Part of The Game

Two men stand facing each other, possibly with helmets off,
adrenaline coursing through their bodies. Gloves hit the ice. Arms reach out. Hands
grab onto something, anything. Fists fly for 30 seconds that feel like an eternity
before linesmen step in. The crowd cheers louder. The two men skate to the
penalty boxes after an obligatory pat on the back. Sticks are tapped along the
boards in front of both benches. The game continues on. This is fighting in the
NHL.

I’ll be honest here: I love a good fight. I do. I’m not sure
if I’m supposed to apologize for liking a good fight, but I’m not sorry that it’s
something I enjoy.

Now I’m going to admit to something even crazier: I think it
actually boosts momentum. Well, that is to say I believe players when they say
they feel boosts of momentum, because unless we’re talking about actually
pushing someone down a hill I don’t think we’re talking about Newton or physics.
There’s a very interesting cultural/taught/learned response to fighting in
hockey. If I ever wanted to do a PhD in Anthropology I would surely like to
spend time with hockey players as they learn not just how to fight, but how to
feel, think about, and respond to a fight.

Fighting in hockey is not just about two men hitting each
other with fists. It’s about creating energy, policing the game, exacting
revenge, intimidating the opposition, and standing up for teammates. It’s
probably about a lot more than that but without those sweet university grants I’m
going to have to leave it to that list. And if that sounds stupid, like it’s a
bunch of hooey about a barbaric practice, then realize that we engage in a lot
of rituals in our daily lives that have greater meaning to us that an outsider
might think is ridiculous.

Fighting doesn’t happen in hockey because the game is
inherently violent and sometimes meatheads just can’t control their emotions.
It happens in hockey because it is a part of the game and players have learned
when to fight. They’ve learned the rules of fighting that exist in hockey. We
have expectations about fighting even as fans. We understand when someone should
fight but won’t. We understand when someone fights but shouldn’t. And, unlike
in boxing, those rules aren’t necessarily based on weight class.

Fighting is a part of hockey in a way that is unlike
fighting in any other sport. I recognize that this is not something that is
universally loved, but it is true nevertheless. I often hear, “Fighting isn’t
any more part of the game than spearing.” This is, of course, a lie. In fact,
the difference between the two can be seen pretty easily right within the
rulebook of the NHL.

Spearing is Rule 62 of the NHL. Like most infractions that
are covered in the book there are 6 clauses to Rule 62.

62.1 Is the definition of a Spear

62.2 Explains the case for assessing the lowest grade of
penalty (in this case a Double-Minor)

62.3 Explains the case for assessing a Major Penalty

62.4 Explains the case for assessing a Match Penalty

62.5 Explains the case for assessing a Game Misconduct
Penalty

62.6 Explains the case for Fines and/or suspensions.

Pick an infraction and the rulebook works its way through
problems in this manner. High Sticking, Hooking, Elbowing, it all follows the
same pattern. Based on that pattern it is easy to conclude that any infraction
described in a similar manner is as equally illegal as another. The rules are
clear, straightforward, and well laid out. Rule 46 – Fighting – is not laid out
this way in the NHL’s rulebook. It does not follow this pattern.

Rule 46 doesn’t have 6 clauses. It has 22! It actually spans
6 pages of the entire rulebook. This is not Spearing. This is not something
that is simply not “a part of the game”. The NBA rulebook covers fighting too.
It does it in 5 clauses, 4 of which explain that the fighting foul can be
called whether the ball is in play or not and what to do after the players are
ejected. That’s because it doesn’t take 6 pages and 22 clauses to describe
something that isn’t a part of the game, like fighting in Basketball.

In Hockey, it takes 22 clauses to effectively cover the ins
and outs of fighting because even though players will be penalized for fighting,
there is a right kind of fight and wrong kind of fight. Because if one man is
acting the aggressor to an unwilling combatant it is wrong. Because if one
person is wearing a visor it is wrong. Because jumping in as the 3rd
man is wrong. Because not tying down your jersey then fighting is wrong.

All of these things are in the rulebook and the only
conclusion is that they exist in order to inform players about the RIGHT way to
fight in the NHL. If fighting wasn’t a part of the game then there would be no
need for these rules. The NHL rule for fighting would look a lot like the NBA
rule for fighting. Except it doesn’t.

