Why Do We Fight?

FINISH HIM! - Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Fighting and hockey have lived in tandem for a long time. Now, there is a growing chorus of fans calling for the NHL to put an end to a part of hockey that is as old as the game itself.

Much has been made over fighting at the NHL level in recent years. On one side of the argument you have the old school traditionalists clamoring to keep the game as it is, fighting is a necessity which helps players police themselves and prevents goons from taking runs at a teams star players. The other side of the argument makes their case by calling upon player safety, and a lack of fighting in international play as well as many lower tier professional leagues as well as the college ranks.

Fighting in the NHL has long been governed by a series of unwritten rules known as "The Code". (Read the link if you haven't before. It's fantastic.) Enforcers in hockey over the years have been like the jelly to your peanut butter. Sure a peanut butter sandwich is good, but it is almost always made better by jelly. (pro tip, grilled PB&J is amazing). As the years have progressed the game of hockey has evolved, and to a lesser extent, so has the fighting.

Today's game is faster than ever, a grand place to showcase the talents of the Patrick Kane's of the world. The fighters in the league have also grown, and even started going to clinics to learn their art and how to translate that skill set to the game. One thing that also seems to be more prevalent in today's NHL is the staged fight. Staged fights are about the worst thing to happen to hockey today, besides Edmonton of course.

This kind of behavior certainly doesn't drive fans in the arena nuts. In fact they seem to like it. That is not so much the case with the rest of the civilized world. The AHL has recently installed a rule in an attempt to mitigate this kind of behavior. 2 fights and goodnight, you can go home now.  As we all know, the AHL has become a sort of "testing ground" for rule changes being discussed in the NHL.  This may be the first step to proposing new rule changes for the league.

The NHL has their limit on fights in a game currently set to 3 for any given player in a game before the player is awarded a game-misconduct where he gets to "punch out" early. I have yet to see this rule in action though, so it may as well not exist.  The AHL's new rule reduces the number of fights a player may be involved in by 1, and while this is a fine idea in theory, it has some flaws.

After a player gets in his first fight in a game, he now becomes a target. If you are able to rattle a player with 1 fight under his belt in a game enough to goad him into another fight you have now shortened the bench of your opponent, giving you a slight advantage as a game progresses. Say that player is a Sidney Crosby type (admittedly, it's rare for stars to drop the gloves), the coach on the opposition bench now has extra incentive to push his players to get under the skin of the other teams star and get him out of the game.

While the rule has the right idea, this flaw will be exposed and utilized. And now you have got yourself into a bit of trouble as well. Assuming you have 2 different players pick fights with 1 guy from the other team, you now have 2 guys on the cusp of an early exit from a game and a coach on the other team looking for payback. It becomes a vicious cycle in a tactical game of battle chess to try and shorten your opponents bench through fighting.

If the NHL is going to make any rules in an attempt to curb fighting, they should really go for the total elimination of fighting from the league, or leave it as is. One could make a case for handing out game-misconducts for players dropping the gloves right off a faceoff or any other form of a staged fight you see today, but this leaves more up to the interpretation of the officials to determine what actually happened.

Like all aspects of the game, I would just assume the referees get it right the first time. A fight is a fight, you don't need much more evidence than the action to prove that it happened. If you're going to try to eliminate fighting, I say fights earn you an automatic game misconduct plus a 1 game suspension. Hit the players where it hurts, ice time and their paycheck. It may sound a bit extreme, but it will get players attention real fast.

A no fighting NHL would work. Look to the playoffs where fights were at a minimum, mostly occurring in the inter-divisional rounds where teams had a full season of aggression built up against an opponent they had seen many times. Look to the number of leagues around the world that enforce a no fighting policy.  The enforcers of hockey are a dying breed, nobody is rushing out to sign Zenon Konopka right now. If a rule change is on the horizon for the NHL, go all-in or go home.

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