When you voice the sentence “Hockey is my favorite sport,” the most common response you will get revolves around the fighting issue. Why do they fight in hockey, do you like watching all of those fights, isn’t that the sport where they fight all of the time, and so on, and so on, and so on…
As the great Rodney Dangerfield once said, “I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out.” Though hilarious, this is the public opinion despite most people do not understand the basic rules or concepts of the game. They would not know that the two teams to reach for the Stanley Cup Finals this past season, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins, had a total of seven fights the entire Playoffs. The layman quick to draw that hockey is a much too violent sport because of the fighting would not know that statistic, and would also overlook the statistic that since the Super Bowl, 31 NFL players have been arrested and charged for crimes, most of which are violent, such as assault, child abuse, gun charges, and murder. That rarely happens with hockey players, in fact, in 2012 there were only two arrests of professional hockey players were made. (NHL or AHL level.)
But the question that needs to be answered is where did fighting in hockey come from? How did it start and become so popular? Why do teams have their goons, tough guy, enforcer, or whatever moniker you wish to use? I like sports; I like history; I like sports history, and I wanted to learn more. Hockey fans today are accustomed to the enforcers role: typically a fourth line winger who gets minimal minutes and is usually less skilled and makes a modest annual salary compared to the stars. These players, such as Paul Bissonnette, George Parros, and Arron Asham, are also usually the most loved and appreciated in their locker rooms and communities. As John Branch of the New York Times once wrote, “Enforcers are seen as working-class superheroes—understated types with an alter ego willing to do the sport's most dangerous work to protect others. And they are underdogs, men who otherwise might have no business in the game.”
The enforcer has evolved still today. More often than not you see a player who is supposed to fight hold up his end of the ice by scoring or defending, a role started in part by Bob Probert. These players today would include guys such as Mike Rupp, Shawn Thornton, or Jarome Iginla, who is known more for being a top offensive power but never shies away from a fight; a far cry from the enforcers such as Clark Gillies who posed such a threat that he and his teammates went virtually untouched.
There are different theories about how fighting was incorporated into hockey, including the lack of rules at the conception of the game in the 19th century in Canada, which thus encouraged physical play. Others think the poverty stricken areas of Canada in the 19th century were the most attracted to the game that could be played outdoors on frozen ponds, and of course those poverty stricken areas had some of the tougher crowds. By 1918, when the blue line was introduced to the game, and puck handling in the neutral zone required even more physical play, fighting and defending your teammates also became a requirement.
1922 was the year Rule 56 was introduced which formally regulated fisticuffs, though that term is no longer used today in NHL Rulebooks. This is where the usual “five for fighting” rule came from, and early owners such as Tex Rickard, founder of the New York Rangers, were able to profit off of fighting. It didn’t hurt that Rickard was initially a boxing promoter, and he was able to promote matchups and promote meetings between the league’s top enforcers of the time. A great example of this can be seen in the Maurice Richard movie The Rocket, where Bob Dill of the Rangers- played by Sean Avery- is brought in specifically to target Richard. I know, Richard was not an enforcer, but in those times when there was such great animosity between French Canadians and Americans, Rickard promising a high profile tough guy coming into to take out Richard was very appealing.
From the 1920s to 1960s, fighting was rare, but incredibly more violent. Keep in mind that with fewer teams and more competition to make team, most skilled players fought for themselves. The first expansion in 1967 and later the emergence of star players like The Great One allowed enforcers to get more opportunities on teams on top of being a necessity. The most famous, arguably would be the Philadelphia Flyers of the mid 70s, or as most hockey fans know them, The Broad Street Bullies, who not only could physically beat any other team with their fists, but were also a very talented bunch on the ice. (There is a great HBO Documentary about the Broad Street Bullies that was produced in 2010. Check it out.)
By 1977, the “Third Man In” rule was enacted which prevented bench clearing brawls, well, for the most part. This was followed by the Instigator Rule in 1992, but the Code is one way to get around the Instigator hurdle. The Code is similar to that of the baseball codes. (For those baseball fans, an amazing, unspoken rulebook of baseball called The Baseball Codes by Jason Turbow is very well written and insightful.) In baseball, there are times for retaliation, times for intimidating, everything. The Code in hockey is not too different; enforcers first must agree to fight, or to decline or go the free pass route, especially if one is nursing an injury from a previous fight. Agreeing is also the way to get around the Instigator penalty. Long-standing rivalries or personal vendettas are usually taken care of at the beginning of the game because that makes the most sense when both teams are not yet agitated. Accordingly, enforcers will not try to pick fights with another who is at the end of his shift as that player would be at a disadvantage. Finally, this Code stipulates a fair fight, no potentially harmful equipment like shields or gloves, and whatever the outcome of a fight, you both skate away with respect and grace.
While the debate can continue about whether or not fighting should be banned from the sport altogether, like it is in in collegiate and international play, hopefully now you can have a little more insight into how fighting evolved or originated. We all know the reasons why people fight, and I touched on maybe one or two of them here, and those points can be argued if it comes up as well. Personally, now that I know it was part of the game the in the earliest days it was played, I think it carries more weight. I also feel like the trend has been fading for fighting and reverting back to the days of the Original 6 when skilled players were capable of fighting for themselves and the need for a true enforcer is no longer a strong option. As mentioned before, players like Iginla, or Boston’s Zdeno Charra who is not afraid to fight to spark his team or defend a teammate, are more than capable of policing themselves and the game. Whether you like it or not, or you think every hockey game involves a fight, it’s a huge part of the game; always has been, and always should be.
Wikipedia (because it’s always accurate)