The “Golden Age” of fighting in the NHL is already gone.
Last year there were 344 fights in the NHL, the lowest in 15 years of data at
hockeyfights.com and surely much longer than that. It’s transitioning out of
the game, in part, because the roster spots that used to go to fighters are
being used on players who can actually skate. We are also increasingly becoming
more aware of what blows to the head can do to the brain and the long-term effects
that might leave behind. For the morally superior there might not be a place in
the future of Hockey for fighting.

Still, I’m not going to take the position that fighting doesn’t
belong in the game. What matters to me is that it IS a part of the game and has
been for my entire life even though it has been constantly evolving. Players learn the written and unwritten rules of
fighting. They know when to expect it, when to do it, when not to do it, how to
think about it, and how to react to it. Even as fights becoming increasingly
and dramatically less common, they remain a part of the game. I think they always will be even as the role of fighting continues to change over time.

  • Spydyr

    Any hockey player who has been on the ice when a teammate/friend has been injured by a cheap shot understands why fighting belongs in the game.

    Sometimes time in the box is not enough.

  • JSR

    I’m ok with the fighting dropping off, as it pertains to the one-dimensional player. The staged fights can go. If someone is pi$$ed at someone for something that was done on the ice, by all means go after him.
    That being said, I believe the instigator penalty has to go, or the way it is called needs to be changed. For instance, if Player X takes a high stick across the face, and a one-sided fight occurs when Player X pummels the offending player, the high stick is the penalty that instigated the whole thing…

    • Rock11

      I will agree with that the minute we stop seeing idiots run from across the ice to jump a player who just landed a perfectly clean hit cause some guy got caught with his head down. This has become all too frequent and is now one my biggest pet peeves. The instigator rule has to protect the hitter in this case from an over zealous opponent. What the teammate should do is laugh at his guy on the bench and tell him to keep his head up.

  • freelancer

    We’ve heard it from a multitude of players over the years. No one has been afraid to play the Oilers. While I agree that fighting does build momentum I think more important than that is a player on a team seeing his teammate stand up for him.

    Lucic, Maroon, Hendricks, Pouliot, Kassian. These are guys who have no problem skating up to an opposing player who they feel has wronged someone. It’s no longer one or two fourth line guys who we only see 8 minutes a night. And that is a very nice change.

  • TKB2677

    The way the game is going, there are less and less guys even willing to fight anymore. So I really don’t think anything needs to be done. I don’t have a clue what the numbers are but how many fights on average does each team do? Is there even 10?

    Gone are the days of the goon playing his 3 mins a night, tapping his stick along the bench looking to fight someone. I don’t want it taken out of the game. If it happens in the heat of the game, fine. But as the game progresses, we will naturally see less and less fights. So I don’t think the league needs to do something about it. I went to 8 games last year and I didn’t see a single fight. Back when the Red Deer rebels came into the league, there was at least a fight a night. Now you are lucky to see 5 a season.

    • The Dave

      According to this article:
      “Last year there were 344 fights in the NHL”

      344 fights / 30 teams = About 11 fights per team, so you are more or less right.

      I think most of the drop in fighting is from the Enforcer vs Enforcer stuff though, and those were always their own little world. I enjoyed watching Big Mac one-punch Ivanans in the moment, but it was never really about the hockey exactly. Guys got fired up from it (and a little scared when the damage became clear), but IMO it’s always better when the issue gets resolved between the people who are on the ice.

      Watching Darnell get revenge against Roman Polak is something that never gets old for me. Sure, Polak was innocent, but whatever – Darnell’s not in the business of being fair in his justice. Polak can just pass the message his face got to whoever was actually guilty and in either case the message is sent: Darnell will beat up people who beat up Oilers, and maybe even people who don’t. I think that’s great. Nothing wrong with the other team thinking they might get punched in the face at any moment.

  • LibrarianMike

    I enjoy a good scrap, but my annoyance about fighting is when people hold it up as a necessary thing that protects skilled players. That’s as much a myth as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and “when players used to respect each other.”

  • TKB2677

    Being a tough team to play against in the NHL I believe has nothing to do with being able to beat the crap out of someone. It has everything to do with being physical, battling for pucks and in front of the net, not taking crap from the other team.

