Hockey Fight

broad street bullies

Fighting in ice hockey is an established tradition of the sport in North America, with a long history involving many levels of amateur and professional play and including some notable individual fights. Although a source of criticism, it is a considerable draw for the sport. Fighting is usually performed by one or more enforcers, or ‘goons’—players whose role it is to fight and intimidate—on a given team and is governed by a complex system of unwritten rules that players, coaches, officials, and the media refer to as ‘the code.’

Some fights are spontaneous, while others are premeditated by the participants. While officials tolerate fighting during hockey games, they impose a variety of penalties on players who engage in fights. The NHL and most minor professional leagues in North America do not eject players outright for fighting, but major European and collegiate hockey leagues do, and multi-game suspensions may be added on top of the ejection.

Physical play in hockey, consisting of allowed techniques such as checking and prohibited techniques such as elbowing, high-sticking, and cross-checking, is inextricably linked to fighting. Those who defend fighting in hockey say that it helps deter other types of rough play, allows teams to protect their star players, and creates a sense of solidarity among teammates. The debate over allowing fighting in ice hockey games is ongoing. Despite its potentially negative consequences, such as heavier enforcers (or ‘heavyweights’) knocking each other out, some players consider it essential. Additionally, the majority of fans oppose eliminating fights from professional hockey games.  However, considerable opposition to fighting exists and efforts to eliminate it continue.

Fighting has been a part of ice hockey since the sport’s rise in popularity in 19th century Canada. There are a number of theories behind the integration of fighting into the game, the most common of which being that the relative lack of rules in the early history of the sport encouraged physical intimidation and control. Other theories point to the poverty and high crime rates of rural Canada in the 19th century. The implementation of some features, such as the blue lines in 1918, actually encouraged fighting due to the increased level of physical play. Creation of the blue lines allowed forward passing, but only in the neutral zone. Therefore, puck handlers played at close quarters and were subject to a great deal of physical play. The emergence of enforcers, who protected the puck handlers and fought when necessary, followed shortly thereafter.

In 1922, the NHL introduced Rule 56 that formally regulated fighting, or ‘”fisticuffs’ as it was called in the official NHL rulebook. Rather than ejecting players from the game, as was the practice in amateur and collegiate hockey, players would be given a five-minute major penalty. Rule 56 and its language also filtered down to the minor professional and junior leagues in North America. Promoters such as Tex Rickard of Madison Square Garden, who also promoted boxing events, saw financial opportunities in hockey fights and devised marketing campaigns around the rivalries between various team enforcers.

Fighting is now governed under Rule 46 in the NHL rulebook. Referees are given considerable latitude in determining what exactly constitutes a fight and what penalties are applicable to the participants. Significant modifications from the original rule involve penalties which can be assessed to a fight participant deemed to have instigated the fight and additional penalties resulting from instigating a fight while wearing a face-shield.

Although fighting was rarer from the 1920s through the early 1960s, it was more brutal than it is today. Star players were also known to fight for themselves since fewer professional teams existed and competition was fierce for roster spots; therefore enforcer-like players (who usually possess very limited overall skill sets) did not typically make professional teams. However, with the NHL expansion in the late 1960s allowing more players to chances for roster spots and the emergence of star players like Wayne Gretzky, enforcers became more common. Also, the rise of the ‘Broad Street Bullies’ in the 1973–74 and 1974–75 Philadelphia Flyers popularized fighting in the NHL. The average number of fights per game rose above 1.0 during the 1980s. Many teams signed enforcers to protect and fight for smaller offensive stars. By 2009–10, however, the amount of fights in the NHL declined to .58 per game.

Since the 1970s, three rules have curtailed the number and scope of fights in the NHL. In 1977, the league created the ‘Third Man In’ rule which attempts to eliminate the bench-clearing brawl by providing for the ejection of the first player that joins a fight already in progress. Another rule automatically suspends the first player from each team that leaves the bench to join a fight when it is not their shift. In 1992, the ‘Instigator’ rule, which adds an additional two-minute minor penalty to the player who starts a fight, was introduced, though the rule has been controversial.

