- Fights and the NHL: the dynamic duo
- Hockey fighting layout
- History of hockey fighting
- Informal rules about fighting
- Consequences of fights in hockey
- Will fights in the NHL be abolished?
- The decline of fighting in hockey
- The most memorable fights in NHL history
Whether it is college hockey or the largest rungs of the North American hockey world, fighting is a captivating occurrence that always borders on the incendiary. Find out more about this deeply rooted tradition and discover the ramifications of fighting that few fans pay attention to thanks to LV BET.
FIGHTS AND THE NHL: THE DYNAMIC DUO
The year 1922 remains to be a very significant one in the world of the National Hockey League — abbreviated to ‘NHL’ for fans of the ice hockey game. In fact, 1922 was the year when hockey fighting became incorporated as an official part of the game. Since then, hockey and fights have become inextricable for many reasons — the most blatant one being the entertainment factor that never fails to mesmerise eager hockey fans.
The peculiar aspect of hockey fighting is that a cursory glance at its roots yields one answer, whereas a closer look yields another. To the unaware, the purpose of a fight might simply be to rile up and entertain crowds — not unlike the happenings inside the Colosseum in Ancient Rome.
To the observant, however, the purposes of a fight are numerous, and they transcend what can be seen by the naked eye. Before exploring this aspect of NHL games, let us describe the layout of a fight and see what conditions must be met for a brawl to happen.
HOCKEY FIGHTING LAYOUT
By far, the most important concept to understand when learning about hockey fights is that they are both punished and accepted. This paradoxical stance with regard to mid-game altercations is very rare in the sporting world, but hockey is a notable exception.
In hockey, players who partake in fights are handed the according punishment — referred to as ‘penalties’ in the context of the game — but at the same time, fights are accepted as much as simple fouls in football — a simple byproduct of physical play.
Should two players of opposing teams intend to fight, the standard practice is for their hockey gloves to be dropped on the ice. That is the first and last courtesy practised in the subsequent fight, where the two players will engage in a fist fight under close observation of two referees.
- If both players fail to remove their gloves, they will receive a two-minute penalty, as opposed to the five-minute major penalty for gloveless brawls.
- The removal of helmets prior to the fight is not permitted, but neither player will face punishment if their helmet falls off during the scuffle. Players removing opponents’ helmets are strongly punished.
At this point, the play is stopped by the referees, allowing for the brawl to happen unimpeded by the rest of the players. Once either of the two fighting players falls to the ice, the fight is considered finished and the appropriate penalties will be imposed.
THE CULPRITS OF A FIGHT
It is fundamental to highlight the possible roles of the two players within the context of a fight, since the penalties imposed will differ according to the role that the player falls under. The roles are called ‘instigator’ and ‘aggressor’.
The instigator is the player who is deemed responsible for starting the fight — hence the name. There can be various reasons why the instigator may decide to instigate a fight, but we’ll explain them later on.
There are many factors that are taken into account to determine which of the two players is the instigator; namely, the distance travelled to engage in the fight and whether they were the first to start the verbal or physical exchange.
Instigators receive a two-minute minor penalty, a five-minute major penalty, as well as a 10-minute game misconduct penalty — totalling to a 17-minute penalty.
The aggressor is the player who, unlike the instigator, isn’t the one who instigated the fight. However, the aggressor is labelled that way since they continue to fight even after the scuffle is deemed finished.
Penalties for aggressors aren’t commonplace, but aggressors who are considerably stronger than their opponent are faced with a five-minute major penalty as well as an immediate game misconduct penalty — which is synonymous with expulsion from the ice hockey game.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER A FIGHT?
Both the instigator and the aggressor will be subjected to sitting in the penalty box for at least five minutes, and they won’t be allowed to join in on the game until the penalty expires.
If a game misconduct penalty is imposed on a player, their opposing team will have a power play: a period of time in which one team outnumbers the other. This can drastically change the outcome of an ice hockey game, which is all the more reason why fights should ideally never spiral out of control.
- If another fight breaks out, the players responsible for it will be handed a game misconduct penalty. This strict rule aims to restrict the number of fights in a single game.
