Hockey Fight1

With the recent revelations about the effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (repeated concussions) on hockey players, the role of fighting in ice hockey has come under increasing scrutiny, particularly after the 2011 deaths of enforcers Wade Belak, Derek Boogard, & Rick Rypien from CTE-related causes.[1]

Eliminating fighting as a semi-sanctioned part of the game has become a cause celébre for reformers seeking to bring the NHL into line both with other North American sports and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), governing bodies that typically ban fighting on the field (or ice) and punish players engaged in fisticuffs with mandatory suspensions.

Part of the argument against outlawing the pugilistic aspect of the sport is rooted in tradition, citing the fact that the National Hockey League and North American minor leagues have all permitted fighting to a greater or lesser extent for their entire histories.  This has contributed to the popularization of a public image of hockey that has, for better or for worse, exaggerated the rough-and-tumble aspects of the game, epitomized in the well-worn joke, “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.”[2]  The NHL is still seen by many non-fans as a collection of stick-wielding gap-toothed goons wearing funny short pants and knives on their feet.

http://youtu.be/Ui1LhEqqnC8

Is this impression of hockey’s history justified?  How do impressions of the level of violence in hockey compare to the actual instances of fighting majors (for the purposes of this study, we will equate frequency of fighting majors with level of violence)?[3]

Part I of this article will attempt to see if the quantitative penalty record (available from HockeyFights.com from 1954 onward) matches up with the perception that hockey has a violent past, one that has slowly changed over time to focus more on skill, goal scoring, and passing, particularly with the introduction of European players into the game from the 1980s onwards.[4]  Part II will take a qualitative look at how the perceived levels of violence in hockey changed over time.

In most people’s minds, the phrase “Old Time Hockey”[5] conjures up images of toothless behemoths on wobbly leather skates playing on dimly lit ice surfaces behind chain-link fences[6] pummeling each other into misshapen purple pulps in front of their fedora-clad fans. We think of the Original Six Era™ (1942-1967)[7] as a lawless, Wild West period where “Gordie Howe hat tricks”[8] occurred every other game, men were men, and women were also men.  It was so manly, goalies didn’t even have to wear masks; pucks were stopped with a potent mixture of musk and chewing tobacco.

Hockey Fight2

Bzzzzzzzzz!  Wrong! Thanks for playing!  Hockey fights actually occurred less than half as often than they do today during the heyday of Le Rocket Richard, Stan Mikita, and, yes, Gordie Howe (who actually only accrued 2 of the eponymous hat tricks during his lifetime).[9]  Last season’s 0.48 fights/game looks positively barbaric when compared to 1957-58’s 0.20 (Bobby Hull’s rookie season).[10]

What?  Really?  Seriously?  Did “Slap Shot” somehow mislead us?  Grab your torches and pitchforks! Tie Paul Newman to the front of a rusty Zamboni!

Well, not really… because “Slap Shot” was made in 1977, when the NHL really was riding a wave of blood-soaked seasons.  As you can see from the graph below, following the first wave of expansion in the NHL in 1967,[11] the frequency of fighting rose rapidly.  The league doubled in size while the available player pool remained the same.  There wouldn’t be a major influx of new talent into the league until the 1970s and 1980s with first Scandinavians and then Eastern European players joining NHL teams.  So, with the same amount of talent and twice as many roster spots, there was more room on each team’s roster for players of a more….pugilistic persuasion.

Fighting majors 1953-2013

1953-2013, Fighting majors per team per game. [notes on graph]

No team embraced this opportunity more than the “Broad Street Bullies,” which is one myth that holds up to historical scrutiny quite well.  Led by Bobby Clarke, these Philadelphia Flyers teams really earned their nickname, ranking in the top 3 teams in the league in number of fights every single season between 1971-72 and 1981-82.  You might have heard that this worked out pretty well for them, winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975 and finishing first or second in their division every year between 1972-73 and 1980-81. So they were both mean and good, directly influencing the NHL’s first attempt to reign in the violence.