The rulebooks of the NHL and other professional leagues contain specific rules for fighting. These rules state that at the initiation of a fight, both players must drop their sticks so as not to use them as a weapon. Players must also ‘drop’ or shake off their protective gloves in order to fight bare-knuckled (essentially, ‘throwing down the gauntlet’), as the hard leather and plastic of hockey gloves would increase the effect of landed blows. Players must also heed a referee warning to end a fight once the opponents have been separated. Failure to adhere to any of these rules results in an immediate game misconduct penalty and the possibility of fines and suspension from future games.

In many leagues, linesmen will permit a fight between two players to run its course until one or both players end up on the ice. Linesmen will actively try to break up fights that are one-sided, where one player gains an advantage, where more than two participants are involved, or in situations involving multiple fights.

The role of ‘enforcer’ on a hockey team is unofficial. Enforcers occasionally play regular shifts like other players, but their primary role is deterring opposing players from rough play. Coaches often send enforcers out when opposing enforcers are on the ice or any time when it is necessary to check excessively physical play by the opposing team. Enforcers, particularly those with questionable playing skills, can be colloquially referred to as ‘goons.’

There are many reasons for fights during a hockey game. Some reasons are related to game play, such as retaliation, momentum-building, intimidation, deterrence, attempting to draw ‘reaction penalties,’ and protecting star players. There are also some personal reasons such as retribution for past incidents, bad blood between players, and simple job security for enforcers.

Of the many reasons for fighting, the foremost is retaliation. When players engage in play that members of the opposing team consider unscrupulous, a fight can ensue. The fight may be between the assailant and the victim, between the assailant and an enforcer from the victim’s team, or between opposing enforcers. Fights that occur for retaliation purposes can be in immediate response to an on-ice incident, to incidents from earlier in the game, or to actions from past games. Enforcers who intend to start a fight have to consider their timing due to the Instigator rule. For example, putting the opposing team on a power play due to penalties incurred from fighting is less advisable when the game is close.

Enforcers sometimes start fights to build game momentum and provide a psychological advantage over the opposing team. These fights usually involve two enforcers, but may involve any player who is agitating the opposition. This type of fight raises morale on the team of the player who wins, and often gets the home crowd into the game as well. For that reason, it can also be a gamble to start a fight for momentum; if an enforcer loses the fight, the momentum can swing the wrong way.

Intimidation is an important element of a hockey game and some enforcers start fights just to intimidate opposing players in hopes that they will refrain from agitating skilled players. For example, in the late 1950s, Gordie Howe helped establish himself as an enforcer by defeating Lou Fontinato, a notable tough guy who tallied over 1,200 penalty minutes in his career. Fontinato suffered a broken nose from the fight. After that incident, Howe got a lot more space on the ice and was able to score many goals over the span of his career because he intimidated other players. Conversely, games in European professional leagues are known to be less violent than North American games because fighting is discouraged in Europe by ejection and heavy fines. Since the penalties for fighting are so severe, the enforcers are less able to intimidate opposing players with fighting and said players take more liberties on the ice.

For teams that face each other frequently, players may fight just to send the message to the opposing players that they will be the target of agitation or aggression in future games. Teams that are losing by a considerable margin often start these fights near the end of the game when they have nothing to lose. Enforcers may start fights with more skilled players to draw what is called a ‘reaction penalty,’ an undisciplined reaction to aggressive play on the part of the enforcer. This practice is also known to be difficult due to the Instigator rule.

Another reason is the protection of star players. Over the history of hockey, many enforcers have been signed simply to protect players like Gretzky, who was protected by Dave Semenko, Marty McSorley and others, and Brett Hull, who was protected by Kelly Chase and others. The NHL averaged twice as many fights during Gretzky’s prime with the Edmonton Oilers than it did during the 1970s.

Many young enforcers need to establish their role early in their career to avoid losing their jobs. Due to the farm systems that most professional hockey leagues use, enforcers who get a chance to play at the level above their current one need to show other players, coaches, and fans that they are worthy of the enforcer role on the team.

There are also times when players and even entire teams carry on personal rivalries that have little to do with individual games; fights frequently occur for no other reason. An infamous rivalry that produced many fights was between the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche during the 1990s.

There are several informal rules governing fighting in ice hockey that players rarely discuss but take quite seriously. The most important aspect of this etiquette is that opposing enforcers must agree to a fight, usually via a verbal or physical exchange on the ice. This agreement helps both players avoid being given an instigator penalty, and helps keep unwilling participants out of fights.

