Last of the enforcers? How hockey skated away from fights.

Chris Szagola/AP
Chris Stewart (left) of the Philadelphia Flyers gets into a fight with Michael Haley of the New York Rangers during a preseason NHL game Sept. 21, 2019, in Philadelphia. Fights on the ice have dropped 70% since 2008.

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From the cult classic “Slapshot” to the old Blackhawks arena, fighting is sewn into the fabric of hockey. It remains the only major professional sport where coming to blows doesn’t bring an automatic ejection. Crowds inevitably still give a Roman Colosseum roar of approval.

But in the new NHL fighting is no longer a common spectacle, with the fight-per-game rate dropping 70% since 2008. It’s a remarkable cessation of hostilities that, experts say, reflects society’s increasing wariness over violence in sports. The nature of hockey has also changed. The game today puts a premium on speed and quick transitions. Many teams don’t want to waste a roster spot on the equivalent of a George Foreman on skates.

Why We Wrote This

As hockey has promoted speed and skill over grappling, goals are up and fights are down. It’s a remarkable cessation of hostilities that reflects society’s increasing wariness over violence in sports.

Marc Boxer has watched the evolution of the sport – first as a player, then as a coach, and now as the junior hockey director of USA Hockey. “Listen, I was no angel when I played,” says Mr. Boxer. “There was a lot of fighting. The rules were different ... every inch was a battle.”

“Some people will say that we have made it a softer game,” he says. “I disagree. Guys still hit hard. But no one is saying, ‘Gee, we need more [fights].’”

As a lifelong fan of the Chicago Blackhawks, Bill Cameron has seen his share of hockey fights. And not just on the ice. When he would attend games at the old Chicago stadium, the pugnaciousness was evident everywhere.

“There were often more fights in the stands than on the ice,” says Mr. Cameron, now a salesman for a design firm in Woodstock, Georgia. “Even the goalies would fight.”

No longer. As the National Hockey League kicks off its new season this week, there is one thing you are likely to see less of: gloves dropped in pursuit of pummeling an opponent.

Why We Wrote This

As hockey has promoted speed and skill over grappling, goals are up and fights are down. It’s a remarkable cessation of hostilities that reflects society’s increasing wariness over violence in sports.

Hockey, in one sense the most gladiator-like of all major sports, is changing. Long an integral and celebrated part of hockey, fighting is rapidly diminishing on the rinks of North America as injuries, rule changes, and cultural shifts around player welfare make the spectacle of settling scores by fist increasingly an anachronism.

True, hockey at the big-league level remains the only major team sport where fighting doesn’t bring an almost automatic ejection. It remains a strategic part of the game: something players do to “enforce” order on the ice or to buoy their teammates. Crowds inevitably still give a Roman Colosseum roar of approval.

But in the new NHL fighting is no longer the common spectacle it once was. For proof of this look no further than the decline of the “goon.” Most teams have always had at least one player, usually someone with a Bunyanesque build and fists like ham hocks, whose job description included getting in fights.

One of the baddest and most beloved fighters of all time was Stu “The Grim Reaper” Grimson, who played in the NHL from 1989 to 2002. During those years he was involved in 268 fights in 729 games. He scored only 39 points (goals plus assists). In 2019, the most willing NHL fighter, according to hockeyfights.com, was Brendan Lemieux with the New York Rangers. He had a total of six fights in 72 games.

The fight-per-game rate has gone from .60 in 2008 to .18 last season – a 70% drop. It’s a remarkable cessation of hostilities that, experts say, reflects society’s increasing wariness over violence in sports.

“There are still people like [Canadian hockey analyst] Don Cherry who think that hockey needs its fights,” says L. Syd Johnson, a philosopher at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. “But hockey is moving toward being more like other professional sports – even football – where fighting is not intrinsic to the game.”

From the cult classic movie “Slapshot” to the old Blackhawks arena, fighting is sewn into the fabric of the sport. Its roots lie in 19th-century Canada where a relative lack of rules necessitated force and intimidation. Even until fairly recently, the rules did little to discourage fighting. 

Marc Boxer has watched the evolution of the sport for decades – first as a player, then as a coach, and now as the junior hockey director of USA Hockey in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a major feeder organization to the NHL. “Listen, I was no angel when I played,” says Mr. Boxer, who was in the American Hockey League. “There was a lot of fighting. The rules were different, a lot of clutching, hooking, and holding – every inch was a battle.”

NHL teams built a reputation on toughness – hard checking and, yes, fighting. This included teams like the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers (the “Broad Street Bullies”) of the 1970s and ’80s. Flashing a missing-tooth grin was a badge of honor. Many teams also had “protectors” who made sure no one touched their superstars, like Wayne Gretzky. A high-water mark for fighting in the NHL came in 2008, when there were 734 on-ice altercations. 

Since then, the numbers have been declining dramatically. One reason is the sheer toll of the violence. In 2011, three young NHL enforcers – Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard, and Rick Rypien – died. Though not tied directly to fighting, their deaths were a sober reminder of the physical and psychological dangers inherent in a rough sport. “It does a lot of damage, let’s just leave it at that,” retired Blackhawks bruiser Dan Carcillo has said.

Those deaths, along with advancements in brain research and player lawsuits, caused the NHL to increase its focus on “player welfare” on and off the ice. But more fundamental changes were coming from the lower leagues.

In 2014, USA Hockey and its junior league stiffened its fighting rule to a minimum 15 minute penalty. The following year, the Canadian Junior Hockey League adopted a “one-fight” rule that ejected fighters.

The Ontario Hockey League, meanwhile, used to have a 10-fight rule to identify serial fighters. In 2016, the league dropped that to three, after which a player is suspended. Fighting has dropped dramatically in all three leagues. All these changes have had a “trickle up” effect on the NHL, according to Professor Johnson: If players aren’t fighting in the minor leagues, they likely aren’t going to when they get to the NHL.

The nature of hockey has also changed. The game today puts a premium on speed and quick transitions. Many teams don’t want to waste a precious roster spot on the equivalent of a George Foreman on skates. 

“Some people will say that we have made it a softer game,” says Mr. Boxer. “I disagree. Guys still hit hard. But no one is saying, ‘Gee, we need more [fights].’ No one is saying that.”

Some would like to see the NHL stiffen the rules more against fighting. But active players still overwhelmingly support leaving them where they are.

For Mr. Cameron in Woodstock, fisticuffs are a necessary deterrent, if, increasingly, a last resort. “I like some of the fighting and that could be just the way I grew up with it,” he says. “I don’t know if I’d ever want to see it go away.”

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