By Sean Quinn
“I went to a fight, and a hockey game broke out”. – Rodney Dangerfield
Lock up the good plates; the boys are at it again. Many sports fans are confused when they notice that there is fighting allowed in hockey. This unique facet of the game boils down to the history of the game and a way for referees to moderate player aggression.
Hockey’s backwoods Canadian roots ensured that teams were populated by rough woodsmen who were more than willing to take justice into their own hands. This was especially important for men working in a part of the world where law enforcement might be far away, and the independent culture bled into hockey’s early days.
While fighting has decreased in today’s NHL over the past ten years, players will drop the gloves in almost twenty percent of games. Modern hockey still allows fighting as it is a safer way for players to work out their differences.
Two hundred pound men flying around the ice carrying wooden sticks can do far more damage than having two players deliver a few awkward swings at another’s helmet.
Stick and ball games go as far back as Ancient Egypt and Ethiopia, but the game’s modern origin as we know it today goes back to rural Canada when J.G. Creighton brought sticks and skates from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Montreal almost 150 years ago.
The term hockey is thought to be derived from the French word for a shepherd’s stave which closely resembled the sticks that J.G. Creighton brought into circulation into the French-Canadian community. The game was originally played outside only to keep un-padded players from hitting walls.
This wild, natural sport was played by French-Canadian lumberjacks, often miles from help and fully consumed by their individualistic lifestyles. Hesitant to accept help from anyone (often out of necessity), men were expected to handle enforcing their opponents and teammates personally.
Early games and leagues don’t even have records of any official referee or umpire figure, and this doesn’t even count the men who started playing hockey on evergreen ponds before the development of organized leagues. Again, players had to keep each other in line with their fists.
Hockey’s origins in the mid to late 19th century also meant that the fights were considered a kind of gentleman’s agreement. This continues to this day, as modern players will sometimes agree to fight before the puck has even dropped, and the gloves will come off to signal that both men are consenting.
The “Fisticuffs” Rule #46 was even introduced to the NHL rulebook in 1922 was the official guideline for referees in negotiating the different roles and ways to conduct a fight during a hockey game. While officials were given plenty of freedom to govern a fight, the rule defined the basic steps of a fight.
This tradition of frontier justice persisted even as hockey became an international sport. Even more elegant schools of play (namely the Soviet-style) had to always keep a few “goons” on the roster, bruising players in charge of protecting skilled members who might be bullied by more physical clubs.
Having a fighter on your team went from being a cultural oddity to a strategic necessity. Having an entire team of street fighters was a valid approach. These imposing clubs included the 1976 Philadelphia Flyers, infamously called “The Broad Street Bullies” for constantly pummeling rival clubs into submission.
Being able to fight was a great way to intimidate smaller, skilled teams, and it also provided a defense against physical squads, letting opposing players know that your squad wasn’t going to be intimidated into playing slow or soft hockey.
Why Did Referees Continue to Allow This?
Even after hockey went from a rough-and-tumble backwoods sport played by burly frontiersmen, fighting continued as an aspect of the game into its adoption by the international community. This comes from hockey’s rural traditions but also the unique circumstances of the game.
With the development of the National Hockey League (NHL) and its expansion into the United States of America, the sport solidified its set of rules and used referees to enforce them. Nonetheless, fighting was still allowed even with officials who could manage the game and penalize players.
Hockey players can travel as quickly as 30 miles per hour and are constantly carrying what could be considered a blunt weapon in their sticks. Even before players began wearing helmets and other modern protection, referees quickly realized that fighting was a way to increase player safety.
Fighting in hockey is as culturally foundational as always sticking up for your goaltender and holding your teammates accountable. Most hockey players are at least aggressive when it comes to their play on the ice, especially when intimidation is a key part of the game. Even skilled players must be quick to stick up for themselves.
Fighting is also a way for players to try to rally their teammates if they feel that energy is lagging. A team that is losing by a large margin might instigate a fight to rally the boys and try to inspire a disheartened squad to rally and try for a late comeback.
If hockey organizations completely outlawed hockey, it could result in some horrific injuries. Competitive players will always want to distribute justice which could come as a full-speed hit or a slash with a stick that can easily break a player’s ankle and ruin his entire season.
Referees then have to act partly as boxing referees when two players agree to square up, allowing the representatives of each club to blow off their aggression and sort out a winner without letting things get out of hand. Wild fights could result in a bench-clearing brawl which could prove disastrous.
Another unique factor about fighting in hockey is that players are on skates. Even in other padded sports such as American Football, players have stable grounding, meaning punches can generate full force from the hip. Hockey punches largely come from flailing at the waste, so less force is generated.
Any responsible hockey referee will tell you that it is safer to let two padded guys tug on jerseys and swat at each other’s helmets than have elite athletes careening into each other and clubbing each other with sticks.
Casual fans or fans of other sports might be confused as to why it’s the only non-combat sport that allows “fisticuffs”. This makes sense at face value, but upon closer inspection, we can see how hockey’s unique history and playing conditions have made the sport what it is.
Fighting in Modern Hockey
Older hockey fans who remember the back-alley fights of the 1970s will notice how much fighting has changed in the NHL today. What was once a nightly occurrence is now becoming more and more rare.
It is true the NHL has made a point to cut down on fights over the past ten years.
In 2009 spectators could expect to catch a fight in roughly six out of every ten games played during that regular season. After a public effort to cut down on fighting to attract a more broad, family-friendly audience, hockey fans would see a fight in just under twenty percent of games.
This drop in fighting has been a purposeful move by the new commissioner who changed the rules and consequences for players who agree to fight. The penalties are harsher than in the era’s past (especially in the playoffs), but the fact that fighting is still considered in the rulebook means that they’re expected.
The instigator penalty is reserved for the player who first drops their gloves or approaches the other player to start fighting. The instigator penalty can leave a team playing down a man for several minutes, but eager fighting pairs avoid this penalty by planning to drop their gloves at the same time.
The aggressor penalty is the more serious of the two new penalities, usually going to a fighter that keeps throwing punches when the bout is clearly over. It requires a 5-minute major penalty and violators are often suspended from the following game.
The NHL is vocally trying to cut down on fighting unless players decide there’s no other option, so there won’t be games that are boxing matches with some skating, but the NHL has to consider both player safety and the NHL fanbase.
The NHL has gotten more family-friendly, but experienced fans and players will never allow fighting to completely disappear. Furthermore, players are only getting stronger and faster, meaning that huge open ice collisions could only prove more disastrous if fighting is entirely outlawed.
Players will be ejected for fighting in every other major sport except for hockey, but they can be ejected for an egregious slash, or a blind-sided open-ice hit. This is because it is far more dangerous to the players than letting the goons have a slippery tug of war with each other’s jerseys.
Fighting is not only in hockey’s blood but in the player’s self-interest. Casual fans may not know this when they see fists fly, but the officials certainly do. Even the most progressive commissioners who want to limit fighting will never fully stop fighting unless the conditions of the game fundamentally change.