Since I was a young New Jersey Devils fan growing up ten minutes away from Continental Airlines Arena, I have always felt that fighting has had a place in hockey. The fast-paced action that defines the sport brings any fan to their feet, but the role of fighting, more specifically, the role of an NHL enforcer, a fearless heavy-weight who challenges any player that is “taking liberties” with his teammates, is going through one of the most important times in the history of the game.
Like anything, an incident, rather, three tragic incidents, have led the media to closely examine fighting. It started this summer when Derek Boogaard, a former enforcer for the Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers, died in his apartment after mixing Oxycodine with alcohol. Following his death, researchers at Boston University conducted a study of Boogaard’s brain and found evidence of C.T.E., a traumatic brain injury caused by repeated blows to the head – this has been attributed to Boogaard’s history of fighting since he was a teenager in the Western Hockey League. In the wake of his death, and thorough studies conducted by Boston University’s Center for Brain Trauma, there has been a renewed focus within the media to criticize fighting. There is no denying the results of the study on Boogaard’s brain – along with another done to former NHL tough guy Bob Probert. The NHL has two choices. They can either ignore the issue, or they can change.
Fighting’s place in the NHL
Just how is a fight started? While a fast majority of non-NHL fans seem to think that fighting is as normal in hockey as the game itself (the saying goes that “I went to the fights and a hockey game broke out”) – a staged event, per say – fighting usually occurs for a couple of reasons:
1) a player on the other team has “cheap shotted”, bullied, or challenged a player whose role is not that of a fighter – this leads the tougher man to step in for the incapable party and stand up for his teammate
2) a fighter feels that his team needs some extra motivation (to wake up the fans and the team).
3) a fighter is mutually challenged by another
4) in the heat of the moment, a player picks a fight with another
While some argue that these fights are “staged”, this is not the case. Fights are not started by one party – another team’s player must react in order to for the fight to ensue. If this party chooses not to fight, the game usually goes on without further incident. However, if a player is pushed to a point where he has to stand up for himself, regardless of the score of the game, a fight may begin. For example, if a particular team is up by two goals or more, a common fan might argue that the situation does not call for a fight from his side – after all, with a two goal lead, starting a fight might spark the other team (and their fans if playing on the road) and get them back into the game. However, if a particular team is beginning to take liberties to try to motivate their team, it may be counteracted with a fight by the winning side. It’s all about honoring the game and playing hockey the way it’s supposed to be played. This is the great irony with fighting – while some argue that the game at its purest is skating, speed, and scoring, this can only be captured if fights are a part of the game because, without it, the game would dilapidate into a physical and dirty affair. Some may argue that officials can take care of this by assessing minor/major penalties. The problem with this is that not all hits are able to be penalized – some checks are legal but cause frustration to arise, thereby leading to illegal checks. Without fighting, players would not have a way to move past their disagreements.
The role of the enforcer
The defenders – those that make sure fair play is kept by the other team through the threat of physical intimidation – is the role of the enforcer. He is often the heaviest, biggest, and coincidently, least-skilled member of an NHL team.
I find that the biggest problem with the enforcer is just this, they are not able to compete with the other team – therefore, they are incapable of being anything other than a fighter to their team.
However, there are very few pure enforcers nowadays. Many teams find in today’s NHL, it is necessary to carry skilled players that can help the team win on the scoreboard rather then in the penalty minutes category. For instance, Dave Schultz (nicknamed “The Hammer” for his crushing punches – Schultz is the NHL’s all time leader in penalty minutes) did little for his team other than intimidate. In stark contrast, a player like Dan Carcillo, winger for the Blackhawks does not restrict himself to fisticuffs. He is a contributor, albeit one on the forth line of the talent-laden Chicago club, that is more of a pest who brings the threat of physical intimidation but can also create scoring chances.
The future of fighting
The future of fighting will depend on how the NHL embraces fighting. If dropping the gloves is ever outlawed from the game – meaning those that engage in such activity would be kicked out of the game, enforcers will likely disappear – they would be leaving their team one man short for the remainder of the game.
In my opinion, it is just this idea – that fighters do not wish to leave their teams shorthanded – that will ultimately determine the future of fighting. How fighting is penalized will therefore play the largest role in its future in the NHL. While I do not believe fighting will ever be completely outlawed, (the old saying goes that no fan has ever booed for a fight to stop) the larger the penalty for dropping the gloves, the less likely players will be to engage in such activity.
I hope you enjoyed. Comment if you wish.