- If a third player looks to rekindle a fight, they will be handed a game misconduct penalty.
HISTORY OF HOCKEY FIGHTING
Fighting in the NHL wasn’t always as structured as it presently is. The league’s early years saw scuffles that bordered on the criminal, which is what compelled the NHL to introduce Rule 56 in 1922. This rule, formally called ‘fisticuffs’, introduced the five-minute major penalty to participants of a fight.
The introduction of this rule revolutionised the significance of fights in hockey. Marketing campaigns highlighting the teams’ rivalries blossomed in the wake of Rule 56, seeing as fighting was officially endorsed by the NHL, albeit within strict parameters.
The contemporary NHL rulebook no longer incorporates the antiquated ‘fisticuffs’ idea. Instead, Rule 46 governs fighting as a whole while allowing referees to check excessively physical play and determine and punish the instigator and aggressor depending on the factors we highlighted above.
Fighting in the NHL saw somewhat of a boom in the 1980s before going on a downward slope as the decades progressed. Over the last decade, fighting in the NHL has decreased by a whopping 65% from the preceding decade, totalling to 0.18 fights per match in the 2018/19 season.
An element that seems to be disappearing from contemporary ice hockey games is the enforcer role. The enforcer — a name given to a team’s notable tough guy — is an unofficial role whose primary focus is to respond to aggressive play by the opposing team.
Enforcers must not be confused with ‘pests’ — players who aim to agitate opponents in an effort to distract them from the game. In fact, enforcers do not attempt to instigate fights. Their primary role is to protect their team — usually the smaller and skilled players — from aggressive play by engaging in fights if said players are experiencing excessive foul play.
Enforcers used to be the culprits of multiple fights, but their limited role in a team eventually ushered them out of the NHL game. Instead of reserving a spot in the team for an enforcer — a one-dimensional player with questionable playing skills who lacked defending and scoring traits — teams preferred opting for more well-rounded players. With that said, this did not see the enforcer role diminish; rather, its role became fragmented and shared among the team’s existing players.
INFORMAL RULES GOVERNING FIGHTING
Fans attend games primarily for the entertainment factor, and fights in hockey are quite a big piece of the pie. Nevertheless, there are many unwritten rules governing fights, and a breach of these rules almost always results in either opponent disdain or a strict penalty.
1. ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES
Foul play — whether caught by the referees or not — inevitably increments the likelihood of a fight. If an act of foul play goes unnoticed by the referees, the chances are that the on-field players have witnessed it anyway, and a fight will begin to brew.
Most fights occur as a result of consistent grudges held by players of the opposing teams. A string of aggressive play almost always results in a fight, and most players expect this much.
2. STAR PLAYERS AND GOALIES ARE OFF THE TABLE
Unless the direct culprits of aggressive play, stars and goalies are never the targets of fights. Most star players and goalies tend to focus on the actual game play rather than pay attention to the dynamic between the two teams. As such, these two player types tend to be very unlikely participants in a fight unless they themselves are the ones who instigate it.
3. PICK ON SOMEONE YOUR OWN SIZE
The intent to fight a player of a considerably smaller size than your own is very frowned upon in the world of hockey, and this can compound matters more than anticipated. It is considered fair play to spar with a like-sized member of a hockey team, as long as both players agree to engage.
4. BOTH SIDES HAVE TO AGREE TO FIGHT
A hockey fight consists of two players who are both willing participants. If one of the players doesn’t remove their gloves and doesn’t show any interest whatsoever in engaging in the fight, the action shouldn’t proceed further. A fight participant deemed to have sparred with an unwilling player will be heavily sanctioned.
5. IF A PLAYER INSTIGATES A FIGHT, THEY MUST SEE IT THROUGH
Backing down from a fight after having committed aggressive play is deemed cowardly, and it is extremely frowned upon in the world of hockey. It is understood that aggressive play, while sometimes an inevitable result of such a physical game, is clear intent to provoke a fight. Committing aggressive play and retreating from a fight is very unsportsmanlike, and it could result in more fights in future games.
