ChirpEd- Fighting’s Place in the NHL

SensChirp October 30, 2013 24
ChirpEd- Fighting’s Place in the NHL


The topic of fighting in the NHL can be polarizing.  But is fighting itself the actual problem or is that too general?  Those who petition for a fighting ban generally point to three main things: concussions, mental health issues for retired fighters and staged fights.  The argument often used from those who want to keep fighting is the need to have someone to keep the “rats” honest.  In a way, both sides are right.


The recent NFL class action suit has certainly gotten the attention of owners and governors from all the major sports leagues.  While a major part of the NFL story revolved around doctors literally lying to players, everyone in the sports ownership/management world is looking to make sure they’re not perceived as neglecting player safety.

While it seems a logical conclusion that bare-knuckle blows to the head can cause concussions, there just isn’t significant proof that a single fight leads to more concussions than legal (or illegal) hits during play.  I submit that if you remove the top heavyweights who only dress to fight, the chances of someone getting concussed from a punch are minimal.  The PLoS One report tracked concussions for random weeks of three seasons (2009 through 2012).  Only 11 of the 123 concussions in that study listed “Fighting” as the cause, 4 less than the 15 caused by “Hit by Puck”.  There was no further clarification on how many of those 11 concussions were caused by a punch (as opposed to a fall to the ice), much less any indication if the player doing the punching was a one-dimensional fighter or if the fight was a “staged fight” etc.

The study does however cite that “secondary contact”, such as a player hitting the boards or ice after being checked or punched, accounts for over 50% of all concussions.  This season, the NHL introduced a new rule penalizing players who remove their helmets during or before a fight.  Linesmen will even apparently jump in if players remove their helmets.  The idea being that if they keep their helmets on they’re less likely to get a concussion from falling to the ice.  The punches, however, are still likely to land on the jaw.

Conclusion: The only significant risk of concussions from punches are to career fighters or those people unfortunate enough to have to fight them often – and even then it’s rare.

Mental Health Issues

Another rising trend in the NHL is the increasingly louder voices of retired enforcers telling their stories.  Both of the pressures of being expected to fight every night and the long-term brain damage suffered from going toe-to-toe on a regular basis with other goons.  But none of these retired players with health problems were 30-goal scorers.

Conclusion: Nobody in the top 9 forwards on any team is likely to have lingering mental health issues or develop any sort of drug or alcohol dependence as a result of the pressures of fighting.  The one dimensional enforcer, however, is at significant risk.

Staged Fights

Visiting teams must submit their roster before the home team.  The visiting coach will often dress his goon so the home team coach won’t take advantage of a smaller lineup.  Of course that means the home team coach has to dress his goon.  That often means those two goons may as well fight to prove their worth.  It’s a vicious cycle.

Some have suggested an automatic game misconduct for fighting.  This is another over-reaction.  I think that discretion should be left to the referees instead.  The refs know who these guys are.  But to toss a guy simply “standing up for a teammate” who might have been hit late would only encourage the rats to be more, well, rat-like.

Conclusion: Empower refs to hand out game misconducts for staged fights.  Go one step further: if you think a goon is instigating a fight with a skill player who clearly cannot fight (see: Kessel, Phil) give the game misconduct to the goon only.  Add in suspensions and fines for staged fights as well.

The Real Solution

The best way to get rid of staged fights, and for that matter career fighters and even reduce the number of concussions in the game overall, lies with Brendan Shanahan.  Or more generally the Department of Player Safety.  Eliminate the need for goons.  Leave hockey to guys who can skate a regular shift.  Lose the rats and you’ll lose the goons.

Easier said than done.

I honestly don’t know why Shanahan’s job is so impossible.  But it must be.  Colin Campbell couldn’t do it either.  To his credit, Shanahan has used Twitter to release videos explaining his decisions but that hasn’t allowed anyone I know to actually understand them – let alone find any rhyme or reason.  When Shanny took over, most fans felt a sigh of relief and thought we’d finally have some justice.  But for whatever reason he hasn’t delivered.

Whatever goes on behind closed doors we’ll never know, but the NHL absolutely must find a way to make sure the rats in the NHL are properly punished and either disappear or mend their ways.  That’s the only way any NHL team will feel comfortable cutting a guy like Jared Boll in favor of a promising young player ready to learn the NHL game.  If it can be done, you eliminate the cheap hits (keeping the clean hits), you eliminate the career fighters (who learn to skate or find other work) and you eliminate the staged fights (while keeping the tension-defusing dust ups that we all love).

Easy?  Not by a long shot.  But instead of trying to take fighting itself out of the game completely, the NHL needs to solve the real problem: Get rid of the rats which will, in turn, eliminate the need for the goons.

  • The Apostle

    I don’t really like fighting in the NHL but man I love it when it happens and I’m at the game. For instance, THAT game against Montreal is one of the greatest sporting events I’ve seen live. We, as fans, are part of the problem and therefore I think as fans we have to accept some portion of the blame for why it’s still around.

    I really don’t like the staged fights and wish there was an easy answer to make them go away, but there isn’t. Eliminating the need for on-ice protection is the way to go, but good luck with coming up with a rationale for doing so that makes sense, because I don’t think it exists.