    When a puck is dumped into the corner, a dman will now have it in the back of his head he will probably get hit. So guess what, he hurries a little bit more and mistakes happen. The puck is in the corner and the dman knows he will have a battle on his hands to get control and get it out now.

    The puck goes to the front of the goal and there are guys who will battle for rebounds and tips. If you wack the Oilers, they will wack you back. When you wack McDavid, guess what, Lucic is nose to nose with you instead of Oilers just skating away to the bench.

  • Spoils

    I hope fighting stays in the game, but becomes rarer and less of a clown show. The beauty of a good fight is that it reflects the blurring of the line between sport and war.

    It allows the game to touch that limit of sport in a way no other professional league can – because there are clearly right and wrong fights – and this structure brings sport to war. Frankly it can be a beautiful and entirely natural thing (as opposed to the fake wrestling-ish abomination that comes with goons)

    For that reason it should be rare – the sport needs to boil into war and that doesn’t happen every game – and it should be the domain of players more like Lucic and Nurse as opposed to Gazdic and Dave Brown.

    Hockey’s structured fighting has caught some of the energy of war in sport and it is fantastic.

    Getting it right means walking a thin line and I just hope it isn’t ruined by goons or pacifists.

  • Shameless Plugger

    Any sport where the athletes carry a weapon in their hands (ie. Lacrosse and hockey) fighting is necessary to deter people from using that weapon. It allows the players to police themselves. And discourages more stick work. If there was no fighting I think you’d see more Mcsorely like incidents.

      • Shameless Plugger

        I think you missed my point, what I was saying was there would be MORE stick work if there was no fighting. I never claimed there wasn’t stick work before. I just think without fighting it would become rampant in the game.

        • LibrarianMike

          Based on what? Is there any evidence to support that, or is it that this has been the go-to narrative to keep fighting in the game? Has there ever been a case in which you can demonstrably say that an injury was prevented or a player was protected because of the threat of fighting?

          Again, I like a heat-of-the-moment fight, but let’s at least be honest that we like fighting because it satisfies a bloodlust, instead of pretending that it serves any kind of altruistic purpose.

          • There is past behavior from NHL coaches that suggests this is true such as Glen Sather playing Dave Semenko with Wayne Gretzky. So either on-ice enforcement helps prevent dirty work or Slats was a moron.

          • Moe Sizzlack

            There’s a reason the lesnar cards, Connor Diaz cards and pacman vs Money Mayweather are biggest PPV’s of all time ..

            You gotta give the Fans what they want ..

            Anyone who don’t like the fighting quit hockey at peewee level and started again in none contact beer leagues …

          • The Ghost of Alex Plante

            You sound like republican senators in the US defending the lack of gun control laws because there is no evidence that gun control laws would reduce the amount of mass shootings. No kidding there is no proof, that’s because there has never been any gun control laws to draw their evidence from.

            The same applies to your logic about fighting. Of course there is no evidence that support Shameless Plugger’s claim because fighting has always been ‘allowed’ in the NHL. Using the “no evidence” argument in this case is pointless because there is no possible way to obtain any evidence that supports his claim. Just like you can’t provide any evidence that the elimination of fighting would not increase the amount of dirty stick work in the NHL.

  • fisherprice

    I’ll cede to the players, who largely do not wish to remove fighting from the game. It’s their hands and their noggins, I guess.

    Personally, I’d prefer if it was out of the game. I don’t think it has ever actually stopped anyone from taking liberties with star players or doling out cheap shots in the heat of the moment. Most headshots and dirty elbows are split second decisions and I doubt the concept of fighting even enters the mind of the offender until the deed is already done.

    I also don’t find them entertaining. A couple of guys flopping and sliding around while mostly banging their fists against the side of their oppponent’s helmet has never been that entertaining to me. If I’m craving that full contact element, a big check has always seemed vastly more satisfying.

    At the end of the day fighting will eventually phase out of the league naturally, it’s already started as the numbers show.

    • #97Train/McDavidCopperfield

      Liberties still are taken but ask guys that actually play hockey and when you have a presence on the ice it definitely makes a difference to how people play.

    • Cheap Shot Charlie

      And remember the next game against the Sharks when he dropped the mitts with their AHL goon who was called up to fight him? He understood that he had to face that no name and then move on.

