Should Fighting Be Allowed in Hockey? – Top 3 Pros & Cons

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Players from the Detroit Red Wings and the Tampa Bay Lightning brawl during a 2016 NHL Stanley Cup playoff game
Source: Terry Frei, “Frei: Hockey Fights Could Fall to Wayside,” denverpost.com, May 22, 2016

“I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out,” the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield once joked. [1] In the 2016-2017 National Hockey League (NHL) season, there were 372 fights out of 1,230 games – an average of 0.3 fights per game. [2] Fighting in hockey has been banned nearly everywhere outside of the NHL, including youth games, college play, and the Winter Olympics. [3][4]

Fighting has been part of NHL hockey since the league’s formation in 1917 and its 1922 rule about what was then called “fisticuffs” (that’s an old-fashioned word for fighting). [5][6] The current NHL rulebook addresses fighting in Rule 46, which defines a fight as at least one player punching or taking a swing at another player repeatedly, or players wrestling in a way that is difficult to break up. Players who fight are sent to the penalty box during the game, and may be subject to additional fines or suspensions. [6][7]

In the early 1960s, there was a fight in about 20% of NHL games. That percentage increased to 100% by the 1980s, when there was an average of one fight every game. [8] In 1992, the NHL introduced an instigator rule adding an extra two minutes in the penalty box for anyone caught starting a fight. [9] Fighting has since decreased: a fight broke out in 30-40% of NHL games from 2000-2012, and every season since 2013 has averaged under 30%. [2]

Should fighting be allowed in hockey?

Pro 1

Allowing fighting makes the sport safer overall by holding players accountable.

Professional hockey is a fast-moving sport, and referees often miss illegal body checking, hits with hockey sticks, and other aggressive plays. Retaliation by fighting brings accountability and prevents more of those dangerous plays from happening. [10] Hockey players don’t fight just for the sake of violence; combat within the context of the game serves as a deterrent to hurting star players because the aggressors know there will be pay back. Steven Stamkos, a forward for the Tampa Bay Lightning, said, “You have to police yourselves sometimes on the ice… When you see a fight now it’s a response, someone didn’t like something that was done on the ice. I think you need that. It’s healthy.” [11] NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says that fighting may prevent other injuries in a fast-moving, emotional, and intensely physical game. [12] Former professional player Brandon Prust said, “If they take fighting out… I guarantee more people will get hurt from an increase in open-ice body checks.” [13]

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Pro 2

Fighting draws fans and increases the game's entertainment value.

A majority of hockey fans oppose a fighting ban and think the on-ice scuffles are a significant part of the game at the pro level, according to a poll in the Toronto Star newspaper. [19] Travis Hughes, SB Nation hockey writer, said, “Fighting exists in hockey because we enjoy watching people fight.” [20] Hockey fight clips get shown on ESPN’s SportsCenter and have millions of views on YouTube. [21] Brawls increase attendance: an economic study of hockey found that “violence, specifically fighting, tends to attract fans in large numbers across the United States and Canada.” [22] Fights help the NHL stand out from other sports because no other team sports sanction brawling. SportsCenter anchor John Buccigross wrote, “Fights can add entertainment value, change a game and have fans talking for days.” [23] Rich Clune, a Maple Leafs forward and long-time fighter, said, “I think the NHL is cognizant of the fact that they can’t eliminate it and turn it into a non-contact sport because I don’t think it’ll sell… especially in America where the game is still growing.” [24]

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Pro 3

Fighting is a hockey tradition that exists in the official rules and as an unwritten code among players.

98% of NHL players surveyed in 2012 said they do not want to ban fighting in hockey. [30] Fighting is an essential part of the professional game, and it is governed by the NHL rulebook. [7] Ross Bernstein, the author of the book The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL, stated that “hockey is, and always has been, a sport steeped in a culture of violence. Players have learned, however, to navigate through its mazes and labyrinths of physical contact by adhering to an honor code of conduct.” [10] The code dictates who can fight and for what reasons, and has reportedly existed for over 100 years. [10] The fact that fights happen less in the postseason, when teams are focused on winning the championship, shows that players adhere to an unwritten code. [29]

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Con 1

Fighting in hockey leads to concussions, mental health problems, and death.

