The Bizarre Culture of Hockey Fighting

Ben LivingstonCorrespondent ISeptember 21, 2009

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 16:  Troy Bodie #50 of the Anaheim Ducks fights with Daniel Winnik #34 of the Phoenix Coyotes during the second period at Honda Center on September 16, 2009 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

In most sports that are played in the 21st century, every move that you make on the field, on the court, on the ice, or on whatever surface you play on, has a direct effect on the outcome of the game.

In other words, attaining successes during the playing of the sport usually help a team inch closer to victory in a tangible way. However, hockey is not like these sports.

In certain formats, the game of hockey plays host to what some might call a “mini-game,” a competition in which victory means, well, absolutely nothing to the overall game. This irrelevant game within the game of hockey is known as fighting.

A hockey fight occurs when two or more players decide to engage in fisticuffs. There are many special rules governing how a fight is to be conducted, but these rules are fluid and have varied over the history of the game.

The only constant in fighting is that you are assessed a penalty for doing it. There exists a bizarre practice of allowing fighting to occur, while at the same time penalizing the participants for doing it.

This has lead to it being called a “semi-legal” practice in cases where it is tolerated.

As for the current rules governing fighting in the world’s most prominent hockey league, the National Hockey League, they are somewhat humorously specific for such a violent practice. The basic gist of it is the following:

·         Only two players may participate in a single fight, although multiple fights may take place at once

·         Players must drop their gloves when fighting

·         Fights must be conducted under mutual consent of both of the participants

·         A referee can break up a fight at their discretion, whenever they feel it is necessary

These rules demonstrate the bizarre, unusual nature of the hockey fight. While a fight consists of nothing more than two men trying to bash each other’s skulls in with their bare fists, the circumstances under which a fight is conducted are awfully specific.

The specificity of these rules is even more puzzling when you consider that the result of a fight doesn’t have any effect on the game itself.

So, if the result of a fight has no official bearing whatsoever on the game of hockey itself, why is fighting given so much attention?

Perhaps the most organic (and at the same time most crude) glimpse into the aura surrounding fighting in hockey is explained by the website broadstreetbully.com.

Officially, the site is a paid subscription service offering high-quality videos of hockey fights and other crudely humorous delinquency in hockey.

However, speaking of the site in such wording doesn’t do justice to what the site is really portraying. Among the free preview videos they offer are the following:

·         Bellows, You Pussy!- A Pittsburgh Penguins player taunts an opponent from the Minnesota North Stars (apparently named Bellows) using colorful language.

·         Dead F’n Meat­- An enraged Toronto Maple Leafs player, on the way off the ice after receiving a misconduct, tells a player on the other bench that he is “Dead F***ing Meat.”

·         1997 Revenge Game- The Detroit Red Wings’ players ambush Colorado Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux, exacting revenge for a vicious hit Lemieux had put on Red Wing Kris Draper the year before. This causes a massive brawl that even gets the goalies into a fight.

Seeing such astonishingly rash and angry behavior is certainly appalling to the untrained eye, but the reality is that broadstreetbully.com and other sites like it are quite popular, despite the regrettable behavior they showcase.

To find the reason for this puzzling phenomenon, one must look no further that the origin of the name broadstreetbully.

The “Broad Street Bullies” was the well-known nickname of the Philadelphia Flyers NHL team in the 1970’s. The team was known for their fighting, taunting, underhanded tactics, and overall delinquency.

They took the usually graceful game of hockey and turned it into a slobber-knocker affair that caused their opponents immense frustration.

On January 11, 1976, the Flyers played in what is traditionally considered their greatest game in team history, an exhibition against the Soviet Union Red Army team in Philadelphia.

The Flyers played so rough against the Soviets that the Soviets walked off the ice in the middle of the first period, too frustrated to continue playing against the Flyers. They would return, and the Flyers eventually won the game 4-1.

This bizarre game cemented the Broad Street Bullies as the bad guys of hockey, and the ripples of the Broad Street Bullies’ new form of hockey were felt throughout North America.

