On Fighting

December 1, 2011 — Leave a comment

Since I have been a fan of the game, I have been a fan of fighting.

We learned of it from video games, from Don Cherry’s Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em tapes, and from watching the warriors on the ice. It was part of the game, it was part of the violence, it was part of what made it the toughest game on earth in a fans eyes. There was nothing like it in any other sport, and maybe that is part of what drew us to it as fans.

Weeks back — nearly three to be exact — Ken Dryden lent his vast knowledge of the game, and knowledge in general, to the project that Bill Simmons et al have taken up over at Grantland. The article is not only a great piece of writing, something we have come to expect from Dryden, but astonishing in its ability to bring to light the issues we face today from someone who was present during expansion-era NHL play. While many of the “old school”-ers from years passed would be reluctant to speak out on the issue, often chalking up the rough play to, “the way the game is,” Dryden faces the issues head on and takes a stand voicing the need for change.


The great Ken Dryden with a sprawling save on Jerry Korab

What Ken Dryden doesn’t do, however, is bother wasting his time with the fighting dispute. In fact, Mr. Dryden rather takes the time to point out the fact that it is not the time to fire up the engine on that argument again:

“This isn’t the time to reengage the debate over fighting. Not directly. That will only distract from the more critical issue that must now be addressed.”

Dryden goes on to point out that those that oppose fighting are not so much against the idea of fighting, but rather the consequences now that we know what the results can be. Most fans would be hard done by to disagree with that statement. There is nary a fan who wants to see a player go down in a heap on the ice, unconscious, unable to skate off the ice under his own power. With what is now known about concussions and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the degeneration of the brain from multiple concussions, we now know that we need to protect the players more than ever.

A point that sticks out is Dryden speaking to fighting in the past. He makes sure to point out that, yes, fighting was a big part of the game back then, but then it took place between players who weren’t exactly the most adept at being ice-boxers. In one of the most honest depictions of fighting from his playing days, Dryden regards it as “vaudeville,” that it was all that players could do to keep themselves upright as they danced about tugging at jerseys with the occasional punch thrown. That is something you had never heard from a player from the “good ‘ol days, when hockey was hockey.”

Today’s fights, between your six-foot-somethings who weigh in at well over 200-face-punching-pounds, are a different breed. If the fights in Dryden’s days were those of vaudeville, we’re entering into a different stage of Rocky-esque action. We’ve crossed over into something else. It’s not a tug to the ice, it’s Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em film fodder.

Now, all this to say Dryden has got himself a point. Go figure, a former Canadian MP is a smart guy.

Although he points out that he doesn’t want to start the fight debate again, there are some things that his article has done to spark it within myself. Always have I been a fan of fighting, and always have I seen it to serve a purpose, but things have changed recently. It hasn’t been within the last year and it hasn’t been within the last five, it has been an ever-evolving part of the game that has come to a head. There does need to be change.


John Scott is one of the league’s true enforcers

It was interesting to look through HockeyFights.com’s archives from last season and see, by the numbers, how fighting has almost taken over the game in the junior ranks. With almost one fight per game in the OHL and one per game in the WHL — the numbers are from the 2010-11 season are at the bottom of this article — the developmental leagues that feed every minor-pro and pro-league world wide are becoming a feeder for this continuance of the fight becoming the spectacle over the game.

Do we need to legislate fighting out of the game? Some would certainly argue that if their is a full-out ban on headshots, that the logical move is that yes, we must — but that is not absolutely necessary.

Hockey is — and excuse the apologist tone — a physical game. With speeds that exceed any other professional sport, things happen much quicker. Accidents happen and, while you may want the players to be responsible for their bodies, there is no way to completely remove all risk of contact with the head. Ask anybody who has ever played the game at a grassroots level; sometimes contact with each other is unavoidable. We bump into each other because we don’t know how to avoid it. It’s one of those things that, while it does change with age, never completely leaves the game. Accidental illegal contact is part of any sport.

Already we have come to an understanding that we can’t avoid this at a major league level. Instilled in Rule 48, the NHL’s head shot legislation, is the caveat that the head must be the target or principle point of contact. What can be taken from this is that a player leaning in, moving their head toward the shoulder, or positioning themselves in the brief moment prior to contact that endangers them, will not necessarily result in a suspension. This is what would be qualified as accidental contact.

However, the overabundance of fighting in the junior ranks is beginning to point us in a scary direction. That is far from accidental contact. It’s two men punching each other in the head; doesn’t get more intentional than that. Yes, we’re talking about young males with extremely high amounts of testosterone, and yes, we’re talking about guys that are trying to make a name for themselves, but the same type of player is playing in the NCAA, a league free of fighting.

It is possible to institute stiffer penalties for hockey, but at what cost? Would it cause the leagues to lose fans? Would attendance be down? Adversely, would there be parents who are more likely to bring their children to the games with fighting removed?

Simply put, no. That’s not the way to solve this. At a junior level, the CHL in particular, the solution is this; a game misconduct. It sounds crazy, it really does. And if the league were to do it, it would be met with pretty serious scrutiny. It’s not a matter of removing it from the game, it’s a matter of discouraging the staged fight, the fight with no purpose. Nothing would draw pure emotion out of a player more than removing himself from the game just to get his hands on his opponent. If the players learn that the staged fight needs to be out of the game at that level, it creates building blocks for the NHL.

Moving into the NHL addressing the issue would be the removal of the staged fight through the same punishment. For instance, a fight off the draw between two goons — and don’t fool yourself, referees know who these players are — would result in a 10-minute misconduct on top of the five minute major.

Don Cherry has for years been barking about the need to remove the instigator, but it seems very unlikely that in moments of great emotion — the defense of a teammate, a revenge fight, or a something that occurs in the heat of an in-game moment — that it crosses the mind of these men. The penalty doesn’t discourage a real, true fight. Now, more than ever, players in the NHL are willing to go after one another, even a smaller player taking on one of the giants.

There are a plethora of options that the NHL can consider. The complete removal of fighting is not one. Installing restraints on what is and what allowed certainly is.


1320 Total Fights
Average per game: .97 (68GP x 20 teams)

1713 Total Fights
Average per game: 1.08 (72GP x 22 teams)

958 Total Fights
Average per game: .78 (68GP x 18 teams)

Average per game: .5 (82GP x 30 teams)



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