Hockey executives are slowly manipulating the rules to organically remove fighting from the game rather than banning it immediately.
By Eric Converse
With the American Hockey League implementing a new rule limiting players to a single fight per game, the role of fighting naturally becomes a more prominent talking point again during this long summer off-season. This rule change for the NHL executives to monitor and potentially implement at the major league level is just another in a string of minor alterations that eventually will end fighting in the game.
Many hockey fans love the fighting or at least just accept it as a part of the game. Every person in a hockey arena is up out of their seat during a fight rooting for the hometown guy, myself included.
People outside of hockey often correlate fighting to the stereotypical dumb hockey player with teeth missing or to scenes witnessed in the movie Slap Shot. Some of these people even ask the question: “Why doesn’t the NHL ban fighting immediately? It’s barbaric and if two people did the same thing in the stands, they would be arrested and face charges.” There are a variety of responses to this question.
First off, hockey has always been a part of the North American version of the game. Literally. The very first modern hockey game played on March 3rd, 1875 at Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal, Quebec, Canada ended with a fight between some players and spectators. As the game continued to develop in to what it is now, at no time did fighting ever get banned at the professional level.
Second, there is a segment of the hardcore fanbase that love fights in hockey games, so much so, that they would stop following the game all together if fights were out right banned. Fighting actually helped promote hockey in newer southern US markets. One southern minor league team even put up billboards that said, “The only difference between hockey and war, is that war has rules.” With the game slowly growing it’s audience in the US, losing a portion of fans now would be a blow to the sport.
Lastly, many credit fighting with limiting other more serious violence in the game, such as heavy slashing and dangerous body checking. “Let the players police themselves!” Fighters keep opponents in check and protect superstars, such as Marty McSorley protecting Wayne Gretzky, and most recently Steve Downie attempting to protect Sidney Crosby.
Furthermore, it is argued that players initiating and engaging in fights following the unwritten “code” is safer than players seeking revenge with unclean hits.
While there is certainly an element of truth to these arguments above to justify fighting in the game, hockey will eventually evolve in to a sport where it’s no longer a necessary part of the game. As stated above, banning fights today would rock the hockey world boat significantly and it could lead to backlash in the current fanbase, but if hockey culture slowly changes over the next 10 to 20 years, the league could implement the ban with far less retaliation.
This change is already happening.
… and has been for some time now.
For years, out of control bench clearing brawls ruled the day:
To clean up the league’s image, all of this entirely stopped in 1987 when the NHL enacted very strict rules against players leaving the bench to join a fight on the ice. Line brawls still occurred on the ice, but have become less frequent as the NHL implemented “3rd man in” rules to keep fights more contained between just 2 opponents. Lastly, the “instigator rule” was designed to make fights a bit more spontaneous rather than planned.
More recently, with increasing legal issues regarding concussions and other long term head injuries of retired players, the league is being proactive with current players and making the game safer to protect owners from further future lawsuits. In 2013, the NHL implemented new rules that force every new player entering the league to wear a visor on their helmets, to obviously protect themselves from high sticks and pucks to the eyes. The league also implemented a rule that bans two fighters from removing their helmets before throwing punches, to protect players in incidences such as this:
All of these rule changes have contributed to a significant drop in fights per game in the last 15 years, but if things continue, this is just the beginning.
With the rules as they are now in the NHL, nearly all the players in the league by 2025 will be forced to wear visors and will be forced to wear their helmets during a fight. In an environment like that, far fewer players will want to cut their hands open on an opponent visor to land a perfect uppercut on their jaw.
If the AHL rule that limits players to 1 fight per game ever reaches the NHL, it would expedite this culture change and greatly diminish the role of the enforcer. Players like John Scott would have to pick and choose their battles far more wisely now as to not “waste” their fight too early in the game or else risk needing to fight again, then leaving their team’s bench short handed the rest of the game. In the long run, this rule would alter how teams draft players and construct teams, making the traditional enforcer obsolete. At that point, why waste a roster spot on a player whose primary skill is to fight once per game and then be a useless waste sitting on the bench?
By no means should the NHL ever crack down on physicality. No one wants figure skating ice hockey. Hard clean body checks and wild open ice hip checks are an exciting and huge strategic part of hockey that actually can swing momentum in games. Unfortunately, fighting has actually made big hits far less frequent, as explained by USA Today‘s Kevin Allen, with every big clean check leading to a needless retaliation fight.
Skill and clean physicality would become the name of the game and it would be up to referees and the NHL’s governing body to mandate stiff penalties to those playing dirty and trying to take advantage of the “fighterless NHL,” just like all other major sports leagues in the world. (Stiff penalties on diving and embellishment too)
Maybe by then, the people that want to keep fighting in the game right now, will realize they’ve been putting hockey down for all these years. After all, they’re essentially saying that the sport of hockey is simply not good enough on it’s own merits without the gimmick of fighting. They could not be more wrong. It only holds the game back and limits it to being considered a borderline major sport in many parts of the world.
There is so much more to the game of hockey that makes it an amazing sport and you know it.
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