There's no doubt hockey fights are popular with a significant percentage of the game's fan base. Go to Google and type in something like "hockey fights" and you'll find several websites that are completely or partially dedicated to fighting in hockey. One website gives you fight snapshots, a log of the latest fights, fighting major leaders, videos of fisticuffs, etc. Another site highlights "the ten best hockey fights of all-time," while yet another has narrowed it down to the best fights of the month. And, of course, you can go to YouTube and watch hockey fights until your eyes get bleary.
Fighting has long been part of the league's culture. The National Hockey League (NHL) formally allowed fighting in 1922 when it adopted Rule 56, which calls for a five-minute major, not ejection, for fighting. Today, NHL bigwigs publicly downplay the importance of fighting while privately believing it's their biggest marketing draw.
But is allowing fighting shortsighted when it comes to the long-term growth of the sport?
Steve Donner, is a former NHL marketing executive. He also once owned a franchise in the American Hockey League. When marketing the game he felt conflicted about fighting's role in hockey. "As a marketing person and hockey person, I can see the merits for fighting to continue. But when we're trying to bring the game to a new level, you always wonder: Is fighting the element keeping hockey from making that final step?"
Even some of the game's legends question the value of fighting. In the book Home Game, Wayne Gretzky said, "We have such a poor image in California and the United States, just because we allow fighting. We don't need it anymore."
One of the game's greatest goalies, Ken Dryden, has been battling the NHL's fighting culture for years. Dryden ripped the fighting mentality in his classic 1983 book, The Game. He thinks it's distasteful and has been lobbying NHL leaders to formally end the ugly tradition.
Of course, many hockey old-timers will defend fighting in hockey until they reach their graves. The most popular argument is that allowing fighting eliminates cheap shots. The theory goes that players relieve frustrations with punches, rather than retaliate with more dangerous cheap shots. Dryden calls this the drive/discharge theory. Jeff Klein and Karl-Eric Reif, two long-time hockey fans, debunk this claim in their book, The Death of Hockey.
"Of course this theory, based on long-discredited Freudian notions on the therapeutic value of catharsis, is inane." Violence, of any kind, only breeds the acting out of more violence, according to Klein and Reif.
The claim that fighting helps you win is another myth. According to a study looking at fighting's relationship to wins and losses, there's a negative correlation between fighting penalties and winning games. That is, the larger the number of fighting penalties, the lower the team tended to finish in the standings.
Paul Busch runs a well-received website called "It's Not Part of the Game." He's done extensive research on hockey fights and believes all the arguments supporting fighting are false.
"They're based on myths," says Busch. "For example, the policing argument. Throughout the 70′s and 80′s, enforcers were at their peak, that was their heyday, but the game wasn't played any cleaner, it wasn't any safer. If you look at all types of penalty minutes from that period, they were record highs. It was the most violent time period in history. So, the policing argument in favor of fighting doesn't hold up. The stats show that quite clearly."
Unfortunately, the negatives of fighting don't stop at the professional level. One hockey fan, Tim Nolan, took his 7-year-old son Christopher to a minor league hockey game. The game "featured" 10 fights and 379 penalty minutes.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't find a fight exciting, but I wonder what message it sends to the kids. You don't want them believing this is acceptable behavior. It's a concern," concluded Nolan.
It obviously doesn't need to be this way. Start throwing punches in football, basketball, baseball or any other sport and you're ejected and often suspended.
In addition, European and American college hockey leagues don't condone fighting. The emphasis is on speed, skill, finesse, and athleticism. The same holds true for Olympic hockey. Even the NHL playoffs prosper with only limited fighting. Goons, the "enforcers" that dot NHL rosters, generally see their playing time dip by two-thirds or more when the playoffs roll around. Teams striving to win the Stanley Cup can't afford the stupid penalties that enforcers thrive on.
The NHL remains a fringe sport today among mainstream sports fans because it condones, and in some ways, encourages violence.
"The NHL has been fighting an uphill battle ... to be recognized in the United States as a full-fledged major league," wrote Klein and Reif in their book. "Yet it perpetuates exactly the one thing that most Americans say is ridiculous about hockey: fighting."
The bottom line is, fighting in hockey is not part of the game. Allowing fighting in hockey has always been a choice. And it's past time the NHL, various minor leagues, and Canadian junior leagues make the choice to emerge from the stone age and dump the fisticuffs.