6955005261_c8edb46b1d_b

Faced with this onslaught of mayhem, the league sought to crack down on the bench-clearing brawls that were becoming all too common, enacting the “Third Man In” rule[12] to try and reduce the chaos in 1977.  Did it work? (Hint, spoilers below!)  Um….not so much.  Fighting on a per-game basis actually went up, way up, after the rule change.  Did the number of bench-clearing, brawls drop?  Maybe, but the overall number of fights per game sure didn’t, peaking in the late 1980s at more than a fight per game.   If anything, the rate at which fighting majors increased quickened after 1977 when compared to the previous couple of years.

So if the Third Man In rule was virtually useless at reducing the number of fights in the league, what did eventually change?  Enter the Instigator Rule, implemented after the 1991-92 season, a change that either saved the game from the Neanderthals that threatened to turn it into a WWE-style sideshow or was the first step in the destruction of all that was good and right and manly about Canada’s birthright (choose your own interpretation.  Nuanced arguments not allowed.).  The new rule dictated that, on top of the normal five for fighting, any player clearly starting a fight would be slapped with an additional two minute minor penalty and a ten-minute misconduct, which meant that his team would almost certainly have to kill off a power play (whereas before, most fights resulted in both players punished equally).[13]

This rule change occurred (probably coincidentally) in the middle of a significant influx of European players from the former Eastern Bloc, principally the USSR/Russia and Czechoslovakia (as well as from Finland), who followed on the heels of the Swedish players who had begun immigrating a decade before.  All this immigration drastically increased the available pool of talented players.  These players grew up in hockey cultures less influenced by North American frontier concepts of individual honor and masculinity and more by traditions and ideologies of collective action (and, well, soccer).  These differing attitudes combined with the increased punishment for fighting added by the Instigator Rule to produce a rapid drop in the number of fights per game over the next two decades.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vIcdbxzrtbI


This helps to explain where someone like Don Cherry is coming from.  Racist and sartorially catastrophic wacko though he may be, the NHL in which he coached (1974-80)[14] really looked a lot different than the one he so vociferously criticizes from the CBC broadcast booth today.  He blames the league (correctly), namby-pamby Euros (partially correctly), and effete Québécois (not so much) for systematically pushing fighting to the fringes of the modern game and, possibly, eventually eliminating the practice all together.

Is he a dinosaur who should have his microphone forcibly taken away from him?  You bet.  Is his impression of the “good old days” completely a product of nostalgia?  Not really, as it turns out.

So, while old-time hockey, from the 1970s and 80s, really does live up to its reputation of kung-fu on ice (just more violent), a product of expansion and the resulting talent dilution, really old-time hockey was actually significantly less rough-and-tumble than popular perceptions of the era would have it.  Our grandparents and great-grandparents were right about something: the Original Six Era really was a golden age of hockey for fans that preferred watching Gordie Howe score hat tricks to “Gordie Howe hat tricks.”

 

Notes on graph:

Years represent the ending year of a given season.  Thus, “1992” shows the data point for the 1991-92 NHL season.

The dashed lines for each modification to the fighting rule indicates the last season before the new rule went into effect (both changes were implemented during the offseason).

The data on fighting majors at HockeyFights.com is sketchy before the 1953-4 season.[15]

To account for varying season length, I normalized the graph by plotting not total fighting majors per team, but fighting majors per game per team, which also accounts for the lockout-shortened 1994-95 and 2012-13 seasons.

The gap in the data represents the lost 2004-05 season.

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NHL Fighting Majors – 1953-2013

Season

Mean Fighting Majors/team

Mean Fighting Majors/team/game

Median Fighting Majors/team

Median Fighting Majors/team/game

St. Dev.

