In the beginning
Since 1922, a mere 5 years after it was founded, the NHL has allowed fighting. Known back then as rule 56. It was with rule 56 that the tradition of the 5 minutes major penalty for fighting was born. Although fighting was accepted it wasn’t till the 1970s that teams like the Boston Bruins (the Big Bad Bruins) and the Philadelphia Flyers (known as the Broadstreet Bullies) achieved success by throwing a beat down on their opponents and intimidation, it was at this time that the role of Enforcer was born. The big question is should the NHL ban fighting?
One important carryover from this era is “the code” — a seldom spoken but closely adhered to set of principles fighters have adopted. Central tenets of the code include: (1) only challenging other enforcers to fight (unless protecting your goalie), (2) when an enforcer has declined an invitation to fight due to injury, the inviting player backs down, and (3) if a player is injured during the fight and clearly can’t continue to participate, the fight is over.
So what purposes does fighting serve?
1. A fight will happen when an opponent messes with their goalie. Goaltenders voluntarily step in front of 100 mph slap shots for their team, so when an opponent adds to the physical toll a netminder takes by jabbing them with a stick or running into them outright, expect to have to answer the bell! A recent case of this was the Petr Mrazek incident in Carolina.
2. Enforcers will fight to protect their teams’ offensive talents or franchise players. A perfect example of this was in the 1980s when Wayne Gretzky was at the Edmonton Oilers he had enforcer Marty McSorley who had his back, no one would touch Gretzky because they would have to answer to McSorley. When Gretzky got traded to the LA Kings he put a request in his contract that said if LA wanted him that they also had to sign Marty McSorley too, which they did.
3. To stop an opponent’s momentum and even reverse it. This can be a short term fix, meaning you are trying to change the tides of the game, or a long-term fix, when you know you will see a team later in the season and even in the playoffs. These types of games are often played between division rivals. Teams that don’t like each other very much, like the Penguins and Flyers or the Montreal Canadiens and the Bruins, often play physical and bruising games intended to wear down an opponent and get into their head. This works wonders when a team has fallen behind early and can rejuvenate their play in that game, or it can get their juices flowing for inevitable meetups on a later date but should the Nhl ban fighting?
4. Some players feel it’s the only way they can play in the NHL, however, A small percentage fight because they truly enjoy it. Currently, hockey fights are governed by Rule 46 of the National Hockey League Official Rules. Today’s rules are much more detailed than the basic “five for fighting” regime employed for decades.
There is, of course, the instigator penalty, which allows referees to determine that a player who initiates a fight can be given an additional 2-minute minor penalty for “instigating” if they were acting in a manner that seeks to draw others into a fight — for example dropping the gloves first, or traveling a great distance on the ice to begin a fight or even retribution for actions taken in a previous game.
There is also the “aggressor” designation, which results in a game misconduct where a player continues to throw punches after the other player is in a vulnerable position and the fight would ordinarily be considered over.
Undoubtedly the most important change that was made to the rules governing fighting was the addition of a 2-minute minor penalty for taking off one’s own helmet before a fight starts. For decades this was commonplace but has since been outlawed. The purpose of this rule is not only to protect players when they are slammed to the ice, which carries a serious risk of concussion or severe lacerations, but to also dissuade players from fighting altogether — who wants to slam their fist onto a hard plastic helmet, or a visor for that matter?
Of course, there is the caveat that helmets that “fall off” during the course of the fight do not trigger the rule and the players will not receive a penalty. In fact, it is here where I think the league could go further and dictate that the fight is over once a player’s helmet comes off, and any player continuing to fight without their helmet will receive an additional two-minute minor penalty.
Is it the end of the Enforcer and fighting in the NHL?
Famous Enforcers/Fighters of the NHL are: Joey Kocur, Chris Nilan, Tie Domi, Dave Semenko, Marty McSorley, Georges Laroque, Tiger Williams, John Ferguson Sr, Dave Schultz, Terry O’Reilly, and many many more but there’s one that stands out at the top of this small list…Bob Probert, one of the best to ever drop the gloves in the NHL.
Bob Probert is fifth all-time with 3,300 PIMs, but he was probably the most skilled of anyone on this list; Ferguson once said as good as he was at his role, he was no Probert. His best season came in 1987-88 with the Wings: 29 goals (including 15 power-play markers and five game-winners), 62 points, a plus-16 rating, and 398 PIMs — he added another 21 points in 16 playoff contests. Heady numbers to be sure.
The modern-day game has seen a decrease in fighting and an increase in speed, agility, and skill. Regular scrappers this season include Matthew Tkachuk, Ryan Reaves, Tom Wilson, Brendan Lemieux, Max Domi plus many more but there’s a link with some of these players listed. Tkachuk, Domi, and Lemieux all have dads that played in the NHL and all 3 dads were not afraid to drop the mitts. Max Domi’s dad Tie Domi had an infamous round of bouts with the one and only Bob Probert. With the string of injuries caused every year through dropping the gloves it’s understandable that some people want the NHL to ban fighting.
Could the NHL ban fighting?
The big question is should the NHL ignore all of the games’ historical relevance and abolish fighting completely? My honest opinion is no….as I think the game needs it, it’s entertaining and can make a losing team pick up morale and turn a game around. Do I agree with players getting hurt through fighting, no, but its part of the game’s heritage and taking it away I think will destroy the game.
Fighting, when done properly, when regulated by the league, and when actively refereed, can be as effective or more effective than just about any other tactic in a hockey game.