In light of the upcoming rivalry weekend with Denver University, I would like to take a look at the fight culture of hockey. As you may well know, the last time Denver and CC were on the ice together at the World Arena, punches were thrown, debris was launched from the stands, and game-misconducts were rendered.
Hockey is an emotional game, and fighting has been part of the sport since its rise in popularity in 19th-century Canada. Physical play is essential in hockey – it is the strongest mental aspect of the game. Whoever wins the physical play often gains the necessary momentum to score goals. Because of the physical nature of the game, fighting has often acted as an “on-ice” referee. Players who throw cheap shots will not only face two minutes in the “sin-bin,” but will ultimately be forced to “answer the bell” if you will.
The emergence of enforcers, those who protect the skilled puck-handlers, occurred as early as the implementation of blue lines in 1918. In 1922, fighting, or “fisticuffs” as it was originally called, was formally added to the official NHL rulebook. Rather than ejecting players from the game, as was the practice in amateur and collegiate hockey, players would be given a five-minute major penalty.
When the NHL expanded in the late 1960s, and more roster spots were given, almost every team had one or two enforcers. Every star player had a “body guard.” For instance, if a player went after Wayne Gretzky, he could expect to have his clock cleaned by Dave Semenko (or in Gretzky’s later years, Marty McSorley).
In the mid ‘70s, the Broad Street Bullies (the Philadelphia Flyers) popularized fighting even further, and a few years later, fighting in the NHL hit its peak when the average number of fights per game rose above one.
Since the ‘80s, rules have been imposed in order to regulate fighting in hockey. Rules such as the “third man in,” which attempts to keep fights one-on-one, and the “instigator” penalty, which punishes the player who starts the fight, have been introduced. The result? Last year we witnessed .44 fights per hockey game.
Now, in a world where we are learning more and more about the medical repercussions of head injuries, how far will the NHL go?
Recently, we heard Bernard Pollard, a Baltimore Ravens safety, claim: “Thirty years from now, I don’t think [the NFL] will be in existence… I think the direction things are going – where [NFL rule makers] want to lighten up, where they’re throwing flags and everything else – there’s going to come a point where fans are going to get fed up with it.”
Are we going to witness the end of contact sports? Will we see fighting banned from hockey?
We may need to prepare to kiss this fight culture goodbye. Who’s ready to watch some tennis…?