Does fighting have a place in the game of hockey? It’s a question we’ve debated again and again and again. Each injury, each staged fight, each donnybrook that breaks out after a clean hit leads to the inevitable conversation or shouting match.
Whatever you think of the subject, it’s clear the fighting role and its place in a lineup is slowly changing.
In the NHL, we’re seeing fewer one-dimensional fighters taking up five-minute roles on a fourth line. They’re still there (Shawn Thornton found work in Florida and John Scott somehow got a contract from the San Jose Sharks), but for the most part, the teams who acquire and use these types of players are either scrambling in disarray (San Jose) or have a history of bad, behind the curve management (Florida).
Analytics will dictate you need skill players, even on your fourth line. Recent Stanley Cup champion rosters will show how important it is to have a depth of quality talent without wasting a spot on a player whose best or only feature are his knuckles. Perhaps the one-dimensional fighter will never be eradicated from the highest level of the sport, but they do appear to be in decline.
Two years ago, the Ontario League instituted a rule that a player would be automatically suspended after his 10th fight of the season. Only one player reached that threshold the following season and nobody in the league did last year. This year, the OHL is expanding its discipline not just for fighting, but for dangerous infractions, which could potentially lead to a fight too.
Here are the new rules being adopted by the league, from its website:
• The OHL will be augmenting the current staged fight rule whereby players receive an automatic game misconduct for a fight occurring immediately following the drop of the puck at the commencement of a period or game. Such rule has been expanded so as to include a fight which occurs immediately following any faceoff during the game. Should a staged fight occur, the player(s) involved shall each receive a game misconduct in addition to the major penalty and any other penalties assessed.
• If a player receives a third game misconduct during the season for a combination of any 5 minute major and game misconduct penalties for checking to the head, checking from behind, boarding, kneeing and clipping, for which suspensions have not previously been applied, he shall receive an automatic one (1) game suspension. For each subsequent game misconduct, the suspension shall be increased accordingly.
• If a player receives a third minor penalty for instigating during the season, he shall receive an automatic one (1) game suspension. For each subsequent instigating minor penalty, the suspension shall be increased accordingly.
• The number of fighting majors that a player can receive in a game before a game misconduct is assessed shall be reduced from three (3) to two (2).
• If a player receives a fourth minor penalty during the regular season in any one of the following categories, ie., checking from behind, checking to the head, kneeing, clipping or boarding, he shall receive a one (1) game suspension. For each subsequent minor penalty in any of the particular categories, the suspension shall be increased accordingly.
• Each OHL Member Team shall have a threshold of three (3) major penalties for fighting during each game. A disciplinary fine shall be assessed for each team exceeding such threshold.
While the league brings in these rules, it will be the referees who determine how effective they are. The first, most contentious rule, is the automatic game misconduct for a “staged” fight that occurs “immediately” after any faceoff in a game. Obviously, this will be a judgment call and not really determined by a stopwatch. What is a staged fight? What qualifies as “immediately” after a faceoff? Can’t players get around it by waiting, say, five seconds before starting the fight they were going to anyway?
That part comes back to game management. Nobody in the arena has a better feel and understanding of the flow and emotion of a game than the referee. If the referee’s perception is that two players are on the ice just to settle a score and are waiting a few seconds to do it, why couldn’t he hand out that penalty 10 seconds after a faceoff? If, at the referee’s discretion, it’s a staged fight, he should be free to rule it as such.
This brings me back to my own idea for the NHL, albeit one the “hate” league is unlikely to adopt. Bring back the gross misconduct and apply it to staged fights. As long as the referees continued to have strong backing from the league, it should be an effective measure.
But the OHL is also tackling the frequency of hits from behind, checking to the head, kneeing, clipping and boarding (though not charging), which are some of the most dangerous infractions in hockey. These hits can lead to fights, but they’re also mostly the result of a mindless play. This is all part of trying to make players more aware (or even respectful) of their opponent.
The rules are not an attack on bodychecking. If anything, they promote throwing clean hits and thinking twice about potentially dirty scenarios. Does a player need to be more careful before throwing a hit on an opponent? Potentially. But there remains some room for error here. If a player is penalized four times in a season for hitting from behind, or kneeing, or boarding, maybe he should be dialing back a bit. Maybe he deserves to get suspended. There’s always a place for big hits in the game of hockey, but never has there been a place for dirty hits. That’s why there are rules against them in the first place.
What this all means for the NHL is not yet clear, or if it means anything at all. It’s hard to imagine the league instituting similar disciplinary rules on the two-minute infractions, since the two leagues have very different priorities. One is a grown man’s professional league that pays its players big bucks and deals with a players’ union. The other is a junior league, full of developing, teenaged kids.
Since the NHL is first and foremost a league about entertainment and so many of its fans still enjoy fights (why do you think a majority stands and cheers when one breaks out in a game?), a hard rule to curb fighting still seems like a long way off.
But make no mistake: the discussion of player safety is changing. Just a few years ago, we couldn’t have imagined a Rule 48 and an increased crackdown on head shots that were perfectly fine and legal less than a decade ago. And with player safety lawsuits popping up in the physical sports such as football and hockey, the leagues have to be more aware of these things.
Perhaps, in the end, the NHL won’t need a rule to tackle the staged fight. Maybe this is something that will, for the most part, phase out on its own.
Check out this table from hockeyfights.com that tracks the number of fights in the NHL since the lockout.
Fighting was at its lowest in the first post-lockout season before it started to rise. Could this be attributed to the initial, massive crackdown on obstruction, huge increase in power plays and, therefore, less ice time for fighters and a real need for speed in the lineup? The obstruction standard slipped in the years that followed, which brought down the amount of power plays and slowed the game somewhat (though not to a pre-lockout level). The obstruction standard hasn’t tightened again, but fighting has been in decline and last season it was at its lowest level since 2005-06. Could it be because roster needs and roster building is evolving?
Sometimes players who were never fighters in junior turn into that type of player to catch onto an NHL roster. But with a salary cap that forces teams to put every dollar to good, efficient use, the perceived need for those roles appears to slowly be petering out. The competition is bringing about change.
And if other junior leagues follow the lead of Junior A, the OHL and NCAA hockey, future NHLers will develop in leagues with harsh rules against fisticuffs.
I have no doubt that fighting, in some natural heat-of-the-moment form, will have a place in the NHL for years to come – and possibly always will. But the rules being put in place at lower levels and the changing philosophy of roster building at the NHL level, seem to be pushing out the goon. Slowly.
As a pro-fighter, I’m OK with that.