      Hockey fights seldom do any real damage. Remember fighting in Jr. High and then becoming best friends with the guy you fought? if not, do you remember how your mom got involved and you were bullied all the way through grade 12?

  • SkatinginSand

    I used to enjoy a good fight and actually engaged in a few in my decidedly underwhelming hockey days.

    To come to the conclusion that fighting is okay because the eye test tells “it provides a lift” or “discourages stick work” and because a Neanderthal league condones it is completely at odds with scientific study.

    Fights do nothing to increase the chances of the initiating team scoring, which is supposedly the objective.

    Referees are responsible for enforcing standards, and if the league was actually interested in providing a fair, relatively safe environment for play, fighting would have no part.

    There is also no mention of the potentially devastating consequences of bare knuckle brawling, including long term concussion effects, CTS and death. Saving just one person from any of these is more than enough motivation to come out of the dark ages and ban fighting.

    • Dwayne Roloson 35

      In my opinion, fights pump up the entire team which will increase energy and scoring. I always played better when teammates were playing with emotion.

      As for the concussions in fights, they’re extremely rare. Most concussions are from open ice hits.

      These are men who choose to fight and know the risks. Don’t treat them like children and ban fighting.

  • godot10

    The NHL and NHLPA will eventually be sued out of existence if it doesn’t eliminate fighting.

    The health risk from concussions is far too great to allow fighting to continue.

    Parents are not going to let their kids play hockey. The OHL is losing players to US college, and so they are progressively eliminating fighting.

    Money talks. And fighting will be gone because of money.

    For people who like fighting, there is MMA and boxing.

  • It IS part of the game, one of the best parts, complete investment by adversaries.

    How novel.

    Messier at his best was a snap show. Loved him when he lived on the edge. He really had no peers, and the element that made him Alpha was that very unpredictability.

    Bring Violence Back to Hockey…. indeed.

  • OldeTymeHockey

    “If I ever wanted to do a PhD in Anthropology I would surely like to spend time with hockey players as they learn not just how to fight, but how to feel, think about, and respond to a fight.”

    Cool idea. Modern day salvage ethnography. You could call the dissertation something like Savage Minds. Oh wait, that’s taken.

    Also, think long and hard about it before you do a PhD in anthropology or anything else.

  • Oiler Al

    You have players sitting on the bench that are makining 2 to 8 million dollars per season and they need to be lifted by a couple of loogans making one tenth their salary, by face punching or better baning their knuckles on a helment. Give me a break….

  • madjam

    Intimidation physically is still an integral part of most games . Thus , fighting is still part of it , despite some rules to discourage it or erode it somewhat . Game misconduct for fighting will only reduce fighting , but not add any more player safety in reality . Staged fights I do not mind , as two generally goon types strut their thing and fans get their adrenaline rushes . Stick infractions bother me more , when used with malice . Dangerous play (intent to injure) is another culprit that needs redefining due partly to reduction in fighting – respect for other players in vulnerable positions . It’s a contact sport that needs limits enforced .

  • ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    It’s part of the game, except when it’s not like in the Olympics when there’s gold on the line, in the SCF when there’s a Cup on the line, and in the world team exhibition series like the one that’s upcoming.

    For some strange reason the best hockey that’s played in the world manages to do fairly well without this “part of the game.”

    How essential a part is it that when it’s completely missing the hockey is at its best?

    And then there’s the ugly, fatal “part of the game” that we’ve witnessed in the life and death of so many fighters, the injuries and the mental health problems. It’s not like we don’t know that fighting contributes to these issues, so why defend it or celebrate it? Canadian women play hockey, too. If it were your daughter, wife, sister or mother who was affected by a head injury or mental illness related to fighting would you still celebrate it?

    “We are also increasingly becoming more aware of what blows to the head can do to the brain and the long-term effects that might leave behind. For the morally superior there might not be a place in the future of Hockey for fighting.”

    This has nothing to do with moral superiority, only with science: fighting leads to horrible injuries that go far beyond contusions, broken bones, etc. People are dying, suffering depression, and losing their connections with their family and friends. How badly could you care about fighting that this cost is worthwhile?

  • Oiler Al

    You have players sitting on the bench that are makining 2 to 8 million dollars per season and they need to be lifted by a couple of loogans making one tenth their salary, by face punching or better baning their knuckles on a helment. Give me a break….