The NHL has always struggled to add new followers to their sport. Viewership across America is dwarfed by the NFL, MLB, and NBA. Many cannot name more than three or four teams outside of their local organization. However, one thing almost everyone knows about hockey is its fighting. Whether it be John Scott, the infamous all-star enforcer, or a Kevin Bieksa “Superman punch” knockout, fighting is all over the NHL. Fighting is what draws most casual fans to see a game in person, not the fast-paced and high end skill that is on display night in and night out on the ice. Over the years, the league has both helped in fighting’s demise and advocated for its staying in the game. Fighting is what made the SPHL, Southern Professional Hockey League, a hit in the Southern states and allows those teams to gain fans and grow the sport in places where seeing ice hockey is as almost as common as seeing a ghost. Despite this, fighting is on its way out of the NHL.
Take a look at NHL rosters from fifty years ago, and you will see a group of men, the majority of which were paid to be boxers on ice. In the seventies and eighties, one could expect to see more than one fight per game. The reason for this was simple; referees simply did not use their whistle. Instead, the game would be “policed” by the enforcers on each team. Every time there was a play that upset one team, that team’s coach would look to the end of his bench and call on the enforcer to make sure there was justice for the infraction. The history of fighting in NHL is just one example of the traditionalist nature of the sport relative to other leagues, where players get suspended, fined, and banned for fighting rather than a five-minute rest in the penalty box. The need for enforcers and fighting existed. The desire to win hockey games, however, would turn out to be the reason enforcers started to get cut from rosters across the league.
Common and die-hard fans both get excited when two players drop the gloves and brawl it out for a few minutes. It adds energy to the crowd and the team. During the enforcer era of hockey, the job of fighting rested squarely on their shoulders, with very few skilled players choosing to fight and risk injury. This led to a severe skill gap between players on every team. Newer coaches began to realize that if they removed enforcers from their lineup and included players that could skate faster and shoot better, they would score more goals and in turn win more games.
So the natural decrease in fighting in the NHL began. Fighting was still a mainstay in hockey, but around 2000, one could expect to see around 0.6 fights per game, down from the 1.3 fights per game in 1987. Although fighting was on the decline, teams still had an enforcer, but their role and time on ice was significantly reduced to the point that they only played when they were told to fight. That is why fights stayed in hockey at about 0.5 fights per game till 2013.
In 2013, there was a lockout in the NHL. The lockout did not directly affect enforcers or fighting, but it did allow most enforcer contracts to expire as many enforcers signed year to year with their longevity always being questioned. Starting in that next season, teams were featuring fewer fighters, because no manager wanted to sign an old fighter to a new contract when young, fast players with high potential could fill that void. The sentiment in the NHL had changed. The need for an enforcer was outweighed by the positive impact of adding another scoring forward to a team’s roster.
As you might expect, fighting comes with a lot of injuries. Enforcers were cycled through quicker than any other player on the ice. Research into head trauma opened up the concussion debate, and in the NHL, it hit the enforcers the hardest. There were enforcers that were now homeless and struggling with brain trauma due to concussions. CTE and concussions did contribute to slowing down fighting. It also forced the NHL to protect its players from themselves through the rule book. This was especially the case after Todd Bertuzzi and Steve Moore fought in 2004. Bertuzzi tried to instigate a fight with Moore but after Moore refused, Bertuzzi simply attacked him, a move that is not entirely uncommon, yet not honorable in many traditionalist hockey minds. Moore ended up being badly beaten and having his head thrashed on the ice and collided with by four separate players. The hit led to injuries that led to the end of his playing career. The fight, which had been caused by the system of fighting as a means of “policing” a hockey game, led to a criminal charge against Bertuzzi. The injuries to Moore and severity of the incident led the NHL to seriously consider how they viewed fighting in their game. They were forced make strict changes.
The NHL implemented rules to penalize a team for instigating a fight and gave out suspensions more regularly for bad hits or penalties that made “policing” the game through fists unnecessary recently. Still, NHL executives have also admitted that it brings the “common fan” to the game and a useful tactic to “keep things cool” on the ice. Yet the written word outweighed the spoken, and these rules, along with the growing feeling that enforcers did not actually help a team win games. Rather, it led to the end of the enforcers, but not the end of fighting all together. Fights still happen, but they are fewer and farther between. In the average week this season, the NHL sees 12 fights, or 0.2 fights per game — down 60 percent from 2013. Ten years ago, the names popping up on the fight list were the same each week, but now it’s different, with players all only fighting a few times in their career. Fights no longer look like boxing matches. Instead it usually includes shoving, a few wild swings, and then both players fall to the ground.
The continued decrease in violence and fighting has allowed the NHL to increase the fun in its game. Is fighting part of that fun? Yes, but fighting is still not gone; it just doesn’t dominate the game. Now the speed and intelligence of players does, something that has allowed players like Patrick Kane and Johnny Gaudreau to flourish and move the puck around as if they had it on a string. It has allowed for the growth of safe hitting and no longer are there highly skilled and low skilled players playing on the same ice — when two skaters of different skating ability are on the ice, it is inevitable that a collision will occur out of negligence. Now the speed and intelligence of players does, something that has allowed the NHL to move from rough and rumble boxing on ice to fast-paced and awe-inspiring world-class entertainment.