Hockey is different from almost any other team sport in terms of its acceptance for fighting within the game. It’s incredibly rare to witness a fight during a football, basketball or soccer game. But hockey… hockey’s different. Bare knuckle fighting is not only accepted in hockey, sometimes it’s actually encouraged and incentivized. But, why? Why are players allowed to fight in hockey?
The answer isn’t really 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 when the fisticuffs really took off was during the rough and tumble, free wheeling 1970s. During this particular 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” on their team whose responsibility it was to beat the living pulp out of the opposition.
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 rule changes and harsher penalties to curb on-ice brawls late in the 1970s, fighting penalties have been on the decline. Still today though, they remain a part of the sport and recent polls show that today’s modern day NHLer is still in favor of keeping 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, an unwritten rule that’s 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 cross 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 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’s 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.
Preventing collateral damage
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 just how much it can hurt to get hit by a hockey stick.
As barbaric as it may sound, some defenders of fighting in hockey argue that were it not for fighting, the amount of stick infractions and unsafe “stick work” in the game would increase exponentially.
Think of it this way, what’s going to hurt more: a punch to the face 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 exact the defense that some hockey purists use in defending the role of fighting in the sport.
Barbaric or not, hockey is a fast, physical sport. Tempers can run hot and some players simply lose their cool. Fighting provides players in this situation with an option to get out their frustrations while also exacting some revenge or retribution to their opponent.
While injuries can occur during the course of 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.
While NHL players and millions of fans recognize the value in fighting and, quite frankly, appreciate the entertainment value that it provides, there is a growing sentiment in hockey culture 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 for proof of this is simply check out an NHL roster. The enforcers or goons of the past have all but disappeared in the league and fighting penalties have been on the decline for decades now.
Some believe that fighting will eventually phase its way out of the game naturally, while others believe that it will always have a place in the sport.
Regardless of your own personal opinion, it’s clear that fighting and hockey will always be linked in the history books. The game, for better or worse, 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?”