Why we’re talking about this
With the ever increasing attention paid towards head injuries, and the frequently fightless playoffs taking center stage, the debate over fighting in hockey is once again on the docket. This debate makes the rounds almost every year, and usually it covers the same ground. Very little progress seems to have been made in the past few seasons, as the same handful of talking points are hashed out over and over again. I think most of the reason for this impasse is that people are essentially debating two different subjects. There are two distinct types of fighting, and by looking at their differences, we can clearly see that one belongs in the game while the other should probably be removed.
Separating the Two Types of Fighting
I will refer to these two types of fighting as Staged Fighting and Reactionary Fighting. Staged Fighting is the type that usually occurs off of a faceoff between two “designated” fighters or “enforcers.” Reactionary Fighting, on the other hand, comes as a direct or indirect reaction to something that has occurred within the game. There can be no doubt which form of fighting currently belongs more in the game, as Staged Fighting has become nearly extinct, and enforcers have gone along with it. However, I believe that Staged Fighting is responsible for many of the most common criticisms of fighting within the game, and that its removal can solve many issues while still keeping fighting in the game.
How the Staged Fighting Evolved, Why It Isn’t Needed
Staged Fighting evolved in an interesting way throughout the years. It is not dissimilar to the arms race that occurred during the Cold War. Indeed, the enforcers were often referred to as “nuclear deterrents.” Basically, hockey teams have always had some form of enforcer, a player who stands up for his teammates. Occasionally, players developed that were both skilled enough to play regular shifts in the NHL and tough enough to take on all comers. These were the John Fergusons and later the Bob Proberts of the league.
Assets like Probert were few and far between, but a player like that could absolutely dominate the opposition. Since getting a Probert clone was next to impossible, teams settled for players that could at least fight as good as a Probert-type. These goons were countered with further goons, and the whole situation escalated out of control. Even worse, since these players’ roles were defined almost solely by the presence of other goons, it made sense for them to just “get it over with” and fight whenever they hit the ice together. Voila, Staged Fighting begins.
Some of the most common complaints about fighting in the NHL are more applicable to Staged Fighting than reactionary fighting, not the least of which is the danger factor. Fighting in hockey is surprisingly less dangerous than one might think, even where head injuries are concerned. The factor of being on skates and ice can reduce the impact from bareknuckle punches. However, the danger from fighting is drastically increased as the size of the players involved increases, and so the prospect of having trained and designated fighters in the league has increased the risk. Players who are essentially designed purely for fighting on skates end up doing a lot more damage than players who are primarily hockey players who only fight on occasion.
As well, the idea that fighting is a “sideshow” stems almost entirely from Staged Fighting. It can be very difficult to explain why two 4th liners must fight three minutes into a game off a random faceoff, but nobody struggles to understand a Reactionary Fight. Staged Fights seem to happen almost separate from the game, whereas Reactionary Fights always develop from within the game action.
The playoffs demonstrate this beautifully. Staged Fights disappear almost entirely, as the idea of “pumping up the team” is a moot point. However, Reactionary Fights are still prominent, as players react to perceived slights and attempt to “send messages.” Look no farther than the Detroit vs Tampa Bay series. Neither side has any designated fighters, but each team has found ample reasons to react to the other with some Reactionary Fighting. The series has been better and more intense for it, all while remaining relatively clean. Staged Fighting is not a natural part of the game, and that is why it disappears come playoff time.
Why Reactive Fighting Is Different, Is Needed
Reactionary fighting, on the other hand, comes from a very natural place in the game. With a game as fast as hockey, the diversity of actions taken throughout the game is enormous. Reactionary fighting helps police a dynamic and violent game. While policing the game is ultimately the job of the referee, reactionary fighting can do a great job at covering some areas that the refs cannot. Punishment for actions taken during a game can only be policed by referees in set ways, while the policing done by players in a reactionary fashion can change to suit each action taken.
For example, let’s look at slashing. If a player commits a basic act of slashing, by breaking an opponent’s stick, they will be assessed a two-minute minor for slashing. If they commit an act of slashing that is incredibly dangerous or heinous, they can be charged a five-minute major and a potential suspension. However, there is a wide range of slashes between those two offenses that, by the books, should be dealt with by that same two-minute minor. Players policing the game are able to react to a specific kind of slash, like one that targets the back of the legs or a star player, where the ref simply cannot.
These reactionary fights can often prevent an escalation in violence. For all of its wild fury, a one-on-one hockey fight is a relatively controlled experience. Escalation in the severity of bodychecking, slashing, or crosschecking can quickly get out of hand in a way that fights rarely do. Sometimes, having that steam valve is worth it.
There are a few possible solutions that would help alleviate the issues surrounding fighting in hockey without removing it entirely. I’ve written in a previous post about the potential benefits of removing the instigator rule, and the league should seriously consider that. There are also rules that can target designated fighters specifically, including automatic suspensions once someone passes ten fights and similar rules. Ultimately, perhaps the best solution may be allowing the ref some discretion in identifying Staged Fights and kicking the offenders out of the game. Usually, it is pretty obvious when a fight has little to do with the game itself. Hopefully, these rule changes can help get fighting back to the purpose it originally served in the game, and get rid of the sideshow nonsense that has developed in the interim.