To Protect and Serve
Is vigilante justice necessary in hockey?
We've all heard the stereotypes commonly associated with hockey: "barbaric", "boxing on ice", "long on blood, short on teeth." And of course there's the always-popular saying, "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out."
Are these slights legitimate? Well, maybe. But the fact is, unlike newspaper betting lines, NCAA office pools, and professional wrestling, fighting in hockey is not for entertainment purposes only. Many casual fans and anti-fighting activists don't understand that there is a method to the madness.
Why Drop the Gloves?
For the most part, fighters are in the league to "protect the skill players" — pugilists serve to keep the peace. For the league to thrive, smaller but talented stars like Anaheim's Paul Kariya and the Florida Panthers' Pavel Bure must be allowed the freedom to skate, pass, and shoot without the fear of being blindsided or slashed by a 6'4", 220 pound defenseman. With an "enforcer" keeping watch, players tend to think twice before taking liberties with these stars.
Kariya missed most of the 1997-98 season after suffering a concussion, thanks to a vicious cross-check to the face following a goal. Teammate and fellow star Teemu Selanne also missed time that season due to injury, and the team missed the playoffs.
To prevent this from happening again, Anaheim bulked up by signing long-time and well-respected fighter Stu Grimson, a.k.a "The Grim Reaper." In 1998-99, Selanne and Kariya ranked No. 2 and 3 in the scoring race, Grimson was in the top 25 in penalty minutes, and their team finished above .500 and earned a playoff berth.
Selanne recently told The Hockey News, "Just having him in the lineup, the other team knows they can't do any dirty things. Opponents can play hard, they can play tough, but they have to play clean."
In a perfect world, referees would catch all the cheap shots and flagrant fouls, and vigilante justice wouldn't be necessary. The stark reality is that they can't possibly catch everything. Even if they did, it might not completely put a halt to foul play.
Right or wrong, most coaches would risk having one of their less-talented players take a penalty and a game misconduct to take a run at the other team's star, if it meant knocking the star from the game.
A Brief History of Hockey Fighting
Fighting on the whole, however, has been in decline since its peak in the mid-eighties, when games averaged over one fight per game. Currently, just over .61 fights occur per game, the lowest total since the 1976-77 season.
In the 1950s and '60s fighting was actually pretty rare, but seemed to be more brutal than today, complete with stick-swinging and bench-clearing. It was also a time when stars did their own fighting without the luxury of calling on protection.
In the late 1960s expansion added six additional teams to the NHL. This lowered the level of talent across the board, and allowed for players with toughness and just a touch of skill to enter the league. In the 1970s, Boston's "Big Bad Bruins" and the "Broad Street Bullies" of Philadelphia won four championships between them, largely because of their ability to outmuscle their opponents.
In 1977, the "Third Man In" rule was enacted to do away with the bench-clearing brawl. The rule gave an automatic ejection to the first player to join a fight already in progress.
In the 1980s the Gretzky Era hit its stride, and so did fisticuffs. We all know "The Great One" was immensely talented, but at 6'0" and 185 pounds, was also an easy target for bigger, stronger players. His gaudy numbers with Edmonton in the 1980s would have been unlikely if not for the protection of less-heralded tough guys like Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley.
Today, fighting has diminished partly because of the newly implemented instigator rule, which awards an additional two-minute penalty to any player who starts a fight. Two in one game is grounds for ejection. Players are less likely to drop the gloves if it will cause their team to play shorthanded, especially in the all-important playoffs.
Some believe the allowance of fighting in the NHL is strictly financial, and that if fighting were abolished, fans would find the sport less interesting, and ratings would decrease. Well, they're right.
Not because fans necessarily love to watch fighting, but because without it, more stars like Kariya, Selanne and Peter Forsberg would be on the sidelines and scoring would fall to soccer-like levels. And that really would be less interesting.