Dropping The Gloves: A Look Behind the Violence in the NHL

Brendan Conniff, Senior School News/Features Edito

What makes hockey one of the most entertaining sports to watch is not the goal-scoring or the incredible saves made by a goalie. It’s the moment the gloves drop, and two players begin exchanging punches causing the fans to erupt in excitement. Fighting has been an integral and celebrated part of professional hockey since the National Hockey League (NHL) was formed in 1917. As time went on, the NHL adopted rules to protect players, including minor and major penalties depending on the severity of the fight and possible suspensions. Recently, there has been a shift in favor of banning fights in the NHL, citing injuries and player welfare. Before such an action is taken, we should remember that fighting during a professional hockey game is deeply rooted in tradition and serves strategic and monetary purposes.
Since the beginning, hockey players have followed an unwritten set of rules to prevent serious injury. Role players know not to pick a fight with another team’s all-star player because if that all-star got injured, it would hurt the fan base of that team leading to decreased ticket sales. Fights are not pre-planned but rather usually initiated when teammates are defending each other. In this way, fighting most certainly plays a major role in team building. For example, most fights arise from a player sticking up for another player on their team. It is indisputable that the dynamic of a team plays a large role in how successful the team plays. Better team chemistry will result in better play. In addition to building team chemistry, hockey fights are a major draw to fans that love the atmosphere and energy it brings. If the NHL were to ban fighting, it would result in a noticeable decrease in fan attendance as well as fans watching from home. If fewer fans watch a hockey game on TV, sponsors will not pay to advertise during a televised game.
Those in favor of banning fighting in professional hockey point to injuries and player welfare as support for their argument. For example, in 2011, three young NHL enforcers – Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard, and Rick Rypien – died. Though not tied directly to fighting, their deaths are a reminder of the inherent dangers in a physical sport. It is important to note that there are already rules in effect to prevent serious injuries to players like the two-minute minor, five-minute major, and a 10-minute misconduct penalty for instigating a fight. Also, there could be suspensions that go along with the 10-minute penalty if the offender caused serious damage to the player. To this day, 10-minute misconduct penalties are rare because players are aware that if they take fights too far, they will be putting their team in a man-down situation for over half of a period. While not an official NHL rule, a player can get suspended for cheap shots in the back, head, or anywhere else. If the NHL wanted to ban fighting completely, it could have created rules to eject players that get into fights similar to every other major league sport. However, the League has adopted rules aimed at curbing abuse, curtailing injuries, and protecting player welfare while at the same time allowing fights to continue.
Another fact worth mentioning is that fighting in the NHL is not the direct cause of all injuries. A 2013 study by Bobby Smith examined whether the NHL’s head contact rule was effective in reducing the occurrence of concussions. His study, titled “Bodychecking Rules and Concussion in Elite Hockey” analyzed approximately 1,410 NHL games during 30 randomly selected weeks between the 2009-10 and 2011-12 seasons. His study found that 8.8 concussions or suspected concussions occurred per 100 NHL games. Of these injuries, 0.8 of a concussion per 100 games was attributed to fighting and the other eight were caused by a variety of means, the most common of which were body checking with head contact and body checking with no head contact. While concussions are becoming more relevant in the NHL, they could occur in normal play, like a simple body check in the middle of a game. While injuries remain one of the top concerns for the NHL, all injuries are not attributed to fighting during a game and there are already rules in place to protect the players.
One last point worth noting is that fighting in a professional hockey game is a sign of respect, not about violence or inflicting injury. In most cases, before players begin to fight, they talk about it on the ice, drop their gloves, so no one gets a cheap shot, fight, and then stop when one goes down or a referee gets in between them. It is a way for the players to self-regulate and hold themselves accountable. A simple solution to quiet the debate between whether fighting should be allowed or not simply could be to prohibit dropping the gloves. The fist-to-fist contact is one of the main reasons for head trauma since there is no padding. While dropping the gloves does serve as a signal to the opposing player and teammates that an altercation is about to begin, players could easily create a new way to initiate fights, such as slamming their sticks on the ice.