Why Fighting should be Kept in Hockey
Chuckin’ knucks, tilly, gongshow. All of these slang terms belong to the great sport of hockey. But more importantly, they describe a certain action in the game . Unfortunately, many want this part of the game abolished, which would be fighting. This issue reared its ugly head in 2011, when three ex-N.H.L. enforcers, or players who play just to fight and hit, passed away, and all were found to have had brain or head injuries. People were quick to put all the blame on the NHL and their policies towards fighting. Since then, nothing much has changed.
Fights still occur, players still get hit in the head. Fighting is an important piece that holds the sport together, and without it, the game would be uneventful and, believe it not, more dangerous. Despite what critics may say, fighting in hockey should be kept because statistics show that the number of fights every season is decreasing; there just is not enough sufficient evidence to say that fighting is the main cause of brain trauma, and that there is more evidence showing that hitting is the main reason these players are suffering from head injuries; and the NHL enforcer population is slowly diminishing and turning into skilled players in the league.
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Although people want to get rid of fighting in the league, they probably have not looked at any statistics. According to recent numbers, keeping fighting in the game would not be all that bad, as fighting in the league has been on a steady decline. A website known as “hockeyfights.com” has been keeping up-to-date statistics on hockey fights, going back to the 2000-2001 season. The most notable year of fighting was the 2001-2002 season.
During that year, there were 1,230 games. During that season, there were 519 games where at least one fight occurred, meaning 42.2% of games that season had a fight. All in all there were 803 fights that season. Fast forward to the 2017-2018 season, where the league saw a new expansion team, bringing the league game total to 1,271.
During that season, there were 227 games with fights, meaning that a fight occurred in only 17.86% of games that season. A total of 280 fights occurred that year (Hockey Fights). Statistics do not lie. Since that 2001-2002 season, the amount of fights per season has gone down steadily. Fighting is not happening as often as it used to, so there is no point in getting rid of it as it already seems to be phasing out of the current game.
Over the past few years, multiple studies have been done to figure out if fights are really the main reason for head injuries in the sport. In a 2011 article from the New York Times, Doctor Ruben Echemendia, the former president of the National Academy of Neuropsychology, stated that although fighting may lead to brain trauma, it is likely that is only makes up a small portion of injuries in the league, if that. He said that there is just a lack of evidence to prove this thought (Klein).
In 2013, three doctors from Canada did the research that was not present, and found that fighting, in fact, only causes a very small portion of concussions in the NHL, as well as major junior leagues around Canada and the United States. Laura Donaldson and Michael D. Cusimano, who are both members of the Division of Neurosurgery and Injury Prevention at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, Ontario, worked with Mark Asbridge, who is part of the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology at the Center of Clinical Research at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The group randomly selected thirty different weeks between the 2009-2010 season to the 2011-2012 season, for both the NHL and the OHL, which is a major junior league based in Ontario, and an origin to many current NHL players. This gave them approximately 1,400 games to work with. With analysis from their sources and their data collected, they found that concussion incidence in the NHL was around 5.23 concussions per 100 games played, while it was 5.05 in the OHL.
When players were suspected of having a head injury, or had the symptoms of one but was blown off, that rate rose to 8.8 concussions per 100 NHL games, while there were about 7.1 in the OHL, which is staggering. The research showed that for those 8.8 suspected concussions in the NHL, only 0.8, or roughly 1, of these head injuries in the NHL came from a fight. During the 2009-10 NHL season, of the 26 concussions the researchers came across, only one of those concussions were caused by a fight, while 19 concussions were caused by hits, both legal and illegal.
In the 2010-11 season, of the 55 found head injuries, 7 were caused by fights while 37 concussions were caused, again, by hits. Finally, in the 2011-12 season, researchers found 42 concussions, with 3 resulting from a fight, and 28 from hits (Donaldson et al.). Although concussions and other brain or head injuries occur because of fights, it has become pretty clear that hitting is the main reason for concussions in the sport of hockey, not the proposed idea of fighting being the main reason.
