This is a huge pet peeve of mine. Every week I sit on my couch and turn on various sports shows to hear commentators complain about fighting in hockey. They attack it as a barbaric act that has no place in a major American sport. This sentiment is then spread down to the lower, developmental levels of the sport that attack fighting like a plague. For instance the league I grew up playing had a minimum 6 game suspension for a full out fight for everyone involved. However, fighting is important for hockey and not just because it adds to the entertainment value.
Contrary to popular belief fighting in hockey is not all that common. Yes there is an excessive amount of extracurricular activity after many whistles but this doesn’t constitute a fight. The pushing and shoving when the play is dead would be regarded in most sports as unnecessary but even this has its place. Clearing people away from goal or a little shove on a defender shows your team mates that you’re standing up for them. It also protects exposed players, like a goalie covering a puck or a forward that’s been knocked to the ground.
On average this year there has been about one fight in every two games. In fact the number has stayed below a fight a game in the last twenty years and never got over 1.3 fights a game. This is because the situations that necessitate a fight are far and few between. For one, both players have to be willing to drop the gloves and square off which takes a little prompting. Really the only time a fight breaks out is when something blatantly brutal happens to defenseless player. Bertuzzi provided us with a perfect example a few years ago.
This was a particularly upsetting situation since it basically ended Moore’s career. However this is just an example of a hit that warrants a fight. In this way hockey becomes a self-enforcing sport.
No one in hockey is forced into a fight. When a non-willing player is pushed into one, i.e. Emery on Holtby, most of the hockey world is appalled. Most of the time the biggest or toughest player on the line is the fighter and he is usually quick to stand up for the skill players. When a star player is being drawn into a fight with a bigger player the enforcer usually steps in. So what is the result? The game usually gets a boost of adrenaline and play steps up. In American sports we love a game changer and the time after a fight tends to be the most exciting part of the game. The result can also be a momentum changer for a team that’s been dominated physically thus far.
So how does hockey fights differ from a fight in any other sport? Fighting is not usually a personally motivated tool in the NHL. Defending a teammate or protecting your team in general tends to be the motive as opposed to a personal vendetta. There is also a contained feeling to fights in the NHL. Both players understand the rules and when the fight is over, usually when someone falls to the ice. However this level of civility and respect doesn’t exist in the other major sports. Most fights are prompted by some personal event that occurs in the moment. These fights are usually insanely intense and require other members of the team to break them up. The NBA has even had a brief history of these fights flowing into the stands (see below). The NHL though is able to separate the fan from this experience and control it. The referees become diligent MMA officials and control the circumstances of the fight. So please commentators, BACK OFF. We like our sport how it is.
Thanks to dropyourgloves.com for the stats!