NHL Column: The Hockey Fight is (Almost) Dead

Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin (8) celebrates his goal with Evgeny Kuznetsov (92) and Christian Djoos (29) during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

It was the heat of the 2011-12 NHL season and a rivalry tilt between the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers was getting underway. But instead of the top line forwards remaining on the ice for the anthems, it was grinders Eric Boulton, Cam Janssen and Ryan Carter lining up at center for the Devils. On the Rangers end, Brandon Prust, Mike Rupp and Bryan Bickell skated to center for the puck drop for a huge nationally-televised rivalry match.

But instead of skating off to play the game upon puck drop, each of these six skaters dropped their gloves to fight their opponent. Heavy punches, blood on the ice and major penalties were the result of this onslaught that brought the garden crowd to the feet before they could even get settled in. All these years later, to me, this line brawl says a lot about fighting in hockey.

The common question that people ask in regard to hockey fights is: Why? What is the point? This shows in the fight between the Rangers and Devils. The game had not even started yet and they were already fighting. What did they have to be angry about? Nothing happened yet. Of course there are circumstances off the ice that carry over from previous games and pre-game activities. But still, critics of the hockey fight wonder why this is necessary in the scope of the game.

They will say that fighting adds nothing to play. It can be labeled a distraction from the actual objective of the sport, and a case of players overreacting and losing their cool. They claim that there is no relation between fighting and hockey, and that it therefore does not belong.

And while the aforementioned line brawl exemplifies this, it also presents the counter argument. Fighting injects energy into the teams and fans, rushing with a contagious adrenaline that arises from the bout. Fans were standing and screaming before the clock took its first tick. The benches were rearing to hop over the boards onto the ice and get their first crack at their bitter rivals.

The six players mentioned were fourth liners likely unfamiliar to the average hockey fan. These guys make a living on getting under the skin of opponents and uplifting the team through physical play.

One might say that these guys should make way for the skilled players in the lineup, especially at the start of the game. But filling a physical role allows these players to contribute to their teams, and bring life to the game. They are role players and thrive on executing their job.

Cam Jansen played 336 games in his career, and scored just six goals. He made a nine year career out of being one of these role players. When Jansen and other enforcers were penciled in the lineup, they knew that they were there to protect their teammates.

Whether you believe fighting belongs in hockey or not, it is admirable to spend years in and out of NHL lineups, just doing their job and what's best for the team. Each night when they drop the gloves, they are not only fighting an opposing player, but also for the chance to remain on the roster.

While there is certainly hatred toward opponents, most times hockey fights demonstrate a purpose rather than disdain between players. Players are trying to prove their worth on the roster, or simply insert energy. This gives fights a rap for being staged, but what this really means is that there is no recklessness in the fisticuffs. Players will often fight in the heat of the moment, but behind most fights is some thought and strategy. Enforcers pick their fights in order to defend teammates or spark their team when they are lackluster.

The life of an enforcer cannot be easy, as they flop between organizations, the minors and free agency on a month to month basis. Uncertainty is consistent in the life of an enforcer, who must embrace the lifestyle of staying in their role. For them, as they have played hockey all of their lives, it is the only way to continue to play at a high level. It is this willingness to do whatever it takes, for the sake of the team and for their own career, that should not go unnoticed.

Spending countless hours in the training room getting patched up with torn apart hands, facial bruises and head injuries makes this life a grind.

Facing the risks of concussions and long term brain damage makes a strong case for why fighting in today's game is dying, but for many years enforcers ignored these risks. They had no choice. If they wanted to play in the NHL, they would fight, and do so in more ways than one.

Just six years since that triple fight night in 2012, fighting in hockey has been nearly extinct. That season approximately 34.39 percent of games held a fight, compared to just 17.86 percent in 2017-18. And as fights slowly, die its practitioners die as well. The enforcers, who formed careers on being tough guys, are mostly out of the league at this point. Even the hybrid players who fight but also possess some skills are dissipating. The game has changed immensely over the last decade and as a result, fighting has become a lost art.

Since the 2004-05 lockout, the league has made strides in attempt to make the game faster. The game in the 1990s and early 2000s was founded on defense and trap style hockey. Since then, rule changes and an evolution in play-style have transformed the game from a focus on physicality to skill.

Stars like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have facilitated the movement as well, bringing dynamite never before seen in the sport. The finesse and precision of Crosby and the blistering shot and electric speed of Ovechkin are unmatched in NHL history.

Their arrival in the game led the way for many more players like them. Stars such as Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Taylor Hall and Nikita Kucherov have refreshed the game. The physical element of the game is still present, of course, but its presence is not as heavy as it once was. Young talent is becoming more skilled than it has ever been before.

These days, witnessing a single NHL fight is a rarity. Seeing three in one game? Nearly impossible. The supposed purpose of a fight in each game is having less of an impact on the flow of play. Coaches no longer insert enforcers into their lineups, looking to have scoring ability from top to bottom. Soon, the pulse of the once acclaimed hockey fight will be gone.


Dylan Barrett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at dylan.barrett@uconn.edu.