Islanders, although that fact probably speaks more to the sorry state of Ladd’s game than to Thorburn’s offensive prowess.

Realistically, Thorburn is one of those "bubble" players who needs to carve out his own niche if he’s going to stay in the lineup. This year, that niche appears to be as a throwback player who will sacrifice his face — and, potentially, his long-term health — for the good of his team.

Which brings us to another issue. How is it a new concussion protocol in place in the NHL this season has league "spotters" ordering players to the dressing room if they are perceived to have taken a head shot, but continuing to allow players who’ve had a fight to just keep right on playing?

Bump your head on the ice or the boards in the view of cameras this season and there’s an excellent chance you will be ordered by the league to spend some time in the ‘quiet’ room. Take four punches square to the head, including what looked like a nasty left hook, as Thorburn did Sunday in a fight with Colorado’s Cody McLeod, and the only quiet time you get is what you spend in the penalty box.

Thorburn confirmed for me he hasn’t been subject to the new concussion protocol even once in nine fights this season, although he said one of his opponents this year did get ordered to the dressing room after a fight.

If that seems like a glaring loophole in the NHL’s concussion protocol, well, duh.

Thorburn is a smart guy — for my money, one of the brightest men in that Jets dressing room. So yeah, he knows all about CTE and concussions and the documented risks to his health that come with taking too many blows to the head.

Thorburn also insists he’s managing the risk, in part by playing more defence than offence when he fights.

"I’m aware of (the risks) and that’s why I train to protect myself. It’s not like we’re going toe to toe in these fights. Guys are pretty strategic and it’s almost defence first.

"You might get a couple of clean shots per fight, but if you know what you’re doing you should be able to protect yourself for the most part. That’s what I work on in the summer — not just the offense but the defence."

How many fights is too many — for the Jets to function effectively as a team in today’s NHL and for Thorburn to function effectively as a human being?Let’s hope, for everyone’s sake, we never find out.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.