6. IF A FIGHTING PLAYER FALLS, THE FIGHT MUST STOP
Once one of the fighting players hits the ice, the fight is considered over and the appropriate penalties will be given. Hitting players as they lie on the ice carries a very hefty punishment, including a game suspension. The reason for this rule is to deter serious injuries and avoid overly aggressive behaviour.
THE CAUSES OF HOCKEY FIGHTS
So far, we’ve covered the layout of hockey fighting, its history and even the unwritten rules that govern it. What remains to be inspected is the exact cause of fights, be it game-related reasons or even personal ones. Although the cause of some fights might remain a mystery — mostly owing to verbal or off-the-rink disputes — highlighting the general causes of fights is entirely possible.
Retaliation is one of the most popular reasons why fights in hockey break out. When an opposing team engages in overly aggressive play, a team might conclude that ‘settling the score’ is required, and a fight is an official way of doing so.
Enforcers are sometimes known to start fights in an attempt to intimidate opposing players, potentially even imposing a psychological advantage on them. The mental momentum that a successful fighter brings to their team can be very significant, and it can sway the outcome of the match in their favour.
In the past, teams signed enforcers in order to protect the smaller or more skilful players, but, as we’ve mentioned earlier, their role has become somewhat sidelined as the years progressed. Nowadays, enforcers tend to eagerly engage in fights in order to prove their worth as an asset to the team, thus potentially attracting the attention of team coaches.
Apart from that, some fights have no clear incentive whatsoever — possibly being the result of a long-lasting rivalry between the two teams. Fights recurring from past games are quite common, and it might take a long time before the two teams bury the hatchet.
CONSEQUENCES OF FIGHTS IN HOCKEY
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman often reiterates his belief that the status quo of fighting in hockey serves a legitimate purpose: to lessen further violence. A study conducted by the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One contradicts his standpoint, however, as it found that fights are linked to traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) even after players’ careers end.
The peer-reviewed analysis took into account all penalties in NHL games between the 2010/11 and 2018/19 seasons. Of the 2,842 games in the period with a fight, a 66% increase in violent minor penalties committed in ensuing play was reported, compared to games without a fight.
A preliminary study published by the Boston University in 1974 found that players were at 23% greater risk of developing brain injuries for every additional year they played hockey. With that said, it is unclear whether this is due to the physical nature of hockey or the fights therein.
Professor of human sciences and former goalie Michael Betz stated that “the issue of fighting is polarizing within the hockey community and for casual fans. As a former hockey player and a researcher, I wanted to see if the arguments in support of fighting held up. What I found was that not a single approach I tried yielded any evidence that fighting or even the threat of fighting deters more violent play in the NHL.”
These studies were thought to complement new medical insights which highlighted the link between fights in hockey and TBIs. Professor Betz also commented: “Fighting increases the risk of TBIs but isn’t essential to hockey, and removing it wouldn’t fundamentally alter the sport.” All this begs the question…
WILL FIGHTING IN THE NHL BE ABOLISHED?
Although it is said that, over the years, hockey encouraged physical intimidation, does it mean that fights should continue? Despite the fact that officials tolerate fighting (within limits), could a fighting ban be on the cards?
At this point, the NHL has no plans to eliminate fighting from ice hockey, but the hockey-loving community never shies away from an opportunity to voice the pros and cons of this peculiar tradition.
Above, we’ve highlighted some very convincing reasons used by naysayers of ice hockey fighting. Below, we’ll have a look at the arguments used by fans who defend fighting. What possible pros can a fight have in the context of the game?
ARGUMENTS IN FAVOUR OF FIGHTING IN HOCKEY
In an opinion piece published by the Queen’s Journal, sports editor Angus Merry called NHL fighting “as much a part of the game as the sticks, skates, and helmets that players wear when they take the ice.” However, he went on to question whether fighting should be allowed solely because of its intrinsic nature throughout the history of the game.
Although fighting exists nowadays, it wouldn’t be fair to say that “fights frequently occur”. This tradition, although the subject of great enthusiasm from fans, is on a blatant downward trend. In the 2008/09 season, 41.4% of games had a fight, whereas that figure plummeted to 15.3% come the 2018/19 season.
