Anatomy Of The Hockey Fight: The History, The Purpose, And Current Role Of Fighting In The NHL

With off-season departures of known fighters Tanner Glass and Deryk Engelland, many wondered how the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to protect their star players.  However, with a new generation of scrappers in Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres, and a proven warrior in Steve Downie, the Penguins seem to be doing okay.

However, many people have taken the stance that hockey fighting should be banned.  The chief complaints are the risk of serious injury and that fighting distracts from the game.  I agree that the former is a very real concern, but the latter is pure hogwash.  A notorious flip-flopper on the issue of hockey fighting is Mike Milbury, who once beat a fan with the fan’s own shoe, but is now calling for an all out ban on fighting from the sport of hockey.

Before continuing, I should disclose that I am in favor of fighting remaining a part of the game, though I fully support additional measures in terms of rules and punishments to reduce the prevalence of injuries.

Fighting In Context

It is important to have an historical lens through which to evaluate the hockey fight.  The sport of hockey, like most other sports, evolved over time.  Most hockey historians agree that hockey was created when Europeans brought over their traditional stick-and-ball games to North America in the 18th century, though the sport did not have formal rules or organization until the late 19th century. 

Hockey most likely developed its physical and bruising nature from European exposure to the game of Lacrosse by the indigenous peoples of Canada.  By melding skill and physical abuse, hockey became wildly popular, and the sport flourished.  Fighting in hockey developed primarily as a way of policing the game without involving the formal authorities when things got out of hand on the ice.

Although the NHL was founded in 1917, it wasn’t until 1922, when Rule 56 was introduced, that fighting was subject to any formal regulation.  It was with rule 56 that the tradition of the five minute major penalty for fighting was born.  Although fighting was an accepted part of the sport from the NHL’s inception on up to the 1970s, it wasn’t until the emergence of the Broad Street Bullies — the Philadelphia Flyers teams of the 1970s that achieved success by pummeling their opponents — and the Big Bad Bruins — Boston Bruins teams of the same era used similar tactics — that fighting achieved the height of its notoriety and “the enforcer” was born.  This would serve as the high-water mark for fighting in the NHL, as the prevalence of the bruising practice slowly but surely began to recede.

Oct 18, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; New York Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic (3) and Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Steve Downie (23) fight during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center.The Penguins won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

One important carryover from this era is “the code” — a seldom spoken but closely adhered to set of principles fighters have adopted.  Central tenets of the code include: (1) only challenging other enforcers to fight (unless protecting your goalie), (2) when an enforcer has declined an invitation to fight due to injury, the inviting player backs down, and (3) if a player is injured during the fight and clearly can’t continue to participate, the fight is over.

The Purpose of Fighting in the NHL

When discussing the role of fighting in hockey, it is important to understand the purposes it serves.  From playing hockey growing up and watching the sport, I have been able to identify (broadly) four instances where hockey fights occur.

First, any hockey player (okay, most hockey players) will fight when an opponent messes with their goalie.  Goaltenders voluntarily step in front of 100 mph slap shots for their team, so when an opponent adds to the physical toll a netminder takes by jabbing them with a stick or running into them outright, it doesn’t matter if you are Shawn Thornton or Sidney Crosby, players are going to stand up for their goalie.  It is these instances where referees will give players the most lee-way in terms of letting the fight go until there is a winner.  The logic is that if the two players can settle the issue themselves, tempers will be assuaged.

Second, enforcers will fight to protect their team’s offensive talent.  This purpose is particularly important for the Penguins.  Talented hockey players, the guys who make the game look like a Monet painting, need time and space to make passes, deke and dangle, and put the puck into the opponents net.  When an opponent takes liberties with a player like Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, or Martin St. Louis (who is still an offensive force at 39 years old), you need to have players that will get into a fight and demand respect from the other team.  This opens up the ice for the creativity those high-end players naturally produce.

Nov 6, 2014; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler (26) fights Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Robert Bortuzzo (41) during the first period at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Third, to stop an opponent’s momentum and even reverse it.  This can be a short term fix, meaning you are trying to change the tides of the game, or a long-term fix, when you know you will see a team later in the season and even in the playoffs.  These types of games are often played between division rivals.  Teams that don’t like each other very much, like the Penguins and Flyers or the Montreal Canadiens and the Bruins, often play physical and bruising games intended to wear down an opponent and get into their head.  This works wonders when a team has fallen behind early and can rejuvenate their play in that game, or it can get their juices flowing for inevitable meetups on a later date.

Fourth, you have fights that occur because some players have blood lust.  Many enforcers have gone on record saying they hated fighting during their career, or that they dreaded playing a certain team because they knew they were going to have to fight a certain player, but they fought because it was their only way to play at the NHL level.  However, a small percentage of fighters do it because they truly enjoy it and for no other reason.  I believe these players should see themselves out of the league, or should be escorted out by the league itself.  This typing requires no context as it serves no purpose, and is devoid of any value whatsoever.

Fighting in Today’s Game

Currently, hockey fights are governed by Rule 46 of the National Hockey League Official Rules.  Today’s rules are much more detailed than the basic “five for fighting” regime employed for decades.

There is of course the instigator penalty, which allows referees to determine that a player who initiates a fight can be given an additional 2-minute minor penalty for “instigating” if they were acting acting in a manner that seeks to draw others into a fight — for example dropping the gloves first, or traveling a great distance on the ice to begin a fight, or even retribution for actions taken in a previous game.

There is also the “aggressor” designation, which results in a game misconduct where a player continues to throw punches after the other player is in a vulnerable position and the fight would ordinarily be considered over.

Undoubtedly the most important change that was made to the rules governing fighting was the addition of a 2-minute minor penalty for taking off one’s own helmet before a fight starts.  For decades this was common place, but has since been outlawed. The purpose of this rule is not only to protect players when they are slammed to the ice, which carries a serious risk of concussion or severe lacerations, but to also dissuade players from fighting altogether — who wants to slam their fist onto a hard plastic helmet, or a visor for that matter?

Of course, there is the caveat that helmets that “fall off” during the course of the fight do not trigger the rule and the players will not receive a penalty.  In fact, it is here where I think the league could go further, and dictate that the fight is over once a player’s helmet comes off, and any player continuing to fight without their helmet will receive an additional two-minute minor penalty.

Conclusion  

Fighting, when done properly, when regulated by the league, and when actively refereed, can be as effective or more effective than just about any other tactic in a hockey game (except perhaps scoring a goal).  If anyone has an hour and a half to kill and a Netflix subscription, I would recommend watching “The Last Gladiators,” which documents fighting in hockey through the eyes of enforcer Chris “Knuckles” Nilan.  Regardless of whether you support hockey fighting or want it abolished, it is a great watch.