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Blackhawks Thu Dec 05 2013

Fighting In the NHL & Whether or Not It's Necessary

Thumbnail image for GB blackhawks icon.png It wasn't a question of "if" but more so "when" Dallas Stars' winger Antoine Roussel was going to have to face retaliation from any one of the Blackhawks over his hit on Patrick Kane, stemming from Chicago's 2-1 shootout win in Dallas on November 29. Then, with 4 minutes, 54 seconds left in the first period of their Tuesday rematch, Andrew Shaw threw his gloves to the ice just as the puck dropped between Kris Versteeg and Vernon Fiddler. Roussel shed his gear just as quickly, and the two traded a whirlwind of direct shots to each other's heads reminiscent to Black Friday shoppers entering their local Walmart.

The capacity crowd at the United Center rose to its feet and watched as Shaw battled back after first having his red sweater pulled over his head while swinging blindly at Roussel, only then to regain composure and connect on three direct shots to Roussel's jaw. The linesmen, Andy McElman (#90) and Vaughan Rody (#73), intervened as best they could while the two continued to pound away at one another.

Eventually, McElman impressively took Shaw down with a headlock that would make any high school wrestling coach proud, and the two skaters were escorted to their respective benches to serve their fighting majors (Shaw was asked to leave for the remainder of the first period, only to return thereafter). The skirmish between Roussel and Shaw, which already is being labeled as the "fight of the year," was brutal and heart-pounding in a display of machismo against two hockey players with a penchant for antagonizing and rabble rousing, respectively. Once the ice shavings settled, the weight of retribution was measured amongst the viewing public, which begged the question of this epic scrum: is fighting at all necessary in the NHL?

blackhawks fight
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images, via NHL.com

It's a debate that goes back as far as the game itself. Fighting always has been a part of the game of hockey, whether it's a quick check with the stick to a set of ribs in the corner or an all-out brouhaha, retaliation of any sort is bound to happen when adrenaline is coursing through the veins of large men skating at high speeds while brandishing a hockey stick.

Teams have spent draft choices or have made acquisitions in order to insert an "enforcer" to the squad as a way to protect their higher draft choices or higher-quality acquisitions who are being chased down by the other team's antagonists. At its most raw definition, think of it as hiring a body guard tasked to protect against any bullies who might use intimidation to skew performance.

The most famous enforcers, or "goons," at least in popular culture circles, are the infamous Hanson brothers from the 1977 movie Slap Shot. The movie is a classic for any hockey fan, centering around Reggie Dunlop (played by Paul Newman) who is the elder statesman of the team, acting as player-coach of the Charleston Chiefs. The team is losing money, losing games and losing the respect of its fans in an otherwise dismal season at the twilight of Dunlop's career. Enter the Hanson brothers, who, while nimble on their skates, incorporate violence and thuggery to intimidate the opposition, which in turn generates a newly-found sense of popularity for the team.

The film drew comparisons to the early-1970s Philadelphia Flyers team, nicknamed the "Broad Street Bullies," led by Dave Schultz and his unheard-of 348 penalty minutes during the 1973-'74 season. The Flyers did win back-to-back Stanley Cups during the 1973-'74 and 1974-'75 seasons, but the sport slowly became perceived as thuggish and lacking skill and grace. Simply strap on a pair of skates and go out and pummel your opponent. The last one standing wins.

The unnecessary violence only became that much more exposed nationally during the 1975-'76 season, as a Super Series pitted the reigning Cup champs in the Bullies against the Red Army of the Soviet Union. The Russian team was dominant in every aspect of the game, beating anyone in their way with skill and precision that produced incredible offensive statistics. That is until they marched into the old Spectrum only to leave shortly thereafter in the first period, protesting that the violent hits and slashes from the Flyers were below any form of standards allowed in the game of hockey. The Russians eventually returned from their mini-protest and lost the game 4-1.

That Flyers example is the utmost extreme case, at least pertaining to a team's point of view to intimidate its opponent without ever being intimidated themselves. It wasn't until Guy Lafleur and the Montreal Canadiens came into their own as the dominant team of the mid-to late-1970s that speed and skill began to conquer brute and brawn to beat opponents.

A more recent and somewhat bloodier and scarier incident between two teams involved the blood bath between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche from the mid-to late-1990s. The feud started when the Avs' Claude Lemieux checked the Red Wings' Kris Draper into the boards during the 1996 Western Conference Finals. The hit nearly ended Draper's career and the retaliation that occurred the following season nearly ended many others.

Closer to home was one-time hated rival turned beloved Blackhawks player Bob Probert. Probert began playing for the Blackhawks during the 1995-'96 season, and was the quintessential "I hated his guts when he played for [TEAM X], but glad he's now on our team" kind of player. The bruiser threw his gloves in over 200 fights on the ice and never was a serious scoring threat, aside from one season when he scored 29 goals for the Red Wings during the 1987-'88 season. As his numbers began to decline so too did his health, eventually succumbing to heart failure at the tender age of 45.

According to a New York Times report, Probert's brain tissue was examined by researchers at Boston University to which they discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the very same degenerative disease found in more than 20 deceased professional football players. In other words, Probert's brain was being bruised and damaged severely while trying to hold court on the ice as he saw fit. Taking hits against the boards and falling on the ice didn't help the cause throughout Probert's career, but taking violent shots to the head in over 200 fights certainly aided in the decline of his brain tissue.

