Why Do They Let Hockey Players Fight? Is Fighting Allowed?

Posted on April 15, 2024 by Dan Kent
ice hockey fight

Hockey is different from almost any other team sport in terms of its acceptance of fighting within the game. 

Witnessing a fight during a football, basketball or soccer game is incredibly rare. But hockey is different. 

Are hockey players allowed to fight?

Yes, hockey players are allowed to fight. Fighting has been engrained in the game for generations, primarily as a policing method of keeping people in control on the ice.

However, it is important to note that although fighting is "allowed" in hockey, it is certainly discouraged. It is not as if the NHL is free for all for those to drop the gloves and fight. If you do fight, you are assigned a 5-minute major penalty.

Is fighting allowed in hockey playoffs?

Yes, fights are still allowed in the hockey playoffs. You may be asking yourself this question because you rarely see a fight in the playoffs. And if you're thinking this, you're right. Fighting during the playoffs is much more rare than in the regular season.

Why do hockey refs let the players fight?

The task of breaking up hockey fights is the linesman's, not the referees. Linesmen are trained to step in and break up a fight when someone is at risk of getting hurt or when the situation is safe to do so.

We must remember hockey players, for the most part, are much larger and stronger than the linesman. For them to step in the middle of a fistfight, they are putting themselves at risk of injury.

Why do NHL refs stop fights?

As mentioned, the referees are not stopping fights in the National Hockey League; it is the linesman's job. In this case, a linesman will break up a fight for many reasons.

If both or one player falls to the ice, the fight is considered over, and they will attempt to split it up. Generally, there is a code in the NHL where the opposing player should stop throwing punches if a player falls to the ground. However, in very heated fights, this may not be the case.

Campbell Adams fight

Photo by Dan4th Nicholas licensed under CC BY 2.0

Secondly, suppose one player is gaining a distinct advantage over the other. In that case, the linesman will break it up to try and avoid a significant injury to one player.

Finally, a linesman will break up a fight if they feel it is generally over. For example, suppose both players are tired and grappling each other with relatively few punches thrown. In that case, the linesman will typically tap the players on the back and split the fight up.

Do players get fined for fighting in the NHL?

There is no fine for fighting in the National Hockey League. However, in particular situations, a player can be given an instigator penalty, potentially leading to suspensions and a fine for the coach.

In the simplest terms possible, the instigator rule assigns an extra two minutes worth of penalties to players who have gone out of their way to start a fight. If it is within the last 5 minutes of a hockey game, the player is automatically suspended for the next game, and the coach is issued a fine.

A perfect example of this is Darnell Nurse's suspension in Game 4 of the Edmonton Oilers and Las Vegas Golden Knights semi-final series in 2023. Darnell Nurse was deemed the instigator of a fight in the final 5 minutes of play. As a result, he was automatically suspended for one game, and Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft was given a $10,000 fine.

Why is fighting in hockey not a crime?

For the most part, all fights in hockey are between two players that mutually want to fight. This is similar to two people mutually deciding to fight outside of hockey. Although many of the combatants could still attempt to charge another with assault, it would be difficult for the charge to succeed if the fight was pre-arranged and agreed upon by both parties.

For this reason, fighting in hockey is generally not considered a crime.

hockey fight

Why is there fighting in hockey but not in other sports?

There is fighting in other sports. The difference is that you will be ejected from the game if you fight in a league like the NBA, MLB, or NFL. In hockey, however, you will not be ejected from the game but assigned a five-minute major penalty.

Because the consequences of a fight in hockey are not as pronounced as in other professional sports leagues, players are often more willing to fight. As a result, you see more of it.

What percent of NHL games have fights?

As per Hockey Fights, as of the 2018-2019 season, there were approximately 0.19 fights per game, or around 16.7% of hockey games with fights.

This is a material decline from the 0.65 fights per game in the 2001-2002 NHL season. New rules and the acknowledgement that player safety should be considered more, especially in light of new evidence showing that fighting has a large impact on the brain.

Why do they let hockey players fight?

The answer isn't simple, and even staunch hockey traditionalists are beginning to question the relevance of fighting in today's modern game. The truth is that a combination of tradition, the physical nature of hockey and the necessity to intimidate one's opponent is ultimately why players are allowed to fight in hockey. 

So, let's dive into the nuance a little more.


Fighting has been a part of hockey since its earliest days. But the fisticuffs took off during the rough and tumble, free-wheeling 1970s. During this decade, it was not uncommon to see full-on bench-clearing brawls at a professional hockey game.

In fact, fighting became so pervasive in the sport that it spawned a classic quip from legendary one-liner comedian Rodney Dangerfield:

I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out. 