    It’s the same with head shots, if the owners and NHLPA really wanted fighting out of the game it would already be gone.

    Excellent, well thought out article.

    • sens23

      Staged fighting has gone down in all levels of hockey. it is very rare you see the guys tap each other at a face off and drop the gloves the minute the puck is dropped. well maybe not rare but no where near as much as before.

      what needs to be removed from the game is the instant jumping of a player who throws a clean hit. i get standing up for your teammates and if it is a cheap shot absolutely but when a player throws a clean hit and is jumped instantly it is taking one of the best parts of hockey out of the game or replacing it with guys jumping guys

      the NHLPA is never going to want fighting out of the game because they are a union and there is no way a union is going to pass a rule that results in union members becoming unemployed even if they are replaced by other union members. it just wont happen

      as for shannahan i dont think his job is impossible i dont even think he thinks his job is impossible. the media and fans make it out to be the toughest job in all of sports. but i guarantee shanny is sleeping just fine at night

      • Hax

        I agree staged fights have gone down but it still adds “unneeded” blows to the head for these guys who really shouldn’t be playing at all. The middleweights can handle the emotion-charged fighting just fine.

        Totally agree with you on guys getting jumped for clean hits. It’s one thing to challenge the guy or for there to be a scrum of sorts but nowadays you seem to see a guy deliver a clean hit, then immediately turn with a look like “okay, so who do I have to fight now?” I’d extend the idea of game misconducts there maybe – if a ref believes a guy is simply jumped for a clean hit (as opposed to challenged where he could decline) then give that guy a game or something.

        • The Apostle

          damn i should have read this before replying to sens 23 – completely agree on the game misconduct idea.

      • Colin

        The NHLPA as a “union” is an absolute joke. There is no other union on the planet that would advocate an unsafe work environment. There is no other union that would tolerate their members not wearing proper safety gear. Construction workers are not allowed onto a job site without proper safety gear and if you circumvent your or your co-worker’s safety, you are disciplined. The NHLPA does not have the best interests of its members at heart. If it did, there would be no fighting, players would have to wear visors, neck guards..etc.

        • sens23

          well we have found senschirp pro union poster
          i see what you are trying to get at except the construction worker comparison isnt very good becasue a construction worker can wear all that safety gear and still have a bucket of bricks fall on them and get hurt. the NHLPA makes players wear the required equipment but fighting is just part of the job conditions. the NHL players know what they are signing up for just like construction workers know what they are getting into

          as for your equipment comment visors are now mandatory for players coming into the league. as for neck guards i will go back to your construction argument lots of workers dont wear protective gloves and they hit their fingers with hammers

          • WaitingSince92

            Also, construction worker comparison works only for accidental, non-fighting injuries.
            Fighting is a choice you make, not an accident. Saying “fighting is just a part of the job conditions” is not analogous to a falling bucket of bricks being part of the job conditions…

            UNLESS the reason why the bricks were falling was because another construction worker emptied the bucket on your head.

            See what I’m saying here? Not trying to be facetious, but it’s a pretty important difference.

          • sens23

            ok the falling bricks were a bad analogy but both jobs offer risks in the job conditions. so the construction workers union comparison is just as weak

          • Colin

            How is it a weak comparison? You say that both offer risks in the job conditions, but only one of them requires appropriate safety measures to reduce the risk of injury. I would say that proves my point.

          • Colin

            Pro-union? Moi? Ha! I am in a union and I can tell you that I am not a proponent. However, unions usually do their best to protect their members. The NHLPA does *not* advocate a safe work environment and it does *not* require its members to wear appropriate safety equipment.

            Sure, some workers are injured by accidents, but many accidents do not result in injury due to proper protective measures. I used the construction industry as an example as it has many rules for worker safety in what can be a very dangerous work environment.

            There have been many *accidents* in hockey games that could have been avoided if the player had been wearing the proper equipment. Whether that had been a visor (yes, I know they are now mandatory for new players), ear protection (players immediately remove ear guards from their helmets), neck protectors, proper gloves, ankle guards…etc.

            I am not advocating bubble wrap, just common sense, which is severely lacking in the NHL.

            btw: Protective gloves will not help when you hit your fingers with a hammer. Practice makes perfect in that case :-)

        • Doc

          Thems fighting words!

      • The Apostle

        I absolute hate the fact that a good hard clean hit has to often be “defended” by fighting – but I see that as having at the very least a genuine hockey reason for happening that I just don’t see with the staged fight between two goons.
        If a player hesitates in laying out a guy with a big clean hit because he doesn’t want to have to fight afterwards then the guy “coming to the aid of his team-mate” has sort of done a job and has maybe given his team an advantage.
        In these circumstances the guy generally gets an instigator penalty. What about if no penalty is called on the original hit and a fight occurs because a team-mate takes exception to that clean hit – instead of him getting an instigator penalty and 5 for fighting he got an instigator penalty and a game misconduct? Or if that’s unpalatable what about if he got a 5 minute major for instigating?

