Will the NHL Ban Fighting?

The recent concussion injury suffered by Montreal Canadiens enforcer George Parros during his club’s season-opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs once again sparked debate over fighting in the NHL. 

Granted, Parros wasn’t injured by a punch but instead from an awkward tumble to the ice with his opponent Colton Orr, but critics of fighting say if they weren’t fighting, the injury wouldn’t have occurred.

Following the game, players on both clubs defended fighting in the game, calling what happened to Parros an unfortunate accident.

Still, there are fears among those who oppose fighting that one day a player could be killed.

Don't expect the NHL to ban fighting anytime soon.

Don’t expect the NHL to ban fighting anytime soon.

I’ve made no secret of my belief that fighting no longer belongs in hockey. Though I’m no shrinking violet and for years enjoyed watching my share of hockey fights, I came to the conclusion over a decade ago fighting serves no meaningful purpose in hockey.

Most hockey fans, players, coaches, general managers and team owners disagree, for a number of reasons.

The majority of fans enjoy the added entertainment value fighting brings to the game. Players believe it has psychological benefits and  helps them “police” the game. Coaches and GMs believe it helps give their clubs a physical edge. Team owners consider it part of the game’s attraction.

The fact there’s little statistical information which supports claims of fighting’s positive impact on the game, or that fights almost never occur during meaningful games (like the playoffs or the Olympics) punches holes in most of those claims, though there’s little doubt fighting remains popular among hockey fans.

Some critics believe it would take a death from a hockey fight for the NHL to abolish it, but I have my doubts.

The cynic in me believes the league would of course immediately express condolences and sympathy to the player’s family, perhaps even setting up a fund in conjunction with the NHLPA to either support the deceased’s family or to be given away to the late player’s favorite charity.

The league would also launch an “immediate investigation” while downplaying the incident as an unfortunate accident, noting it’s the first time in the league’s nearly 100-year history anyone died from a hockey fight.

Its legal deparment would also be on standby in anticipation of lawsuits or a criminal investigation. A “blue ribbon panel” would probably be convened to look more into player safety.

I believe the league would drag things out for weeks and months, wait for the uproar to settle down, implement some minor restrictions and carry on with business as usual.

It would take more than just one player dying in a hockey fight to eliminate it entirely from the NHL game.

As long as hockey fans don’t turn away from the spectacle, potentially threatening NHL revenue, the league won’t eliminate fighting from its product.

And yet, despite my cynicism, I must acknowledge the gradual changes implemented by the league over the years to limit the occurrence of hockey fights.

Bench clearing brawls – so prevalent during the 1970s and early-80s – are so rare now their occurrences over the past 20 years can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The implementation of the “instigator rule” (put in place before Gary Bettman took over as league commissioner, so settle down, Bettman haters!) has significantly reduced donneybrooks involving multiple players on the ice.

This season sees the implementation of a rule in which players who remove their helmets before a fight will receive automatic minor penalties in addition to their five-minute fighting majors.

The league also tried in 2009 to eliminate“staged fights” between enforcers but their plan failed to pass muster with the NHLPA.

The role of the enforcer is also changing, as more NHL coaches prefer their tough guys to be able to play regular shifts. The one-dimensional “goon” seems to be on his way out in the NHL.

More team executives are speaking out against fighting. Tampa Bay Lighting GM (and NHL Hall of Fame player) Steve Yzerman joined Carolina’s Jim Rutherford, Pittsburgh’s Ray Shero and Chicago Blackhawks executive (and Hall of Fame coach) Scotty Bowman recently called for the elimination or reduction of fighting in hockey.

In the junior levels, where brawling once used to be even wilder than in the NHL, crackdowns on fighting and one-dimensional enforcers seems to be  having an impact upon the quality of players reaching the NHL.

Given how entrenched fighting is in hockey, the NHL may never eliminate it from their product, but they certainly seem to be taking steps toward reducing the frequency of fighting in the game.


  1. Hi Lyle!

    “The fact there’s little statistical information which supports claims of hockey’s positive impact on the game”: I think that ‘hockey’ should be replaced by ‘fighting’. Unless you actually mean that there’s no positive impact of hockey on the game of hockey.

    • Fixed, thanks.

  2. If the league really wanted to eliminate staged fights they could start by suspending players that get into multiple fights during the season. (X # of fights results in a suspension of X # of games). That would allow for the the odd outburst of genuine emotions but eliminate the side shows that are an embarrassment to the game.

    • The genuine emotion fights are the best and I would hate to see those out of the game.