Rodney Dangerfield

Fighting in the sport of hockey was at its absolute peak in the 1970s. Most teams employed multiple enforcers or "goons" who were responsible for beating the living pulp out of the opposition if they did anything wrong.

Teams like the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins of the NHL employed their size, physicality and fighting prowess to multiple Stanley Cup championships in the decade.

Since the NHL implemented drastic fighting rule changes and harsher penalties to curb on-ice brawls late in the 1970s, fighting penalties have declined. Even with more strict fighting rules, however, they remain a part of the sport, and recent polls show that today's modern-day NHLer still favours continuing fighting in the sport.

The fact is, fighting has been in hockey since the sport's earliest days.

Policing The Game

Defendants of fighting in hockey often talk about "The Code." That is, unwritten rules of fighting that are understood by all players where if you cross a line and overstep a boundary, say by taking physical liberties with a skilled player, you'll be expected to back it up with your fists.

"There's a million different ways that it can happen," says Washington Capitals enforcer Tom Wilson to NBC Sports Washington. "It's the No. 1 question that everyone always asks. How does a fight start? Why does a fight start? You just kind of have to be out there, feel it out and make a decision."

In effect, though, players like Wilson act as on-ice policemen who either ensure that their team receives justice when an opponent crosses the line or whose mere presence negates any chance of an opponent crossing the line in the first place.

"Probably all my fights are with a hit that I don't agree with at the time," says Wilson's teammate at the time Devante Smith-Pelly. "If you're right there, and you're the first guy, and you feel like that's what you should do, then you've got to do it," Smith-Pelly said.

"There's a line," Wilson says. "If he's playing physical and the game's going well, then [no], if he's hurting your guys, then you've got to probably stand up for them. There are guys that take that approach."

Ultimately it comes down to protecting your teammates and trying to intimidate or dissuade the opposition from taking physical liberties. This is a long-standing tradition in the game of hockey.

Preventing Collateral Damage

Ice hockey is the only major professional team sport in which the players are, in effect, carrying weapons for the duration of the game. If you've ever played hockey and been on the receiving end of a cross-check or a slash, you know how much it can hurt to get hit by a hockey stick. And as the result of one of these hits, the opposing player is often just given a two-minute minor penalty.

As barbaric as it may sound, some defenders of fighting in hockey argue that were it not for fighting, the number of stick infractions and unsafe "stick work" in the game would increase exponentially.

Think of it this way, what will hurt more: a punch or a stick to the face? Which is going to cause more catastrophic and potentially life-threatening damage? 

Obviously, a stick can inflict more damage than a punch, and that's exactly the defence some hockey purists use to defend the role of fighting in the sport. It is more of a retaliation move to prevent the aggressor from taking liberties in the first place.

Barbaric or not, hockey is a fast, physical sport. Tempers can run hot, and some players simply lose their cool. Fighting allows players in this situation to get out of their frustrations while also exacting some revenge or retribution on their opponent.

While injuries can occur during a hockey fight, the potential for injury is far greater when sticks are brought into the equation. Again, barbaric, but hockey players answer with their fists, not their sticks.

To reduce the chances of a player's jersey from coming off along with the rest of their padding – NHL makes players wear a fight strap to tie down their gear.

hockey fighting

Moving forward

While NHL players and millions of fans recognize the value in fighting and, quite frankly, appreciate the entertainment value it provides, hockey culture has a growing sentiment that it no longer belongs. As the sport has continued to evolve, there's been an increased emphasis on speed and skill.

 Size and toughness are still prized, but not above all else. 

All you have to do to prove this is check out an NHL roster. In today's NHL, enforcers or goons of the past have all but disappeared as a part of the game, and fighting penalties have been declining for decades.

Some believe that fighting will eventually phase its way out of the game naturally. In contrast, others believe that it will always have a place in the sport. Will more severe consequences be added to the NHL rulebook to eliminate it? It's hard to tell.

Regardless of your opinion, it's clear that fighting and hockey will always be linked in the history books. For better or worse, the game was built on toughness and intimidation, and fighting played a large role in that.

There's no telling what will happen to the sport in the future, but it's probably a safe bet to assume that one day you'll be saying, "Remember when they used to fight in the NHL?"

Are all hockey fights real?

Some hockey fans who are new to the sport and have some from WWE might be under the impression that hockey fights are somehow staged.

The truth is that all hockey fights are real, but there is a hidden code that almost all payers abide by. From dropping gloves pre-fight to fighting rival players with a similar weight.

I wrote about this and much more in my article: Are Hockey Fights Real? The NHL Code.

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada, Stocktrades.ca.

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