1953-54

18.0

0.26

19

0.27

3.5

1954-55

13.7

0.20

13.5

0.19

3.1

1955-56

11.7

0.17

11.5

0.16

2.9

1956-57

15.0

0.21

14.5

0.21

4.7

1957-58

14.3

0.20

15.5

0.22

4.2

1958-59

14.3

0.20

14.5

0.21

5.2

1959-60

12.7

0.18

13.5

0.19

4.8

1960-61

14.3

0.20

15

0.21

3.9

1961-62

9.5

0.14

9

0.13

5.3

1962-63

11.0

0.16

11

0.16

1.8

1963-64

21.0

0.30

20

0.29

6.1

1964-65

11.8

0.17

12

0.17

3.9

1965-66

14.2

0.20

16

0.23

4.2

1966-67

15.5

0.22

15

0.21

3.6

1967-68

14.5

0.20

14

0.19

5.9

1968-60

21.9

0.30

20.5

0.28

9.1

1968-69

24.2

0.32

21

0.28

7.0

1969-70

40.1

0.51

41.5

0.53

11.2

1970-71

32.3

0.41

29.5

0.38

9.3

1971-72

32.6

0.42

31.5

0.40

12.0

1972-73

37.4

0.48

31.5

0.40

11.5

1973-74

37.4

0.47

36

0.45

12.6

1974-75

37.4

0.47

32.5

0.41

17.1

1975-76

39.4

0.49

41

0.51

12.9

1976-77

53.7

0.67

51.5

0.64

17.9

1977-78

55.4

0.69

58

0.73

12.8

1978-79

57.1

0.71

55

0.69

19.2

1979-80

65.7

0.82

63

0.79

8.2

1980-81

63.3

0.79

67

0.84

8.5

1981-82

54.2

0.68

57

0.71

7.3

1982-83

65.4

0.82

65

0.81

7.3

1983-84

74.3

0.93

76

0.95

8.9

1984-85

83.5

1.04

82

1.03

11.4

1985-86

83.0

1.04

79

0.99

8.6

1987-88

88.1

1.10

86

1.08

9.1

1988-89

72.0

0.90

66

0.83

9.9

1989-90

73.0

0.91

70

0.88

8.6

1990-91

72.2

0.90

75

0.94

6.4

1991-92

70.0

0.88

69

0.86

7.7

1992-93

52.2

0.62

49

0.58

7.5

1993-94

63.0

0.75

59

0.70

7.0

1994-95

38.0

0.79

37

0.77

4.2

1995-96

59.4

0.72

57

0.70

7.7

1996-97

68.9

0.84

70

0.85

6.1

1997-98

63.6

0.78

66

0.80

9.0

1998-99

48.3

0.59

46

0.56

9.2

1999-2000

40.6

0.49

36

0.43

7.3

2000-01

45.1

0.55

44

0.53

7.1

2001-02

52.9

0.64

49

0.60

9.1

2002-03

44.1

0.54

46

0.55

6.1

2003-04

52.1

0.63

53

0.65

6.3

2004-05

No data – Lost season.  Thanks, Gary Bettman!

2005-06

30.6

0.37

31

0.37

5.5

2006-07

32.9

0.40

31

0.37

5.8

2007-08

43.9

0.53

45

0.55

6.8

2008-09

48.6

0.59

50

0.61

7.2

2009-10

47.4

0.58

49

0.59

8.5

2010-11

42.8

0.52

44

0.54

8.7

2011-12

36.3

0.44

35

0.43

6.2

2012-13

23.1

0.48

22

0.46

3.4


[1]
Schwartz, Daniel, “Are NHL enforcers’ addictions, depression a result of on-ice brain trauma?” CBC News. Sep. 3, 2011, accessed Jan. 25, 2014. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/are-nhl-enforcers-addictions-depression-a-result-of-on-ice-brain-trauma-1.982100

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[3]
The relative violence of penalties other than fighting majors, such as high sticking, slashing, tripping, elbowing, spearing, et. al. is almost impossible to determine simply from the record of penalties in minutes.  It would be fruitless to attempt to parse out violently intentional slashes (for example) from the cases where contact is incidental or accidental; the exact same penalty is assessed in all cases short of a flagrant intent to injure.

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[4]
All raw data on fighting majors used in this article was gleaned from Hockeyfights.com and in accordance with their use policy (use with attribution). All statistical calculations, tables, graphs, and larger analyses of that information by author.