Dr. Charles H. Tator, a neurosurgeon, believes fighting causes 10% of all concussions in hockey. [14] NHL officials expressed in private emails their views that fighting can lead to concussions, long-term health problems, and heavy use of pain medication. Bill Daly, NHL Deputy Commissioner, wrote, “Fighting raises the incidence of head injuries/concussions, which raises the incidence of depression onset, which raises the incidence of personal tragedies.” [15] Former NHL player Derek Boogaard filled an unofficial role known as an enforcer, which is a player whose purpose is to fight as a means of responding to dirty plays by the opposing team. [16] After he died at age 28 in 2011, doctors examined Boogaard’s brain and determined that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is believed to be caused by repeated head injuries. [17] Two other enforcers died within four months of each that same year, raising concerns about the mental, emotional, and physical toll that fighting takes on players. [18]

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Con 2

Fighting at the professional level sets a bad example for kids.

Even though fighting in youth leagues is banned, young hockey players have constantly tried to imitate the tactics used by professionals, both legal and illegal. [25] The damaging physical effects of fighting are even more significant for young players, since their brains are not fully developed. For younger players, concussions can cause permanent learning and cognitive disabilities, many of which may not be recognized until they grow up. [26] Young hockey players are already susceptible to catastrophic spinal cord and brain injury, at nearly four times the rate of young football players. [27] Dr. Michael Cusimano, a neurosurgeon, said, “Whatever is done at a professional level in sports is emulated almost immediately by children who idolize their heroes. NHL players also have to be aware of this and set a better example for our kids.” [28] Most of what players are trying to accomplish through fighting can be done by having the referees call more penalties during the game, which sends a better message to kids about conflict resolution. [29]

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Con 3

Fighting in hockey glorifies violence.

Allowing hockey players to fight creates a culture in which fighting is respected and valued, according to a study in the journal Men and Masculinities, which stated, “The findings of this study indicate that interpersonal aggression is common in the lives of these hockey players, both on and off the ice.” [31] Matthew Sekeres, writer at Globe and Mail, said that “Hockey is a sport that solves its problems with violence.” [32] When the use of violence is approved and legitimized among hockey players, they are more likely to participate in other forms of violence. For instance, a study found that people seeking a career in professional hockey are more likely to commit sexual assault and have abusive relationships than non-hockey players and people who play hockey as a hobby. [33][37][38] Researchers have found that hockey violence makes fans more hostile in the stands and off the rink. [34][35][36]

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Footnotes:

  1. Sports Illustrated, “Wit and Wisdom of Hockey,” si.com, Oct. 1, 2013
  2. David M. Singer, “NHL Fight Stats,” hockeyfights.com (accessed Feb. 25, 2018)
  3. Jeff Z. Klein, “No Fights. No Checking. Can This Be Hockey?,” nytimes.com, Mar. 5, 2011
  4. Mike Brophy, “Fighting in NHL Is Down Naturally, but Now Is the Time to Ban It Outright,” thehockeynews.com, Nov. 14, 2015
  5. Jeff Z. Klein, “Hockey’s History, Woven with Violence,” nytimes.com, Dec. 10, 2011
  6. Graham Flanagan, “This Is Why Fighting Is Allowed in Pro Hockey — and Why the NHL Has No Plans to Ban It,” businessinsider.com, Feb. 18, 2017
  7. National Hockey League, “Official Rules,” nhl.com, 2017
  8. Gregory DeAngelo, Brad R. Humphreys, and Imke Reimers, “Community and Specialized Enforcement: Complements or Substitutes?,” ssrn.com, Mar. 23, 2016
  9. Adam Greuel, “Is the NHL Instigator Rule Really Necessary?,” bleacherreport.com, July 23, 2008
  10. John Buccigross, “The Pros and Cons of Fighting in the NHL,” espn.com, Jan. 8, 2007
  11. Chris Kuc, “Why Is Fighting Vanishing from the NHL?,” chicagotribune.com, Feb. 6, 2016
  12. Sports Illustrated, “Commissioner Gary Bettman Fights to Keep Fighting in NH,” si.com, June 27, 2016
  13. Brandon Prust, “Why We Fight,” theplayerstribune.com, Feb. 3, 2015
  14. Jeff Z. Klein, “In Debate about Fighting in Hockey, Medical Experts Weigh in,” nytimes.com, Dec. 12, 2011
  15. John Branch, “In Emails, N.H.L. Officials Conceded Concussion Risks of Fights,” nytimes.com, Mar. 28, 2016
  16. Sporting Charts, “Enforcer,” sportingcharts.com (accessed Feb. 27, 2018)
  17. John Branch, “Derek Boogaard: A Brain ‘Going Bad,'” nytimes.com, Dec. 5, 2011
  18. Tom Cohen, “Three Hockey Enforcers Die Young in Four Months, Raising Questions,” cnn.com, Sep. 2, 2011
  19. Chris Zelkovich, “Hockey Fans Love Fighting, Survey Says,” thestar.com, Mar. 17, 2009
  20. Travis Hughes, “Why Do Hockey Players Fight?,” sbnation.com, Oct. 14, 2011
  21. Sean McIndoe, “The Seven Levels of Dirty Hockey,” grantland.com, Feb. 19, 2013
  22. Rodney J. Paul, “Variations in NHL Attendance: The Impact of Violence, Scoring, and Regional Rivalries,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 2003
  23. John Buccigross, “Here’s Why Fighting Is Making a Small Comeback in the NHL,” espn.com, Oct. 21, 2008
  24. Jonas Siegel, “NHL Fight Numbers Continue to Decline,” cbc.ca, Apr. 6, 2016
  25. Glenn Keays and B. Pless, “Influence of Viewing Professional Ice Hockey on Youth Hockey Injuries,” Chronic Diseases and Injuries in Canada, Mar. 2013
  26. Nicola Davis, “Childhood Concussion Linked to Lifelong Health and Social Problems,” theguardian.com, Aug. 23, 2016
  27. Anthony Marchie and Michael D. Cusimano, “Bodychecking and Concussions in Ice Hockey: Should Our Youth Pay the Price?,” CMAJ, July 2003
  28. Michael Cusimano, “Why We Need to Fix Fighting in Hockey and the NHL: Our Kids,” theglobeandmail.com, Mar. 25, 2017
  29. Nadav Goldschmied and Samantha Espindola, “‘I Went to a Fight the Other Night and a Hockey Game Broke Out’: Is Professional Hockey Fighting Calculated or Impulsive?,” Sports Health, Sep. 2013
  30. Greg Wyshynski, “Once Again, NHL Players Voice Overwhelming Opposition to Fighting Ban,” yahoo.com, Feb. 20, 2012
  31. Nick T. Pappas, Patrick C. McKenry, and Beth Skilken Catlett, “Athlete Aggression on the Rink and off the Ice: Athlete Violence and Aggression in Hockey and Interpersonal Relationships,” Men and Masculinities, Jan. 2004
  32. Matthew Sekeres, “Hockey Can Bring out the Violence in Peaceful Canadians,” theglobeandmail.com, June 17, 2011
  33. Gorden A. Bloom and Michael D. Smith, “Hockey Violence: A Test of Cultural Spillover Theory,” Sociology of Sport Journal, Mar. 1996
  34. W. Andrew Harrell, “Verbal Aggressiveness in Spectators at Professional Hockey Games: The Effects of Tolerance of Violence and Amount of Exposure to Hockey,” Human Relations, Aug. 1981
  35. Leonard Berkowitz and Joseph T. Alioto, “The Meaning of an Observed Event as a Determinant of Its Aggressive Consequences,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Nov. 1973
  36. Elaine Cassel and Douglas A. Bernstein, Criminal Behavior, 2013
  37. Shady Elien, “Link between Hockey and Rape Studied,” straight.com, May 12, 2010
  38. Michael Kasdan, “Hockey, Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse: Time for Change,” goodmenproject.com, Oct. 7, 2016