It is becoming increasingly clear that the only people who believe there is a need for a fourth line in hockey play on fourth lines.
It is, truly, hockey's vestigial organ, a part of the game that has lost its function, whatever that was in the first place.
Hockey players today are in such splendid shape that the coaching system of rolling four lines is said tongue-in-cheek, with everyone knowing that the fourth line will, at best, be used only a few shifts – and then, almost exclusively, with the notion of roughing the other side up, very often through a staged fight courtesy of the other side's fourth line.
They are often called energy lines – though that should be because they zap it so quickly out of a game that has had good flow until they end their shift, almost invariably, with the scream of a referee's whistle.
Their precious few minutes of play would be gobbled up happily – and far more effectively – by the superior, more-skilled players on the other lines.
The fourth line continues to exist, however – far more likely for collective bargaining reasons than any other – and because NHL jobs, no matter what their description, are so highly paid that the positions are hotly pursued, particularly at this time of year.
In the exhibition match between the Winnipeg Jets and the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night, it was almost heartbreaking to witness Cody Bass of Columbus deliver application after application for one of the three spots on the Blue Jackets' weakest line.
On his first shift, a mere 37 seconds into the game, Bass went after Winnipeg's huge Dustin Byfuglien, who briskly knocked Bass to the ice with a simple sweep of his huge arm. But the time the game was half through, Bass had been in three fights and, finally, was handed a 10-minute misconduct by the officials, which effectively removed him from the play – not that he'd actually been in much.
Bass is the prototype fringe player in the NHL. The 24-year-old Ontario player is of middling size for hockey but courageous and determined. His early hockey history suggests he set out to be a true player, little penalized, but gradually reality set in. For several years, he was property of the Ottawa Senators but could not crack the NHL team as a regular, spending most of his time with Binghamton in the American Hockey League, where you can easily track a rising belligerence. Unable to stick at the NHL level – he has two goals and four points in 34 career games – you can see his penalty minutes soar in the minor leagues. He clearly hopes to make the Blue Jackets with his fists, not his hands.
Cody Bass, it needs to be pointed out, is merely one example. There are dozens of Cody Basses – usually likeable young men chasing their dream the only way they can – at training camps throughout the league at the moment.
A Toronto-area researcher with deep hockey roots but an equally deep dislike of goon hockey believes he has found a direct correlation between roster size and excessive fighting.
Using record books and data culled from hockeyfights.com, the researcher found that in the last year of the 16-man roster, 1970-71, the league fighting leader had 12 fights and 14 players had five fights or more. The next year, with 17 skaters, the leader had 22 fights and 39 players had five or more.
A decade later, when the roster went to 18, the leader had 26 fights and 111 players five or more. Since then, the numbers have remained high: The leader having 27 fights and 96 players with five or more a decade ago, the leader with 27 and 85 with five or more fights last season.
Some of this would be covered in an increased number of teams, but the essence is obvious.
Drop the fourth line, and fighting will drop faster than the gloves.