      • I agree so why not make it difficult for teams to employ enforcers by handing out stiff suspensions when those or any players have a pre-determined # of fights in a season?

  3. Lyle – I’m indifferent to fighting, I enjoy it but not a big fan of the staged fight, and even less of the second staged fight after the first.

    What do you think of the argument that if fighting was taken out of the game, stick infractions and cheap shots would increase.

    In the Aussie Rules game (AFL) it’s a similar situation to hockey with the amount of physical contact. Think Basketball with tackling. They took out fighting in the late 80’s. Now the players are unable to punch, but they do open hand pushes to the shoulder and it looks pathetic. Any contact to the face and its a suspension.

  4. I’m in the middle. I see no reason for staged fights or enforcers. Take Columbus’ Jared Boll, for example. He adds little offense and he thinks defense is de ting that goes around de yard. Who needs that? But I can see how, in the heat of a game, a fight could occur because of a real, or imagined, violation of “the code”.

  5. No fighting in hockey? Only if you can convince me that Shanahan is unbiased and consistent.

  6. Fighting in the NHL is a lot like the gun control debate (in the U.S). Every time some maniac shoots up a place with an assault rifle, there is a big push to put a ban on them. And every time somebody gets injured in a fight, there’s talk about a ban on fighting.

    But both positions miss the big picture and claim to want to solve a problem by attacking the fringe minority of incidents without addressing the primary causes.

    In the case of guns, the vast majority of gun crimes are committed with handguns. So if a person logically wanted to decrease gun violence, they should be advocating the band of handguns, not assault rifles. But no politician from either party has the stones to advocate that position.

    The same applies to hockey. Just hipshooting, I’d say the drivers of injuries in the NHL are as follows:
    70% Checking/Physical Contact
    28% Equipment Related (hit with puck or stick, cut by skate)
    2% Fighting

    Those numbers are just my estimates. Whether you agree with the distribution or not, I think we can all agree that fighting accounts for a minimal amount of all injuries, and checking/physical contact accounts for the vast majority.

    Therefore, if the primary goal is to reduce injuries, the NHL should be focused on banning checking. Then you would go about changing the equipment to make it safer.

    I’m definitely not advocating this, just making a logical point. The case to ban fighting from the NHL is purely ideological, much like the gun debate. It’s not a matter of an incident raising awareness to a problem, it’s a matter of an incident becoming a useful excuse to accomplish an already established goal.

    • Just a quick piece of advice when you formulate an argument (or even when you are analysing someone else’s arguments). Estimated statistics (ie. those not driven by data) are almost always useless. If you wanted to make that argument, you would have to either look back at all the injuries and assess what their cause was (technically you could do it over a sample size of a sufficiently large number of games instead of every game). Even then, statistics are just a way of expressing information about individual events, and there are a number of ways to look at them. One such way would be to express the chance of injury per individual event, since the number of fights, hits, and shot attempts plus the number of times a player’s skate is near another player plus the number of times a player has his stick above his shoulders (that’s for the equipment related section) happen with vastly different frequencies. If you did such an analysis and found that a fight ends with an injury about as frequently (or less frequently) as a check, for example, that would add a great deal of support to your argument. Likewise, if you find that fights result in injuries much more often than other hockey events, you might want to find a better argument to support fighting.

      Even then, if the league is trying to cover itself against future lawsuits related to former players who develop CTE, the number of injuries would not be a very persuasive argument. At that point, you would have to present statistics showing the rate of CTE amongst former enforcers is about the same as the rest of the former players. Otherwise, the league could be exposing itself to lawsuits.

      • niko,

        Excellent response. I disagree with a few things though.

        First, I’m not necessarily making an argument for or against fighting, I’m merely trying to point out that having this debate on the heels of an injury, and then basing the argument on the injury (“we have to take fighting out to prevent injuries like this one…”) is a dishonest argument. If they have a good and valid reason for banning fighting, then they should be able to make that argument in July or August.

        As for statistics, I was making a observation for the purpose of establishing a generally accepted ratio of injuries. But I agree that the argument could probably have been better made not using my approximated numbers.

  7. Fighting is not necessary for the game to be enjoyable, exciting or to police itself. As Spector noted, it only occurs rarely in the Olympics or playoffs.
    A fight should be an automatic game misconduct. A second fight, a game suspension, etc. Then, if in the heat of the game, a fight does take place, there’s a reason for it, with the repercussion’s to follow. But it would eliminate the “staged” fights, which are totally unnecessary.