Players around the league who are known to throw their body around as well as fight are known as enforcers. During their tenure, they are generally known to rack up almost 2 to 3 times as many penalty minutes as they do games, spending the majority of their careers in the sin bin, more commonly known as the penalty box. Take ex-NHLer Chris “Knuckles” Nilan for example. Known as one the most prolific fighters in NHL history, Nilan racked up 3,043 minutes in his 668 game career (Hockey Reference), meaning he spent roughly 51 hours of his life in an NHL penalty box.
That is how the media has portrayed these types players, as well as hockey in general. Take the movie Goon, for example, where a club bouncer is hired to be a fighter for a semi-pro team in Nova Scotia. Another well known hockey movie that depicts fighting as the main attraction in hockey is Slapshot, where a group of triplets take over their semi-pro league in Pennsylvania by repeatedly beating the life out of just about every team they play. What the media does not realize is that the caliber and the skill of these enforcers has exponentially increased.
Three enforcers who have really paved the way for other enforcers are Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals, Pat Maroon of the St. Louis Blues, and Milan Lucic of the Edmonton Oilers. Over the course of their careers, they have racked up 55, 45, and 70 career regular season fights, respectively (Hockey Fights). What people have not been paying attention to is their statistics that really show who they are as players and showcase their potential skill, which would be goals, assists, and total points. In the first six years of his NHL career, Pat Maroon amassed 78 goals and 100 assists in 375 games.
In the 2016-17 season, he totalled 27 goals with the Edmonton Oilers, helping lead them to their first playoff berth since the 2005-06 season, where they lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in the final (Hockey Reference). Tom Wilson is a known instigator throughout the league recently. He has been suspended four times in his four year career for various, dirty hits to an opponent’s head, but he has been a steady point getter as well, scoring 35 goals and 69 assists in 391 games.
Wilson has recently shown that he is a capable scorer too. During the preseason of the 2018-19 season, Wilson was suspended 20 games for a hit. He appealed the suspension and got it reduced to 14 games. In the ensuing 11 games that he played in since his suspension was reduced, Wilson came out hot, tallying 14 points, including 8 goals (Hockey Reference). In Milan Lucic’s 811 game career prior to the 2018-19 season, Lucic amassed 192 goals and 289 assists, giving him 481 career points, all while racking up 981 penalty minutes, including 70 career regular season fights (Hockey Reference).
St. Louis Blues defenseman and captain Alex Pietrangelo says, “More than ever, guys who are quote-unquote tough guys or fighters have really developed their games and can play minutes now. Which is great for the game.” (Burnside et al.). More players around the league have taken noticed the change in the enforcer’s role in the league, and have said that it is making the game better than it ever has been. Although not as prolific as the aforementioned players, current Vegas Golden Knights enforcer Ryan Reaves talks how his job has evolved over the his time in the league.
“The game has completely changed since I came into the league in the last seven years… You don’t see the guys who play four minutes, get into a fight and are done. You don’t see staged fights. I’m definitely coming into a team with a lot of skill. I don’t think me coming here and playing a protective role and just running guys and doing nothing else is going to help. I definitely have to do that, but I also have to play in the offensive zone and chip in wherever I can.” (Traikos)
As you can see from this quote, Reaves knows that his main job was to protect the stars of his team, but he knows that being on a skilled team means that he has to step up to the plate and perform well, and that is what he wants to do. Reaves knows that if he does not produce, regardless of whether he protects the star player like he is supposed to, he knows that he will be out of a job.
Even Reaves’ former St. Louis Blues teammate Jay Bouwmeester has noticed a change in the style of his play. “Every team used to have the big enforcer-type guy and now it’s pretty much phased out; you’ve got to be able to play. We got Reavo [Ryan Reaves], he’s probably one of the best fighters in the league, but he plays and he doesn’t have to fight very much anymore. … It’s the salary cap, you don’t have that spot on the roster for that guy anymore.” (Burnside et al.)