Enforcers typically only fight each other, with only the occasional spontaneous fight breaking out between one or two opponents who do not usually fight. There is a high degree of respect among enforcers as well; they will respect a rival who declines a fight because he is playing with injuries, a frequent occurrence, because enforcers consider winning a fight with an injured opponent to be an empty victory. This is also known as granting a ‘free pass.’

Long-standing rivalries result in numerous rematches, especially if one of the enforcers has to decline an invitation to fight during a given game. This is one of the reasons that enforcers may fight at the beginning of a game, when nothing obvious has happened to agitate the opponents. On the other hand, it is bad etiquette to try to initiate a fight with an enforcer who is near the end of his shift, since the more rested player will have an obvious advantage.

Another important aspect of etiquette is simply fighting fairly and cleanly. Fairness is maintained by not wearing equipment that could injure the opposing fighter, such as face shields, gloves, or masks, and not assaulting referees or linesmen. Finally, whatever the outcome of the fight, etiquette dictates that players who choose to fight win and lose those fights gracefully. Otherwise, they risk losing the respect of their teammates and fans.

Fighting tactics are governed by several actual rules, and enforcers also adopt informal tactics particular to their style and personality. One tactic adopted by players is known as ‘going for it,’ in which the player puts his head down and just throws as many punches as he can, as fast as he can. In the process, that player takes as many punches as he delivers, although some of them are to the hard forehead. Fighters usually must keep one hand on their opponent’s jersey since the ice surface makes maintaining balance very difficult. For this reason, the majority of a hockey fight consists of the players holding on with one hand and punching with the other. Enforcers such as Darren McCarty advocated letting the opposing enforcer get a few punches in before putting in maximum effort, and assert that fighting is as much about knowing how to take a punch as it is about delivering punches.

Other examples include Gordie Howe’s tactic of holding the sweater of his opponent right around the armpit of his preferred punching arm so as to impede his movement. Bob Probert, of the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks, was known to allow his opponents to punch until they showed signs of tiring, at which time he would take over and usually dominate the fight. Some consider long-time Buffalo Sabres enforcer Rob Ray to be the reason that hockey jerseys are now equipped with tie-down straps (‘fight straps’) that prevent their removal; he would always remove his jersey during fights so his opponents would have nothing to grab on to. This is commonly referred to as the ‘Rob Ray Rule.’

Throughout a game, the referee and linesmen have a role in preventing fights through the way they are managing the game—calling penalties, breaking up scuffles before they escalate, etc. Despite an official’s best efforts, though, fights do occur and once they do, the referee and linesmen have a certain set of responsibilities to follow in order to safely break up the fight. None of these responsibilities are written in any rule book, but often are dictated in officials procedures manuals.

In a single fight situation the linesmen will communicate with each other as to which player they will take during the fight, clear out any sticks, gloves, or other equipment that has been dropped and wait for a safe time to enter the fight, which they will do together. If both players are still standing while the linesman enter, the linesman will approach from each side (never from behind), bring their arms over the combatants arms and wrap them around, pushing downwards and breaking the players apart. If the players have fallen, the linesmen will approach from the side (never over the skates), getting in between the two players. One linesman will use his body to shield the player on the bottom from the other player while his partner will remove the top player from the fight. Most linesman will allow a fight to run its course for their own safety, but will enter a fight regardless if one player has gained a significant advantage over his opponent. Once the players have been broken up, the linesmen then escort the players off the ice. During this time the referee will keep other players from entering the fight by sending them to a neutral area on the ice and then watching the fight and assessing any other penalties that are to be assessed.

In a multiple fight situation the linesman will normally break up fights together, one fight at a time using the same procedures for a single fight. The linesmen will communicate with each other which fight to break up. In a multiple fight situation the referee will stand in an area of the ice where he/she can have a full view of all the players and will write down—on a pad of paper commonly known as a ‘riot pad’—the numbers of the players that are involved in the fights, watching for situations that warrant additional penalties, such as players removing opponents helmets, players participating in a second fight, players leaving a bench to participate in a fight, or 3rd players into a fight. The referee will not normally break up a fight unless the linesmen need assistance, or a fight is occurring where a player has gained a significant advantage over the other player, leading to concerns of significant injury.


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