What’s The Deal With Hockey Fights?

As you may or may not know, I am not a hockey fan: I am a Fanatic. The NHL has always been my #1 favorite sport, especially once the NJ Devils came into being. So, I found an interesting explanation regarding fights via Caveman Circus.

Why are fights between players allowed in the NHL when it is very strongly prohibited in just about every other sport?

It helps to remember that fights in hockey are 99% consensual. If you don’t want to fight you turn your back and that’s it. There are players that fight and players that don’t, and it’s not really a machismo/honor thing that you MUST fight. No one thinks less of you for not being a fighter.

If you jump someone who is NOT looking for a fight you are usually going to get tossed from the game and probably suspended for a few games to boot. It’s not OK to blind-side someone who is not likewise spoiling for a fight and generally speaking that is frowned upon.

So the minor penalties and general lack of punishment is only in the case of two people who have collaboratively decided to go at it, which is true for almost every fight you see. They are pre-arranged (often at the face-off) and mutually agreed. At that point, two consenting adults doing what they want, basically, and the refs leave it alone until someone is at risk of getting seriously hurt — usually once someone goes down and it’s no longer a standing fight, or if other people are getting involved, or if one person is effectively incapacitated, etc.

To some degree hockey is a self-regulated game. Refs are there for line calls, not necessarily behavior control. 10 people flying around a small ice surface at 40km/h with wooden sticks can REALLY hurt each other while the ref is looking the other way if they want to.

To avoid this, fighting is used as a pressure relief… all the pent up aggression you feel for the wrongs and slights done to your team goes into cheering for your guy in the fight. Afterward everyone chills out. This is generally true even if the two guys fighting aren’t the actual guys you were mad at. But the thing is, everyone on your team is going to be mad at someone different for some random thing that happened, so it’s not practical to expect everyone will “pay” individually.

This mostly works because most players aren’t assholes. If they do something to earn your ire it was probably by accident or a “one time” thing. It’s unlikely you’ll remember it for more than 5 minutes and unlikely that guy is going to specifically tick you off again. So the fight serves to release the cumulative pressure of all those little things, not necessarily any specific incident.

Where this fails is if there is just that one total dick on a team that is constantly cheap-shotting people or otherwise behaving in a douchey way not consistent with the overall tone of the game. Especially if that person keeps doing it even after a fight or two. At some point the other team is going to remember his number and a “generic fight” won’t fix the issue. That guy now has a target painted on his back and at some point — maybe not even that game but in a future game — someone is going to risk getting tossed from the game/suspended to teach that specific player a lesson.

Though usually half of that guy’s own team are just as happy to watch him get creamed because, honestly, he IS a dick. We’d never say it out loud of course, team solidarity, rah rah rah… but at some point people get what they deserve and everyone on both sides knows it.

Now, there are a couple other things to add. Sometimes guys fight simply to try and pump up their team when they’re down. Sometimes the other guy doesn’t “want to go”, because he doesn’t want to pump the other team up. Sometimes they go because both teams are flat. Sometimes guys just feel like fighting. Mostly, though, it is a pressure valve. In the other hockey leagues, there is no fighting, and, especially in European leagues, guys get a lot of injuries from slashes and other liberties, things that often do not get called. If someone is being wild with a stick in the NHL, it often starts with the other team’s enforcer warning the enforcer of the team with the guy slashing that something is going to go down if it doesn’t stop. The enforcer then tells the guy to chill. If he doesn’t a fight will happen. Sometimes, the enforcer for the slasher’s team may wash his hands of it all, and the slasher has to either fight or “turn turtle”. If you’re going to dish it out, you better be prepared to take it.

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3 Responses to “What’s The Deal With Hockey Fights?”

  1. gitarcarver says:

    I am not sure that you have made the case for keeping fights in the game, Teach.

    While you mention that other leagues outlaw fighting and there are injuries because the referees don’t see the penalty, is that an indictment of the officiating or support of fighting?

    I am not sure there is another hockey league anywhere on the planet that has as many cameras looking at the rink as the NHL. We have seen incidents where clearly illegal hits have been missed by the on ice officials but were caught by the league offices. Fines and or suspensions are handed out for those illegal actions even though they were not caught in the moment on the ice.

    There is also statistical evidence that the traditional enforcer is lacking in skills and so the +/- for the team heads in the wrong direction when the enforcer in on the ice. With scoring down in the NHL, goals are at more or a premium so no team wants a player that puts them at a goal scoring disadvantage.

    While you make a good point about enforcers, is the sport of hockey better off with a fight happening 2 seconds into the season? It is hard to justify that one.

    Finally, while fighting is typical during the regular season, the two times the NHL really showcases its players and teams seem to have the least fighting. I am, of course, speaking of the Olympics and the playoffs. In the Olympics, fighting is banned (albeit on a larger rink) and in the playoffs, the risk of fighting and getting a penalty or suspended is too great of a cost.

    So why is it that players can change their behavior when the spotlight shines the brightest but not during the regular season?

    The real question is whether the sport of hockey is better with or without fighting?

    I would argue that the game is better with fighting being a rarity rather than what seems to be an occurrence every period. Lacrosse, football and other high contact sports seem to do quite well with fighting being outlawed and yet hockey doesn’t seem to be able to do the same.

    PS – one of these days I may have to write a post about the absolute worst hockey game in terms of fights that I ever saw. I may do it referencing your post as you do make some good points.

    Take care.

  2. Dana says:

    Hockey needs fighting, because it’s just so f(ornicating) boring without it!

  3. You make some excellent points, GC. One thing to consider is that many times players are injured on legal plays and others which the refs can’t catch. Players may be intentionally going after the star players. We see this quite a bit in other hockey leagues, especially Europe. If a team can take out the star player, can slow them down and make them hurt, and know there will be no repercussions, they’ll do it. Brandon Prust, a great enforcer, offers a great take, including

    Thankfully, the guy respected the code. There’s a mutual respect between enforcers. Guys who don’t honor the code are called rats. Rats are the guys who show zero respect for opponents. They’ll go after the top skill player and take runs at goalies and then won’t answer the bell when it comes time to fight. They’ll act tough, but when a tough guy comes knocking on the door, they skate away.

    But here’s the thing about rats: They’re almost always bad for a team. There’s nothing like that moment when a guy asks for a fight and a rat turns them down. It does something to the atmosphere of the entire building. If fighting didn’t exist, those guys could skate around all game trying to head-hunt the skill players on the other team with no repercussions. It’s not about the fight itself. Even just by turning down a fight, the rats lose momentum for their team.

    It’s one thing to lay a big hit appropriately. Scott Stevens used to do that all the time. Other guys, though, like to hit guys legally, but with the intent to injure. Tie Domi comes to mind, as do a few others.

    I bet Dana is a soccer fan or something!!!!!!!! Need an emoticon for trash talk.

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