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Hockey's bid to rein in fisticuffs

The league wants to expand its audience, but fights are a major draw for many hard-core fans.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 12, 2009

Scuffle on ice: New Jersey Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador, right, and Florida Panthers center Anthony Stewart fight.

ray stubblebine/reuters



"Wanna go, pretty boy?"

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Snatched from the 1986 hockey flick "Youngblood," the line has become the hockey goon squad's on-ice call to arms, a sure way to get 15,000 fans out of their seats and inject some passion into a listless bench.

"Staged fights" – where two players agree to go at it as soon as play starts – are up by 30 percent in the past year and brawls occur in nearly half of all regular season games. In response, the NHL's brass surprised the hockey world this week by taking bold action to keep the gladiator-like game from eroding into a complete carnival sideshow.

A proposed new rule would add 10 minutes to the current "five for fighting" penalty for staged fights. In part, it is a response to recent fight-related injuries and tragedies, including the death of a minor league player in January. But it's also emblematic of a league desperately vying for acceptance as a top American sport while holding onto its Canadian blue-collar roots and pugilistic traditions.

"NHL brass want to have it both ways," says Orin Starn, a sports anthropologist at Duke University. The question they're now facing: "Do they want to have this spectacle of goons whaling on each other or do they want to promote hockey through the beauty of the game and the skill it demands?"

All in all, there have been more than 24,000 fights over the history of the league. This year is on track to hit 570 fights, the most in the modern hockey era, and the percentage of games with fights – 43 percent – and number of games with more than one fight – 178 – will both break records if projections hold, according to, a fan site that rates fights and posts videos of the skirmishes.

The new rule, if approved by the league's Board of Regents, would leave it to officials to decide whether a fight is staged or not. If successful, it could become part of a series of tweaks that, over time, could reduce the sport's focus on fighting and, perhaps, extend the sport's appeal while retaining hard-core fans. After football and basketball instituted heavy fines for fighting in the 1970s and '80s, hockey remains the only sport with sanctioned fisticuffs. Fighting isn't tolerated in youth, amateur, or Olympic play, but becomes a part of the North American sport starting in the NHL-feeding junior leagues.

The death of Ontario Hockey League player Don Sanderson, who hit his head on the ice during a fight in January, helped spark debate at the league's general managers' "State of the Game" meeting in Naples, Fla., this week.