Now, if somebody who is unfamiliar with the game of hockey was to watch the video of said game, perhaps the thing about the whole affair that would shock him or her most was the way the Flyers’ fans were reacting to what was going on.

They were shouting and cheering the loudest whenever a Flyer made a cheap move or laid out a Soviet player, and when the Soviets left the ice, the fans roared with approval.

At points it sounded as if a big check or a cheap shot by a Flyer was just as important to the fans as a Flyers goal was.

Now, this game did take place during the Cold War, but the situation was the essentially the same no matter who the Flyers played.

Ever since the days of the “Broad Street Bullies,” the Flyers’ fans have been notorious for their bloodthirstiness, as their team’s reputation has rubbed off onto them.

However, as time passed, the Flyers’ reputation began to rub off not only onto Flyers fans, but also on fans and teams all over North America.

Soon enough, North American hockey came to be embodied by delinquency, and every game between a North American team and a European team (whether it be in the Olympics or otherwise) began to show what hockey had become in the former.

European players would often express frustration during and after these games at how underhanded, violent, and rough their opponents from the other side of the Atlantic were.

These games are an everlasting sign of what hockey has become in its home continent. The delinquency that has become an integral part of the game shows why a website like broadstreetbully.com receives so much traffic.

Many hockey fans and non-hockey fans alike love to watch these “bad boys” or “bullies” throw punches, curse at each other, and play dirty in general.

The fact that fans tend to enjoy hockey violence has lead to the common sentiment that fighting serves as a marketing strategy.

It is a simple idea: if fans enjoy the game more when they see violence and delinquency such as fighting, then allowing fighting will increase the size of the sport’s fan base.

This makes sense when you consider that nearly all the leagues and levels in North America that allow fighting to occur (such as the NHL, its minor leagues, and the juniors) are made up of teams that are trying to make a profit, while nearly all the leagues that break them up when they start (such as collegiate or high school leagues) are made up of non-profit teams.

However, there is also a fairly obvious confounding variable: leagues that try to make a profit are typically for adults, while the non-profit leagues are generally for children and young adults: the only major exception being that the NCAA (college-age) and juniors (high school age to above college-age) have quite a bit of overlap in their age levels.

Despite this confounding variable, it is still important to note that fighting tends to only be allowed in leagues that are trying to make a profit through selling tickets (as well as through other means in the case of some major leagues). This would suggest that fighting is for the fans, and isn’t an organic part of the sport.

The video game series NHL Hitz also echoes this claim. It portrays a much more violent form of hockey than traditional hockey video games, as it is full of showboating, massive checks, and other macabre additions to the game of hockey.

It certainly held fighting in high esteem, as Hitz was probably the only ever format of hockey in which the outcome of a fight affected the outcome of a game. In Hitz, the loser of a fight is kicked off the ice for the rest of the period.

The Hitz series sold very well during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s because hockey fans caught on to the more comically violent, rough-and-tough genre of video-game hockey

Cartoon manifestations of hockey aside, many really do believe that fighting should be part of the framework of the sport. In his online article “Hockey Fights Are Here To Stay, at Least They Should Be,” Dan Leggieri argues that fighting is, overall, a very wise addition to the game of hockey because of the excitement it brings to fans:

“A frequent argument that occurs on talk radio, in newspapers and with groups of hockey fans is whether there is any place for fighting in hockey. Some say that fighting adds nothing to the game itself and disrupts the purity of the sport.

"Purists will stand by the opinion that fighting has nothing to do with a game that is supposed to be about skill. How could two guys dropping the gloves and beating each other silly possibly make a game, whose sole purpose is to put a round rubber puck into a net, anymore enjoyable?

“Those people couldn’t be more wrong.

“Remember the game between the Quebec Ramparts and the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, of the QMHL? It was a complete blowout (7-1) in favour of the Sagueneens late in the second period when all hell broke out.

“Watch it again if you have to and see if ANYONE in the arena is not loving every minute of that brawl. The players, the announcer and most importantly, the fans were all thoroughly enjoying the fight, especially when Patrick Roy’s son Jonathon Roy skated the length of the ice to put his fist into the face of Chicoutimi goalie Bobby Nadeau.

