By Adel Ahmed
Dropping the gloves to fight has been a part of hockey since the game was first introduced.
Fighting was something that teams would take pride in and was prominent throughout the early 90’s. Teams would have enforcers on their roster to protect players or to change the momentum of a game.
In 1996, the Buffalo Sabres led the NHL with 103 fights. Matthew Barnaby was playing for the Sabres that year and was a part of that high number of fights with 28.
However, fighting in hockey has slowly seen a decline in the sport since then which puts its importance into question.
According to Hockeyfights.com, the Western Hockey League (WHL) saw 1.93 fights occur in a game through the 1998 season. In 2019 there were only 0.38, which is roughly one fight every three games across the WHL.
There are still a number of reasons why players fight in hockey. If a team is down by a number of goals throughout the game, they may use that opportunity to fight a player from the opposing team. Doing this is one way of getting the team fired up and can give the rest of their teammates a momentum boost.
In addition, players will also drop the gloves with the intention of sticking up for their teammates if a hit was thrown where it was seen as a cheap shot. Emotions boiling over in the game is another reason why hockey players fight.
The reason for the decline of fighting is not one-dimensional. The issue of player safety is one that figures into this greatly. The players might see fighting as a way to keep themselves safe from dirty targeted hits by their opposition. From the standpoint of the commissioning body, however, fighting may find itself in the crosshairs of scrutiny as it pertains to player safety. One valid reason that the numbers of fights are dwindling may be in regards to the stiffer punishments that commissioners apply to their respective leagues.
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) passed a rule that took effect in October 2020. The ruling states any player who gets involved in a fight will receive a 10-minute misconduct penalty and a 5-minute major. The previous ruling was a five-minute major. The 10-minute misconduct penalty was one of the rules that was added.
In addition, players will automatically receive a one-game suspension after their third fight with an extra one-game suspension given for each fight that happens after that.
The game of hockey has become more about speed and skill in the last 10 years. So seeing line brawls or staged fights is something that has faded away from the sport as the years go by.
Hockeyfights.com showed in the 1999 season, the Regina Pats led the WHL with a stunning 164 fighting majors throughout the season. In 2019, the Seattle Thunderbirds led the league with just 48.
That means fighting in the Western Hockey League has decreased by 71 per cent over the last 20 years.
Fighting in hockey is something that provides entertainment for the fans to view. It can also change the impact on a game. Having 5,000 people or more get up out of their seats to watch two individuals throw punches at each other is a chilling experience to witness. It is something that would catch everyone’s attention while being at the game itself.
Although fighting brings excitement to the game, health and safety is something that becomes a concern.
Jujar Khaira of the Edmonton Oilers was knocked out in a fight by Brett Ritchie of the Calgary Flames on March 15. The fight was in response to Khaira delivering a headshot earlier in the game to Oliver Kylington of the Flames.
Ben Chiarot of the Montreal Canadiens was another player who suffered an injury from fighting. He was in a fight with J.T. Miller of the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday when he suffered a broken hand by repeatedly punching Miller’s helmet. Because of that, Chiarot cannot play hockey for the next two months due to having surgery on his hand over the weekend. Once again player safety rears its head in the discussion of fighting in hockey.
Fighting is something that needs to be around the game for years to come. It cannot fade away completely.
Fighting is a way of policing players on the ice and reminding them what the consequences are when you cross the line in a game and throw a headshot or throw a knee on knee hit like former NHL player Matt Cooke has done multiple times over his career.
It is because of villains like Cooke why fighting needs to stay in the game. When dirty players get their comeuppance for their hooligan on-ice behaviour, the game is intensified, the fans get hyped, and the narrative behind it all is enriched.Therefore having a player on your team who can jump right in and beat the wheels off of an opponent for delivering a headshot is something that every hockey team needs to have.