There’s a popular joke, “I Went to a Fight the Other Night and a Hockey Game Broke Out,” and I hate it. It’s a hackneyed joke about a sport that has evolved past its pugilism. Well, I should reword that last phrase. Hockey is a sport that is trying to get past its boxing-like nature.
Last year, 29.76 percent of the 1,230 NHL games had at least one fight occur. This follows the pattern of decline that the NHL has seen over the past 13 years. Through rules changes like Rule 46.6 which states, “No player may remove his helmet prior to engaging in a fight. If he should do so, he shall be assessed a two-minute minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Helmets that come off in the course of and resulting from the altercation will not result in a penalty to either player,” and the mandatory visor rule, the NHL is doing its part to decrease on-ice violence and the numbers show this.
That being said, will the NHL ever abolish fighting altogether? Probably not. At least not in the next few years. Currently, there is too much friction coming from the players’ side in order to enact such a major rule change. For them, both job security and job safety is at stake. For less than skilled players like Shawn Thornton of the Florida Panthers, he provides leadership in the enforcer role. As an enforcer, he protects his teammates from vicious hits on the ice by ensuring that something worse, such as a fight, will come for the offenders later. And, without fighting, a player like Thornton probably wouldn’t have a job in the NHL despite his fantastic leadership ability.
Teams, however, have been phasing out the enforcers role themselves. Thanks to advanced statistics, the ongoing concussion debate, and salary cap constraints, having a player who is solely dedicated to fighting and nothing more is impractical. Especially when considering playoff hockey, a time when overall team depth is so important and fighting is virtually non-existent, having a roster spot for a player without skill is a waste.
As weird as it sounds, fighting in hockey has a place. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think fighting should be first on the NHL’s marquee. But, I do think that within a regular season team construct, fighting is a valuable way to ensure that more physically minded players on the ice do not destroy skill players. The enforcer role will eventually be eliminated, as I think it should, but I do believe players should be able to retaliate as they see fit in such a physical sport. With all of that said, hockey should always be seen as the sport it is and not for the fighting that has been occurring less and less often.