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[5]
A phrase coined by the 1977 movie “Slap Shot.” Although in the movie itself, the term was used to refer to a nostalgia-tinged idea of “old time hockey” based on skill and skating prowess, it quickly came to refer to the goon-filled buffoonery of the movie’s protagonists.  That is to say, most people today use it to mean the exact opposite of what it signified in the film.

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[6]
Seriously, before Plexiglas, [they used metal fencing](http://sports.mearsonlineauctions.com/ItemImages/000042/8c313c98-58e9-4eba-9966-83bd2e27cf49_lg.jpeg).  Without helmets. Ouch.

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[7]
From the 1942 folding of the New York Americans (partially because of the reduced player pool resulting from Canada and the US’s entry into WWII) through the 1966-67 season, the NHL had the following six teams: Montréal Canadiens (founded 1909), Toronto Maple Leafs (1917), Boston Bruins (1924), Chicago Blackhawks (1926), Detroit Red Wings (1926), and New York Rangers (1926).  This group has been referred to as the “Original Six” since soon after the 1967 expansion.

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[8]
A goal, an assist, and a fight in the same game.  Most recently done by the NY Islanders’ Kyle Okposo on Jan. 20, 2014 vs. Philadelphia.  The all-time leader, in one of life’s little ironies, is the man now in charge of handing out suspensions for violent conduct in the NHL, Brendan Shanahan, with 17.

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[9]
McGourty , John, “Going inside the ‘Gordie Howe Hat Trick’,” NHL.com Jan. 25, 2010, accessed Jan. 24, 2014, http://www.nhl.com/ice/news.htm?id=514973

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[10]
See table at end.

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[11]
The California Golden Seals, LA Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, & St. Louis Blues all joined the NHL for the 1967-68 season.

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[12]
“A game misconduct penalty, at the discretion of the Referee, shall be imposed on any player who is the first to intervene (third man in) in an altercation already in progress…this penalty is in addition to any other penalties incurred in the same incident.”

National Hockey League. “Section 6 – Rule 46.16 – Third Man In.” In Official Rules. Accessed Jan. 24, 2014. http://www.nhl.com/ice/page.htm?id=26336

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[13]
“An instigator of an altercation shall be a player who by his actions or demeanor demonstrates any/some of the following criteria: distance traveled; gloves off first; first punch thrown; menacing attitude or posture; verbal instigation or threats; conduct in retaliation to a prior game (or season) incident; obvious retribution for a previous incident in the game or season. A player who is deemed to be the instigator of an altercation shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major penalty for fighting and a ten-minute misconduct.  If the same player or goalkeeper is deemed to be the instigator of a second altercation in the same game, he shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major penalty for fighting and a game misconduct.  When a player receives his third instigator penalty in one Regular season, he is automatically given a game misconduct following that third violation.”

National Hockey League. “Section 6 – Rule 46.11 – Instigator” In Official Rules. Accessed Jan. 25, 2014. http://www.nhl.com/ice/page.htm?id=26336

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[14]
Cherry was head coach of the Boston Bruins from 1974-75 through 1978-79 and the Colorado Rockies for the 1979-80 season, after which he began his broadcasting career with CBC. “Don Cherry,” Hockey-Reference.com Coaches Database. Accessed Jan. 25, 2014. http://www.hockey-reference.com/coaches/cherrdo01c.html

Cherry also was a minor league defenseman from 1954-72.  He played in one NHL game, a playoff game with Boston in 1955. “Don Cherry,” Hockey-Reference.com Player Database. Accessed Jan. 25, 2014. http://www.hockey-reference.com/players/c/cherrdo01.html

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[15]
“NHL Team Fighting Majors Leaders. 1953-1954 Regular Season,” HockeyFights.com. Accessed Jan. 25, 2014.  http://www.hockeyfights.com/leaders/teams/1/reg1954

The data for the previous season lists 4 total fights (for the entire league), a pretty much impossible-to-believe figure.

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About The Author

Editor, Sidelines.

A sports-obsessed historian and anthropologist interested in the connections between sports, mass culture, and the social and political contexts in which they exist. I play beer-league hockey, softball, and soccer. I like dogs, good booze, food, and horribly awesome kung-fu movies.