Listen to the fans, they almost sound disappointed with Roy until he actually makes his way over to the other side of the rink, and when he does, they erupt in excitement.

The players on the bench cannot contain themselves as they cheer on teammates and the announcer even has himself a nice chuckle. Everyone wins!”

Leggieri is convinced that the stain that fighting leaves on the “purity” of the game of hockey is insignificant when one considers the excitement it can bring to fans.

Traditionally, very few casual fans of the game disagree with this claim. However, a fair-sized portion of people who are very close to the sport think that the stain is indeed too big.

These fans more typically come from Canada than from America, due to the fact that hockey is played more there than it is in America, as well as due to the fact that hockey is Canada is national pastime.

These fans are often referred to as “purists.” They tend to appreciate hockey as a graceful sport, that it was before fighting became part of the game. They feel frustration that the game they love has become so barbaric and violent.

As things are now, these purists interestingly only get their way in leagues that aren’t trying to make a profit from ticket sales.

The fact that the majority of NHL clubs are in the United States, coupled with the focus the league currently puts on bringing new fans closer to the game, means that the purists interests have become secondary to those of the new fans the NHL is trying to attract.

John Buccigross, an ESPN reporter who is one of the top hockey analysts in America, doesn’t think that that ticket sales are a legitimate reason for keeping fighting in the sport.

In his article "The pros and cons of fighting in the NHL," he says that he doesn’t have a problem with fighting itself, but does have trouble believing that fighting really brings more fans into the stadium (the place where professional hockey, like most professional sports, makes most of its revenue):

“I find it difficult to comprehend that people come to NHL games for fights. That is an awfully expensive night out for something that isn’t guaranteed to happen, and if it does happen, it may be short and unmemorable. There are plenty of ultimate-fighting highlights on television today. I understand hockey is the final frontier for sanctioned bare-knuckle fighting, but UFC matches are close enough.”

While debating the claim that fighting helps sell tickets, Buccigross also raises a very intriguing point about the appeal of a hockey fight. He says that, since we live in an age of ultimate fighting, the appeal of a hockey fight isn’t what it used to be.

This claim seems legitimate when you consider that ultimate fighting’s large rise in popularity over the past few years (it has been a little over 2.5 years since he wrote the article) has come hand-in-hand with increased debate over the appropriateness of fighting in hockey.

Now, there is an alternate, more obvious explanation for why these talks have picked up- and, bizarrely enough, Buccigross foresaw this explanation as well in his article. When raising a series of points about fighting, he offers “Devil’s Advocate” responses for all but one claim: the claim that a player could die in a hockey fight.

Sure enough, a 21-year old player for the Whitby Dunlops of Major League hockey named Don Sanderson was killed in 2009 after falling and banging his head after a fight.

Also, a player for the American Hockey League’s Philadelphia Phantoms named Garrett Klotz banged his head after a fight, and was hospitalized as a result.

He had seizures and was found to have a concussion. Players have also suffered what can most simply be called a “broken face:” facial injuries so severe that a player needs surgery to reconstruct their face.

The issue of the safety of fighting is debated perhaps most famously during an NHL on NBC first intermission report during a Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers NHL game on January 18, 2009.

In the wake of the death of Sanderson, analysts Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury debated how hockey should deal with the dangers of fighting.

McGuire argued that the NHL needs to form a committee to reduce the dangers of fighting, while Milbury responded by telling McGuire that he is “just another guy trying to pansify the sport.”

Milbury then cued up effeminate music to mock McGuire and what he considered to be McGuire’s “flower child background.”

The fact that this was considered appropriate for the NHL’s flagship broadcast network (NBC) is a testament to how much the “tough-guy” reputation of hockey affects the issue of fighting.

McGuire, however, was not alone. These tragic occurrences have lead to a number of people expressing concerns about how safe fighting is.

However, the danger tends to end up being a moot point, at least in leagues in North America, in large part because the players aren’t begging for fights to stop.

The most likely cause for this is that it would potentially eliminate the need for the “enforcer:” a player that has negligible hockey skills (such as shooting, skating, and defensive skills), and is primarily out on the ice in order to be the delinquent that North American hockey has come to appreciate so much.