Moreover, the many unwritten rules governing fighting look to safeguard players’ health as much as possible. Gloves must always be removed by the willing participants of a fight, whereas the use of tape is met with a major penalty, if not a suspension. Most fights boil down to rough tugging of hockey jerseys and flailing fists — hardly a barbaric practice that deserves condemnation. Granted, fighting will never be completely harmless, but the appropriate limits are definitely in place to minimise serious injuries.
From a tactical standpoint, fights can serve as major boosts to a team’s morale and momentum within the game. A positive outcome of a fight raises morale for one team and acts as a mental setback for another, thus potentially affecting the outcome of a game. This is the case in both amateur and collegiate hockey, but especially in professional hockey games. European professional hockey leagues don’t incorporate fighting in hockey, so this element is non-existent in that part of the world.
Last but not least, fighting keeps players accountable for their actions. It isn’t entirely up to the referees to spot aggressive play, since players also share the burden of spotting it and responding to it accordingly. An occasional spontaneous fight breaking out isn’t necessarily the solution, but it also serves as a reminder that excessive aggression during play, whether unnoticed or not, will have consequences.
THE DECLINE OF FIGHTING IN HOCKEY
In 1,271 regular-season games in 2018-19, there were 224 fights in which at least one player received a fighting major. That’s down from 280 fights in 2017-18. The number of fights in a full season has dropped every season from 2008 to 2009, when there were 734 fights. In 2001/02, that number was 803. From the 2000/01 season to 2009/10, the NHL averaged 669 fights per season.
The decline of the much-anticipated hockey fight occurred mostly during the last two decades — standing out as quite a stark comparison to the number of fights in 20th-century hockey. A systematic change of rules in most professional hockey leagues warranted an inevitable decline in fights, as we’ll see below.
Notable minor leagues such as the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) tackled the prevalence of fights very remarkably. Known for its famous 10-fight rule — where players engaging in more than 10 fights would be penalised — the OHL reduced that number to three. The scope of this was to lessen the importance of enforcers, thus making more space for players who could add more to their team than just a menacing presence.
THE MOST MEMORABLE FIGHTS IN NHL HISTORY
While the International Ice Hockey Federation ostensibly mulls over knuckling down on fights, let’s reminisce about the major fights that will always occupy the pages of hockey’s history books.
OTTAWA SENATORS VS. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
March 5 2004 goes down as quite a day to remember for the two teams. Rob Ray and Donald Brashear engaged in a fight practically inside the Flyers’ net. During the scuffle, Brashear’s helmet took flight, leaving him susceptible to some considerably tough attacks from his opponent. Once the referees halted the action, a total of 419 penalty minutes was given.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS VS. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
The Flyers rarely backed down from a fight, even in the 20th century. It was in 1996 that a remarkable fight broke out between the two teams, when Wendel Clark and Daniel Lacroix engaged in a scuffle as a result of aggressive play by Clark. What really got the crowd riled up were the two teams’ goalies, who glided all the way to each other and had a go at each other. Once it was over, the goalies headed directly to the penalty box.
BOSTON BRUINS VS. NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Not turning the clock back to 1980 would have been sacrilegious in the context of this list, since this one was considered the brawl of the decade. After a neck-to-neck first period, the two teams returned in style as Mike Milbury engaged in a fight with Duane Sutter. A few seconds later, many other fights broke out, so much so that the benches of both teams emptied out as players flocked to the ice to fight. It is said that the cameras couldn’t possibly capture all the happenings unfolding in the rink. This game clearly happened before it was believed that hockey brawls ruin the sportsmanship of the game.
BOSTON BRUINS VS. NEW YORK RANGERS
Like the Flyers, the Boston Bruins always enjoy a good scuffle. This was particularly evident in 1979, when what is regarded as “the best punch-up ever” broke out as the third period was coming to a close. Phil Esposito’s great shot was parried by the skilful Gerry Cheevers, which led to Esposito’s outburst of frustration emerging as he smashed his stick and left the rink.
Shortly after, dozens of players from the two teams engaged in a major scuffle as a result of Ulf Nilsson’s sucker punch earlier in the game. Fans added to the mayhem as some Bruins players eventually climbed into the stands to fight. All in all, it is safe to say that the game wasn’t the most cordial of encounters between the two teams.
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