    • Hax


      It’s a sticky subject and I had to cut a bunch out of my first draft to keep it from being a book. The union is part of the problem (ironically) as you stated and I think you have a good point about the fans too. Cheering a fight in a game sounds to the league like an endorsement of fighting entirely when that’s not really accurate. Heck, people cheer the shootout attempts – doesn’t mean everyone cheering wouldn’t rather see 5 minutes of 3-on-3 instead.

  • Phil.

    I agree that the biggest problem is the rats, not the goons. I would love an automatic 2 min for “roughing” for any facewash after the whistle as a start to reduce the effect of the rat. Bigger emphasis on the initiator rather than only the retaliation would also work, and that’s just applying the current rules.

  • Mitchell

    complete off context but i am on the websimhockey site and i thought there was a draft today at 7pm if anyone in my league wsh_0249 can give me any in site as to when it actually is that would be great!

    • SensChirp

      In the same league. Don’t believe it has started yet.

  • Sicilian

    Us Canadians are crazy when it comes to hockey. I play rec and we’ll even fight there. Even over 40, emotions are high and if there’s one thing I can’t stand is opposing teams that run the goalie.
    That said, I don’t like fighting but worse of all, I can’t stand the staged fight. When guys are fighting for the puck and a fight breaks out, I’m ok with that happening. When guys drop the gloves before the puck hits the ice on the faceoff, I hate that. When some guy chases a goon around the ice, I hate that too. And Slashing is worse because it’s not even a fight, it’s a deliberate attempt to injure. Kessel should have had the book thrown at him.

    I think it’s easy to spot a staged fight

    Let’s translate this to real life. Does it make sense for me to have in my employ some goon that I can use to intimidate my neighbor or someone else?
    Get the staged fight out of the game. Period!

  • WaitingSince92

    For starters, refs should get between any two player facing each other, gloves off and ready to fight. Get in there before it starts (often there’s a moment or two where they just stare at each other and ‘square off’).

    I don’t think you’re ever going to get rid of fights. What you do is increase penalties to make it more rare. Anyone who fights more than X times a year gets suspended (how long, I don’t know). As a pro-fighting fan, it still seems obvious that there isn’t much of a penalty for fighting. Two goons of and no one cares. Two skilled players off and it hurts both teams. The one way it can hurt you is the Kessel example mentioned above.

    I have always loved watching fights and have long been a proponent of keeping it in hockey. However, it’s pretty easy for me to see the other side when I stop to really think about it. The game just stops so two players (usually goons) can pound the shit out of each other with their bare fists! Conflict resolution at it’s finest or worst, depending on who you ask.

    Nicely done, Hax. Well-written, although I’m a little more inclined to small-but-practical steps (though Shanahan’s decisions certainly puzzle me).

  • stone169

    I never liked the staged fights. I always thought they took away from the game. I don’t like the fights after a good clean hard hit, but I understand why they happen or at least why they should happen.

    If your superstar gets smoked, then there has to be an answer to that or else the opposing team will continue to take liberties. If you have a young superstar in the making like Nathan MacKinnon who gets rocked by a clean hit, then there has to be answer for it or else teams will continue take liberties. Is it right, probably not. Mainly because at some point these players will have to stand up for themselves.

    I have seen games, where fighting was not allowed, break down after a clean hit where a player was absolutely smoked. If fighting would’ve been allowed, then the game wouldn’t have broken down into something out of Slapshot.

    I do believe that if you want to truly get rid of the rats, then get rid of the instigator rule. They are protected by it. Guys like Matt Cooke (once a rat, always a rat) and Patrick Kaleta will be forced to answer for what they do on the ice instead of hiding behind refs all the time.

  • PraiseAlfie11

    Well thought out and well written post! Thanks, Hax!

  • Hax

    Thanks for the responses guys. It was tough to explain everything and keep the article from being way too long (first draft was about 3 times longer).

    It actually kind of threw me a bit when Chirp referred to my article as “pro-fighting” since that’s really how I approached it. Though I guess technically I am pro-fighting.

    What I really don’t want is cheap hits or dirty hits. And I don’t want guys who can’t play hockey having jobs as goons. I’m fine with “rats” if all they do is facewash or chirp or try to be pesky (i.e. not trying to injure players). I also have no problem with two relative equals dropping the gloves from time to time.

    And I certainly realize that if somehow they got rid of the rats there would still be injuries in the NHL. I don’t think you’ll ever have a game where people aren’t risking injury of some sort. But I think if you simply ban fighting blindly you’re really not going to reduce injuries very much at all – in fact it could get worse.

    Outside of one particularly unhappy camper on twitter (poor Chirp took the brunt of that one) I think most people got where I was coming from though.

  • HardAsFuk

    So about fighting, i think we need to get rid of kassian and get brian mcgrattan back.

  • NickofTime

    I’m okay with fighting & actually get quite excited when one breaks out. I don’t want to say I’m a fan of fighting but I’m not totally against it either especially when someone deserves it for a cheap shot. I also believe in protecting your skilled players as a deterrent although I wish the refs would allow guys to go after those cheap shot artists.