Without fights, these men could possibly be left without jobs, so it is unreasonable to expect the players unions to take an anti-fighting stance.

However, these enforcers could still potentially be in demand. Michael Morrison, in his article “To Protect and Serve,” offers some reasons why enforcers have value to a team beyond just throwing punches:

“For the most part, fighters are in the league to ‘protect the skill players’… For the league to thrive, smaller but talented stars… must be allowed the freedom to skate, pass, and shoot without the fear of being blindsided by a 6’4’’, 220 pound defenseman. With an ‘enforcer keeping watch, players tend to think twice before taking liberties with these stars.”

So, as Morrison explains, enforcers can serve a purpose beyond being the “designated fighters” on the team. They serve as protectors to the superstar players who are more graceful than tough.

They can defend their team’s superstars by punishing those who try to push the superstars around. On the flip side of that coin, they can also go after the opposing team’s players and push them around just for the heck of it.

Now, of course the enforcers on two opposing teams can get into fights with one another, but it is important to note that their value often goes beyond just fighting.

Now, there are some, such as Morrison, who believe that fighting’s value lies in keeping these enforcers’ violence aimed at each other, rather than at other players:

“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.”

So, it appears that Morrison sees fighting as a measure of necessary vigilante justice. This reveals an important function of fighting that goes beyond marketing. It shows that fighting actually can be considered an integral part of the game of hockey: a sort of insurance against dirty play.

However, it is important to note the problematic nature of such an insurance. Defending violence with more violence begins a vicious cycle that has the potential to turn hockey into a violent sport: a prospect that has undoubtedly come to pass in North America.

Nevertheless, the strategic element that these added conflicts can bring to the game can give birth to intriguing storylines that seem themselves played out over the course of games, seasons, and careers.

For example, in overtime of Game 1 of a 2006 first-round playoff series between the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres, the Sabres’ Brian Campbell laid out a perfectly legal, yet vicious hit on the Flyers’ R.J Umberger, who was knocked out cold and suffered a concussion.

Due to this, any time these two players’ teams would meet in the future, fans were excited because they knew that the bad blood between the two might boil over.

In this case, a fight serves the purpose that Morrison has talked about. Instead of attacking each other during the game through subtle, dangerous means (such as slashing or cross-checking) that only deserve minor penalties (which are only two-minutes long- not much of a deterrent), Campbell and Umberger now have a supervised, organized way to express their frustrations.

Meanwhile, since a fight is a spectacle, the fans enjoy it much more than they would enjoy an errant slash behind the play.

Morrison even ties his argument about the strategical benefits of fighting into the argument that fighting has a positive financial benefit on hockey:

“Some believe the allowing 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…would be on the sidelines and scoring would fall to soccer-like levels. And that really would be less interesting.”

In this passage, Morrison reveals another way in which fighting is a good financial strategy.

By keeping players like Campbell and Umberger (both skilled players) from going after each other by way of cheap shots, it allows for them to go after each other in a format that is supervised, pre-established, and agreed on by both superstars (an instigator penalty, and often a game misconduct, is assessed if a player starts a fight with an opponent without the opponent agreeing to the fight).

This means that the smaller, fragile superstars can stand by while their bigger teammates throw punches at each other, meaning that the revenue-bringing superstars are less likely to be injured.

So, in conclusion, it appears that hockey fighting has two primary benefits it brings to the sport: benefits that have kept it part of the sport to date despite the stain many believe fighting causes on the game and the danger it brings to the game.

First off, there is the delinquent, crowd-pleasing aspect of fighting. In this respect, fighting is beneficial because it perpetuates delinquency in hockey, which, in theory, more fans interested in the sport.

The other benefit it brings is that it provides an outlet for frustrations, which helps prevent the many potential weapons hockey players carry (primarily skates and sticks) from being used to settle conflicts when tensions boil over.

These two benefits explain why hockey fights are given so much attention and are taken so seriously, despite the fact that, to this day, their results have no bearing on the outcome of a game.