There is an old joke about going to a boxing match and a hockey game breaks out, which is usually shared by people who don’t know that much about hockey. Fighting is a very misunderstood aspect of the game, but it is also an integral part of the game.
After the season shutdown of 2004-05, the league changed dramatically. Rules to eliminate the two-line pass and to make hooking, holding and interference more stringent (among other things), made it a skater’s game more than ever. The focus is on speed and skill and less on being physical. Make no mistake, hockey is still the most physical sport, but the days of using a roster spot for a “goon” are over. Teams may still have an enforcer, but if this player cannot skate, he will not last.
In the season before the lockout, there were 789 fighting penalties. Last year, there were 372. This season’s pace is for under 300. Michael Haley leads the league with 18 fighting majors, which was like a road trip for Paul Laus in 1996-97. The former Florida Panther had 39 scraps that year. With 19 games to go this season, the entire Panther team has 40, which leads the league by a large margin. Compare that to the record 154 fights by the Detroit Red Wings of 1985-86 and it is pretty clear that fighting in the NHL is way down and seems to still be trending that way.
Will the league ever make it illegal? I hope not. The numbers are clear that there’s less fighting than ever before. The rules implemented in 2005 have made the game safer because the focus is on skating. Removing fighting will not make it safer in my opinion.
The self-policing element of the NHL separates it from the other three major pro sports in meaningful ways. Notice how the degree of taunting in the NFL is way up since they implemented rules against hitting a defenseless receiver. I’m in no way advocating that they allow these dangerous hits back in the NFL, but when there is no fear of retaliation, human nature has a way of wandering over the line in such competitive environments. Without fighting in the NHL, the self-policing mentality will still exist. Unfortunately, it would likely manifest itself in other ways that may be even more dangerous, such as blind side hits or boarding.
Currently, if something goes unnoticed or unpunished by referees, teams have a means of letting the other team know that it was not unnoticed by them. It’s not acceptable and teams have a way of curbing such recklessness if the threat of a fight looms.
Interestingly, fighting is often the most cerebral part of the game. It is seldom spontaneous. Coaches, players, referees and astute fans know when a fight is coming. It’s not like some after school fight in the playground where someone said something about someone’s mother or tried to hit on someone’s girlfriend (unless perhaps it involved former instigator Sean Avery). Fighting’s about getting into someone’s head. It’s about getting into another team’s head. It’s also about establishing your own team’s mentality.
Surprisingly, since the lockout, championship teams are not the ones that fight the most. In fact, it seems to be the opposite. The Anaheim Ducks (2006-7) led the league in fighting majors and the Boston Bruins (2010-11) were second in fights. Otherwise, the other 10 Stanley Cup Champions since then ranked about 25th in the league on average, with the past three champions finishing second to last in fights. Currently, the six teams that have the fewest fights in the league (Jets, Hurricanes, Golden Knights, Sharks, Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs) are all playoff teams if the season ended today, except for the Hurricanes who are only two points out.
Clearly, the focus on skating and skill is working for the NHL. Since the element of fighting does not seem to have an adverse effect on who wins the ultimate prize, I see no reason for the league to mess with it. Suffice to say, it still has an important place in the game without taking away what the game is all about.