The dangers of fighting are well known to the players themselves and most defend it as it being "part of the game." But what goes unnoticed at times is the simple fact that a player facing a fighting major puts his team at a serious disadvantage.

According to a research study by the economics department at Georgia College and State University titled "The Impact of Penalties on the Outcomes of Hockey Games," every penalty minute incurred has a negative effect against a team's overall wins on the season by -0.010832. So, according to the formulas used in the study, every 100 penalty minutes incurred by a team equals one loss for that team. One thousand penalty minutes would equate to 10 losses -- so on and so forth. Last season the Blackhawks were tied for fewest penalty minutes for a team in the league with 444 and won the Stanley Cup. The most penalty minutes in the league for a team last season came from the Toronto Maple Leafs with 776, who had a decent season finishing 26-17-5, but statistically could have finished nearly eight games better in the win column, at least according to the study.

There's no doubt that fighting in hockey keeps most fans' attention on the ice, knowing there could be a battle at every turn. The site HockeyFights.com keeps an annual log of games in which fights occur where fans can watch and then vote on their favorite. According to traffic rating service Alexa, HockeyFights.com receives an average of 8.8 daily page views per visitor (that number represents a 30 percent increase from the prior three months).

A YouTube page dedicated to hockey fights, simply called "Top 10 NHL Hockey Fights of All Time," already has received 578,174 page views (and counting) since first being published on Feb. 28, 2013. ESPN on occasion, whenever feeling up to the task of covering professional hockey, will air a top 10 of their own of brutal fighting between two ice toughs.

After replaying the Shaw fight multiple times on air, it became a little hard to swallow the celebration of two guys beating the living daylights out of each other for no apparent reason other than Kane was knocked to the ice during the previous meeting. No one wants to see Kane get hurt or bullied, but did Shaw really need to send a message to Roussel by way of swinging until the fight was either broken up or, worse, he broke Roussel's jaw?

As previously stated, fighting has and always will be a part of the game, for better or for worse. Until Dan Carcillo came to town from the Flyers (go figure), he was nothing more than a toothless gnat who actually had some scoring potential. The "Carbomb," as he's affectionately known to most fans, mixed it up at times for the Blackhawks, but was kept on the bench (when he wasn't injured -- from fighting) in favor of deeper talent.

Maybe it was the violent nature in which Shaw and Roussel went at it that seemed like such a unnecessary spectacle -- and this coming from someone who has covered boxing for this site -- or maybe it's that we aren't used to seeing this team fight as much as it once did. Yes, the Blackhawks do mix it up from time to time, but the penalty minutes, especially majors, have gone down over the years.

  • 2013 (Cup year): 444 PIM, tied for lowest in the league
  • 2012: 848 PIM, tenth lowest in the league
  • 2011: 742 PIM, third lowest in the league
  • 2010 (Cup year): 908 PIM, fifth lowest in the league
  • 2009: 1,129 PIM, seventeenth lowest in the league
  • 2008: 1,371 PIM, fourth most in the league

That's a decrease of 68 percent in penalty minutes over the course of six seasons when, you guessed it, the franchise began to change its tune in drafting and trading for talent, as well as marketing a brand that has become the model for the NHL.

Whether or not the message was received from Roussel (I'm guessing that answer is "no," especially the way he celebrated his penalty shot during the Dec. 3 game), the fact remains that Shaw would have been better served by being on the ice while his team was down instead of pointing to the crowd on his way to the locker room. In the other three major sports, fighting isn't tolerated in the slightest. As soon as tempers flare, the players are immediately ejected and faced with heavy fines, as well as potential suspensions.

Eliminating fighting from hockey probably will never happen, at least not for a very long time, or until commissioner Gary Bettman decides to be the enforcer off the ice. But somehow curbing it so that players feel the brunt of a hefty penalty, instead of multiple roundhouses to the temple, might prolong a player's career and provide a more competitive game between athletes who already are considered the best in the world.

 
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Bryan Bedell / December 5, 2013 12:16 PM

I agree with most of your points, and with the league taking big steps to cut down on dangerous checks and prevent concussions in the course of play, it's weird they seem to have so little problem with people whacking each other in the head game after game on purpose. Sometimes it seems like the penalties for dirty hits have resulted in more fights because players are afraid to be aggressive during play. I honestly don't mind a good fight once in a while, and I understand the history and relevance to the game, (and to be honest there's probably a little WWF going on out there) but it's time to address it and at least take some baby steps towards eliminating it.

For what it's worth, I was at the game and I have to admit Roussel's goal celebration was funny as hell, everyone was laughing as they were booing him.

BTW, the term is 'rabble rousing,' which fits even better in this context, because the goal is to rouse up the 'rabble' (fans).

Jim Crago / December 5, 2013 1:13 PM

"Rabble rousing" it is, Bryan. Thanks for the keen eye.

Darragh McCurragh / December 6, 2013 1:51 PM

Having been an ice (speed) skater myself I believe, that the problem of (male) violence in hockey ice rinks is largely a problem of physics. While in football the players reach the maximum speed they can as runners, ice hockey players reach can reach double the speed/the fourfold momentum of anyone on foot. Plus they are acting at incredibly close ranges. If you would want to scale a football playing field down to give a similar "feel", it'd not be much bigger than a large living room probably. Now, when people bump into each other inevitably but at a mo9mentum that our "reptile brain" always decodes as aggressive, then counter reactions are inevitable. Once the "fight or flight" response has been triggered, the adrenaline secreted, there is no looking back in such close quarters.

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