Fighting and the NHL have gone hand in hand for a long time. It makes sense. It's a fast-paced game where players are regularly smashing into each other in an effort to dislodge one from possession of the puck. On occasion, you see hits coming late, or a player taking some liberties out there that draw the ire of fans and a glare from a would-be enforcer, looking to make his mark on the game.
Yet, what is the purpose? There are plenty of fans who watch NASCAR strictly for the crashes, and there plenty of NHL fans who watch the game strictly for the big hits and dropped gloves. I'd like to believe they are still fans of the game itself, but it's tough to take someone seriously when they are constantly screaming for blood.
Through the opening 10 games of the season, the Wild managed to sport a record of 7-2-1, and all that without dropping the gloves, despite playing games against the Avalanche, who's rivalry has grown over the past few seasons, or the Jets, the Blues and the Ducks, all notorious heavy-hitting-teams on the ice. It couldn't last forever.
On October 31st against the St. Louis Blues, Ryan Carter would drop the gloves with Kyle Brodziak, marking the first fight of the season for the Wild in the 2nd meeting between the two teams. 2 more games would go by before Kurtis Gabriel would make his mark on the score card with a staged fight against Chris Thorburn of the Winnipeg Jets. The next fight would be when Brett Bulmer squared off against Matt Beleskey of the Bruins on November 19th. In the very next game we get Christian Folin doing battle with Eric Nystrom and Nate Prosser fighting James Neal of the Nashville Predators.
After going 10 games to start the season without dropping the gloves, the team looked to have a new identity, far from the days when Derek Boogaard and big John Scott were the most feared men on the Wild's roster. These days, the opposition fears players like Zach Parise, Jason Zucker, or Thomas Vanek, and not enforcers which the Wild seem to have none of. The Wild aren't fighting often, and that has been working pretty well for them. In the 9 games since the team started fighting, they have gone 4-3-2.
There are many contributing factors in the Wild's slide as of late. I'm not trying to suggest that fighting is the sole source of their misery. While guys like Carter, Prosser, and Folin are the type of guys you would expect to see on the roster, Gabriel and Bulmer certainly are not, and they may be trying to prove they belong by making the extra effort. But for anyone who is trying to support the narrative that fighting wins games, just look at the record. They have fought in 4 games, they won 2 of them, they lost 2 of them. Their winning percentage since they started dropping the gloves has gone from a .700 to a .444. Some of that slide is certainly the loss of Tyler Graovac, Justin Fontaine, and Parise, but it also comes from the team getting away from their style and playing a bit of "lazy hockey" over the past few weeks as well.
I'm not going to sit here and tell you all that the Wild are a worse team when they fight. This season they're 2-2 in games with fights, you can't win that argument either way. Yet fighting in hockey is a double-edged sword, for any team. On the one hand it can ignite the play of your squad. On the other, it really is just an indicator of sloppy play and poor discipline.
We're nearly a quarter of the way through the NHL season. Cody McLeod and Andy Andreoff have each been in 5 fights already. You may know McLeod from the Colorado Avalanche goon squad, and you have probably heard of Andreoff never. (He plays for the Los Angeles Kings) These guys lead the league in fighting majors, in an apparent effort to "help" their respective teams. Just what impact are they having? Well, the Avalanche are striving to be as good as a dumpster fire at the moment, and the Kings came out of the gates kind of slow, but have begun to turn things around and are now 2nd in the Pacific.
The Columbus Blue Jackets lead the league in fighting majors right now with 12, and the only teams worse than them in the standings are the aforementioned Avalanche and the Edmonton Oilers. The Anaheim Ducks have 11 fights on the season, and currently find themselves outside of the playoff bubble. Then you've got teams like the Ottawa Senators, 2nd in the Atlantic and tied for 3rd in fights with 10 on the season. Teams seem to do good or bad based on the skill level of that team, not the skill level of their fighters. There is really no rhyme nor reason to whether fighting plays any significant role in the game itself.
That is not entirely true though. Whether you like it or not, fighting does play a huge role in the NHL. That role, is concussions, that role is unnecessary pain, that role is addiction and depression, and that role, in the most tragic of circumstances, has led to death. We all know the story of Derek Boogaard. It's a tragic tale and a warning shot across the bow for the NHL to crack down on unnecessary head trauma. Rick Rypien and Wade Belak both died the same summer as Boogaard. Both were also labeled as enforcers and both suffered from depression. It's not tough to connect the dots here.
Throughout the NHL's history there have been countless players who have run the gambit, and come out OK on the other side. Plenty of enforcers who have found a way to make money by dropping the gloves, and been fine. There have also been many who have not, and countless others who's symptoms were never diagnosed or have gone unreported. As the game has evolved, players have gotten bigger, they've gotten faster, and the damage you can inflict on another person has grown as well. It's obviously not just from fights. Yet, fights are completely unnecessary in any sport. Unless you're a boxer, or an MMA fighter, your sport is not to pound the skull of your opponent until one of your two drops.
Players have spoken out in favor of enforcers in hockey as well as against it. Fans tend to go on and on about how there's not enough "toughness" or "grit" for this Wild squad. Any time this issue crops it's head up you can be sure Gary Bettman will have his earplugs handy. But with research in CTE's (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) painting a very dark picture on what repeated blows to the head can do, it's really time to walk away from the old school of thought about fighting in hockey. Sometimes, you need to do what's best for the person the elimination of fighting would protect, and stop listening mob standing outside the gates. Fighting serves no tangible purpose in hockey, and at the highest level should be eliminated from the game.
No team in the NHL is really any better or worse with fighters in their lineup. When a fight breaks out, it's really just a side-show circus act in a sport that is jam-packed full of action. The skill on display when players put on a magic show before scoring goals, this is the kind of hockey that puts butts in the seats and keeps them coming back. It's the excitement, the madness of a season full of emotions. It's a lot of things, and increasingly over the years, for me at least, fighting has just not been a part of that excitement. I actually cringe and turn away from the television when a fight breaks out these days. It has absolutely no appeal to me.
Mike Yeo and General Manager Chuck Fletcher have done a good job of bringing in some high-talent and role guys to the roster and not been swayed by players with fists of fury. Players who have a role on the team that isn't punching faces, and they are arguably a better team than they have ever been in their history. An enforcer in the lineup would not have prevented what happened to Parise. James Neal, while goonish at times, does have some skill out there besides just running players. He's not a goon in the conventional sense. If you're one of those types that needs revenge, I offer you this. The best way to get revenge is always on the scoreboard, and the Wild are more often than not finding ways to win, with or without fighting.