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Brent Seabrook Victim of Vicious Hit: Is Fighting the Answer?

Rich Kraetsch@richkraetschCorrespondent IMarch 19, 2010

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 17:  Brent Seabrook #7 of the Chicago Blackhawks lays on the ice after being checked against the glass in the second period during their NHL game against the Anaheim Ducks at the Honda Center on March 17, 2010 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook was the victim of a vicious and questionable hit on Wednesday in Anaheim, just days after teammate Brian Campbell was shoved head-long into the boards in Washington by superstar Alex Ovechkin. 

Since those vicious hits, both coming in losses, many people in Chicago have been clamoring for a retaliatory strike on hard-play by the Hawks, with many fans (and even one Blackhawks broadcaster) floating out the idea of a certain f-word being used as the team's first offensive volley against hard checks and dirty play.

No, Chicagoans are not advocating the use of foul language as a deterrent against hard hits finding their stars on the ice. They are talking about something I—and, as I have found, few others—believe to be an archaic and pointless practice in the NHL: fighting.

Yes, for some reason, many hockey fans (Blackhawks fans, in this specific case) believe that two men dropping their gloves and awkwardly trying to bash each other about the head with clenched fists will eventually manifest in some kind of value to their club.

But does fighting in hockey represent any kind of value whatsoever?

To answer this question, we must first understand the arguments of the two sides to the issue of fighting in hockey.

The argument of anti-fighting fans is simple: Punching someone on the other team does little to nothing as far as scoring goes.

It does not matter how many solid punches are landed, or how hard the player on your team hits the opposing team's chap. When both fighters are situated in their respective penalty boxes, the scoreboard will still read the same as it did before the fight began.

Pro-fighting hockey fans will argue that the effects of opposing players engaging in fisticuffs are not felt immediately, but rather are felt as secondary and tertiary aftershocks. These effects, they argue, pave the way for goal scoring, albeit in a roundabout way. 

For instance, a fight on the ice after a vicious hit or penalty will tell opponents that checks and penalties to key players will not be tolerated. As a result of this, hard checks and dangerous penalties against their team and its stars will be reduced, thus increasing ice-time for key players and increasing goal-scoring.

This message will not only affect the play of the current opposition, but it will send a message to the rest of the league as well.

This rebuttal is usually followed by anecdotal recounts of Wayne Gretzky and Marty McSorley and Dave Semenko, his de facto "bodyguards" on the ice. If the pro-fighting fan is newer to the game of hockey, the aforementioned recounts will be the same, except Sidney Crosby will replace Gretzky and Jarkko Ruutu will replace McSorley and Semenko.

This brings us back to our original problem: What value, if any, does fighting add to a team's chances of scoring goals and winning games?

To answer this question, we can break down the pro-fighting argument into its different components and test to see if fighting correlates with that respective component in the way proposed. 

In this linear regression model, the independent variable will be the amount of fighting done by a hockey team, as measured by the number of fighting majors accrued by an individual team, and the dependent variable will be the respective components of the pro-fighting argument as measured by their analog in the box scores.

By using this method, we can see whether fighting (independent variable) has a marginal impact on other facets of the game, and how great that impact is.

To gauge whether an impact is present, the correlation coefficient of the two variables will be given. Measured on a scale from negative one to positive one, the correlation coefficient measures the marginal impact of the independent variable on the dependant variable.

A negative correlation coefficient implies an inverse correlation (for example, the coefficient of "miles ran daily" and "body fat index" would be negative), a positive coefficient indicates a positive linear correlation (the correlation between "money" and "problems" would more than likely be positive), and a coefficient of zero indicates no linear correlation.

As stated above, the pro-fighting argument can be broken down into three basic points:

(1) Fights will reduce the number of hard hits and penalties to teammates as opposing teams realize such practices will not be tolerated.

(2) The reduced hits will allow a team to score more goals, as the reduced penalties and checking will increase ice-time for goal-scorers.

(3) The increased goal-scoring will increase a team's chances of winning games and making the playoffs.

Seeing the argument broken down, we can see that points one, two, and three do have counterparts available in the box scores: Penalty minutes against (PIMA) can measure the reduction of vicious hits and penalties on players (this is not a perfect analogy, but it stands to reason that a reduction in hard-play would reduce the amount of penalties).

Goals per game can measure the increased goal-scoring gotten from having players on the ice longer due to reduced hitting, and overall team points will measure how good a team was at winning games. 

However, before we go on, it should be noted that because fighting results in a five-minute penalty for both sides (it takes two to tango, remember) a team's standard PIMA will not be used, as a team that sees more fights will naturally have more PIMA.

Rather, "fight-neutral penalty minutes against" (FNPIMA) will be used, which is the same as PIMA only with the penalty minutes resulting from fights removed.

If the pro-fighting argument is a sound one, we should see a negative correlation coefficient between fighting and FNPIMA (more fighting should reduce the amount of non-fighting penalties against the team) and positive correlation coefficients between fighting and both goals per game (GpG) and overall points (PTS). Here are the results:

Statistic          Correlation Coefficient

FNPIMA                 .1245

GpG                      -.2037

PTS                      -.2095

The results are not what was to be expected by the pro-fighting camp. Instead of fighting resulting in fewer penalties, the correlation coefficient indicates that teams that fought a lot tended to see more non-fighting penalties. This makes sense in terms of what causes a team to fight, but does little to show that fighting reduced the amount of penalties against the teams in this study.

Also, it is shown that both goals per game and overall points had an inverse relationship with fighting: Teams that were eager to drop the gloves scored fewer goals per game and were generally worse-off in the standings.

It should be noted, though, that these correlation coefficients are very small, likely the result of looking for the impact of one variable on another in a dynamic game such as hockey, where many variables are in-play all at once. 

Furthermore, the resultant coefficients of determination (R-squared) were incredibly small, indicating that while these variables correlated to a certain degree, they did not necessarily cause one another to the degree that either side of the fighting discussion would enjoy.

For example, it does not necessarily follow that a team in want of more power-play chances should go out and start fighting any chance they got, which is the course of action that would be dictated by the correlation coefficients, were they to be taken too literally.

Finally, the data-set for this study was extremely small, as only a short amount of time was looked at in collecting the numbers. For more concrete results, a study spanning many seasons would be needed, something that is not easily accomplished by this author.

Those things being said, the results of the study still tell us some important things: over the time scrutinized, not only was there little-to-no positive correlation between fighting and value-added, but teams that fought more tended to score fewer goals and be worse-off in the standings, two things teams in the NHL can ill-afford to have happen to them.

So then, should the Blackhawks start firing back at their opponents with jabs and hooks? The numbers say no.

-Jonathan Platek

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