Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Are We Seeing the End of Fighting in Hockey?

By Scott Huntington

NFL football has come under substantial scrutiny in recent years after advances in medical science have revealed the long-term dangers of the head trauma associated with the sport. However, even professional football doesn't see the type of gloves-off fisticuffs that is accepted as part of the game in NHL hockey.

That could all be changing, though.

About 200 games in the 2018 NHL season included a fighting major. Compared to 2006, when the number was nearly double that, and it's clear that things are changing. But what does it mean, and why now? Will hockey be the same without the fighting?

A Change in Culture

Rewind the tape to the 1980s and you might even see more than one fight in a single game. It was expected. Fans came to the hockey rink eager to see two swarthy enforcers throw down their gloves and clobber each other for three to five minutes. There's a reason that millions of fans flock to mixed martial arts and boxing matches every year, fights are exciting. But is the sport of hockey built around fighting?

There's a clear departure from the carnage culture of the early era that can be seen in a reduction in the number of fights per game going all the way back to the 1980s. Between 1987 and 2000, the average number of fights per game had shrunk from 1.3 to 0.6. Coaches and managers had come to realize that they were better off stocking their team with skill players than enforcers. However, there were still remnants of the old ways. No team would be the first to go to a completely enforcer-free lineup.

Enter the Concussion Debate

And then came CTE. The game-changing (no pun intended) discovery of debilitating "plaque" in NFL football players and other athletes led to a massive shift in the way the athletic community views head trauma. It didn't take much for sports enthusiasts and statisticians to come to the realization that enforcers were not enjoying the long careers of their less battle-hungry teammates. Fighting had never been less cool.

Much like the NFL, the NHL has introduced a new helmet design that is intended to manage the impacts of a professional hockey game better than ever. But a blow to the head avoided is much safer than one absorbed through a helmet. With growing pressure to consider the health of their athletes, the modern era of hockey is finally turning its back on the days of vicious hip checks and celebrated rivalries between two well-known brawlers.

A More Refined Game

To imagine the sport of professional hockey with no fighting whatsoever could be far-fetched. Many players talk about the way that they expect a teammate to fight physically for the puck, and frustration created during fast-paced play is traditionally settled in a fight.

However, the transition that started in the late eighties is not over yet. We are seeing some of the sports most dynamically capable athletes and skilled puck handlers thrive in a setting where their competition is against rival athletes, rather than bar-room brawlers. That's a more sporting outlook, overall, and one that fans seem able to get behind. So just maybe we will see hockey without fighting one day in the future.

Contents copyright © Sports Central 1998-2017