Some people may argue that fighting in the league is barbaric, and that it is inhumane and players are putting their lives on the line for a “stupid fight”. Unfortunately for the no-fighting activists, it is here to stay, and here is why. Now this may sound a little counterintuitive, but players around the NHL, as well as coaches and general managers, believe that fighting almost serves as their own version of capital punishment.
When a player makes a run at a star player with the intent to injure them, and successfully does so, they will be subjected to a beat down from the team’s enforcer. Having that tough player that everyone fears, knowing that they are not afraid to drop the gloves is intimidating. The following quote from current Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ian Cole talks about the “self-policing” that fighting in the league encourages.
“”I think it does have a role. Do I think it’s necessary to the game to survive? I don’t think it’s necessary, I think it definitely has a role in a sense of a self-policing aspect to it. You know that if you do something that maybe crosses the line, you know you’re going to have to answer for it more than a penalty. … It keeps guys in check. You want to be able to step up for your teammates when something happens.
It gives you an active way to step up, to answer what happened without it carrying over to the rest of the game. I think that something happens, [someone] steps up, fights — it pretty much is done at that point, versus if something happens in the first period, you’re not allowed to fight, this guy cheap-shots him, he cheap-shots someone else, then it’s a cheap shot to this guy and it balloons after that. I think for the most part, fighting tends to end it quicker and [lead to] a little less cheap shots overall.”” (Burnside et al.)
In fact, in a 2011 poll co-ran by the NHLPA and CBC, a staggering 98% of players in the league were opposed to abolishing fighting in the league (CBC Sports). Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, a neurologist specialist at the University of Michigan, as well as a consultant to the NHLPA’s concussion group, said that any decisions made to make a rule change has to go through the NHLPA (Klein). It is going to be hard to remove a policy that makes players feel a little more safe, despite the speed and danger of the game.
When enforcer Ryan Reaves was traded from St. Louis to Pittsburgh in June 2017, he quickly received a call from Pittsburgh’s star player Sidney Crosby. He went on to tell Reaves about how he was excited to have to have a player like Reaves at his side, protecting him when needed, and bolstering his confidence. Here is Reaves on the trade, and what his main goal is, which is to protect players like Crosby.
“‘We only played him a couple of times a year, but I’m sure he’s happy that those are two games where he doesn’t have to deal with me chasing him around anymore,’ said Reaves, whose No. 1 priority is to keep people like him away from Crosby. ‘It’s definitely a big focus for me to make sure he’s a lot more comfortable on the ice. And when he isn’t comfortable, then I change that.’” (Traikos). This quote goes to show that a having a player who is willing to fight another player to protect his own is imperative. And in the words of NHL Hall of Famer Bobby Orr, “…the fear of getting beat up is a great deterrent.” (CBC Sports).
Recently, the NHL has been under fire because of their fighting policy, and people want the action completely gone from the game. Unfortunately for them, fighting is here to stay. Statistics have shown that the number of fights per season has drastically decreased since the 2001-2002 season. Recent studies have found that brain injuries in the NHL are really based off of hits, whether they are illegal or not. Also, the caliber and the skill of the fighters in the league has increased tenfold.
They are producing in other ways for their team, and are trailblazing the way for upcoming NHLers who intend on playing like them. Fighting just makes the game better and safer, regardless what other people think. Players in the league can confidently say that having a fighter and intimidator on their team is really a true blessing, as it allows them to play their game without the fear of being targeted. Fighting has been part of the game of hockey for the years that it has been around, and there is no reason to remove it. Think of it as if hockey is Thanksgiving and fighting is the stuffing. Not everyone may like it, nor may it be imperative to the dinner, but not having it there is just plain weird. It just does not feel like Thanksgiving if there is no stuffing.