Hockey fights are declining, but still more common than in the Original Six Era

By: Patrick W. Zimmerman

An earlier version of this article (covering through 2013/4) appeared in the Sidelines Magazine. 1

Where have the Goons gone? And why do some people seem to think their rapid disappearance is a bad thing in spite of the increasingly well-known risk of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy?2


Eliminating fighting as a semi-sanctioned part of the game has become a cause celébre for reformers who decry hockey as out of touch with other North American sports and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), governing bodies that typically ban fighting on the field (or ice) and levy mandatory suspensions. Part of the argument against outlawing the pugilistic aspect of the sport is (surprise, surprise) rooted in tradition, citing the fact that the National Hockey League and North American minor leagues have all always permitted fighting and so therefore players wailing on each other is reified as an “essential part of the game” or some other similarly expansive rationalization. The cultural inertia within the NHL and its fanbase has, to this point, limited any steps to eliminate it from the game, though fighting fans have not been able to halt its two-decade long decline.


Unsurprisingly, the public image of hockey tends to exaggerate this sensational and (in team sports) unusual aspects of the game, epitomized in the well-worn joke, “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.”3 The NHL, 20 years on from the peak fighting years of the 1980s (see below), is still commonly viewed by non-fans as a collection of stick-wielding gap-toothed goons wearing funny short pants and knives on their feet.




The Question

How central has fighting been to hockey’s history? How do widespread impressions of the level of violence in hockey compare to the actual instances of fighting majors (for the purposes of this study, we will equate frequency of fighting majors with level of violence)?4




The Short-Short Version

HockeyFights.com from 1953/4 onward), it’s clear that the Original Six Era had very infrequent fighting, as low as a fight for every 7.1 games a team played (1961/2). After the 1967, the dilution of talent in the league led to a rapid increase in fights, peaking in the 1987/8 season with a fight every 0.92 games a team played. After the implementation of the Instigator rule before the 1992/3 season, fight frequency started a long slow decline to their current level of a fight every 3.7 games.5


Yes, you read that right. “Old Time Hockey6 had fights happening less than half as often as today




A Brief History of Pugilistic Mayhem

We think of the Original Six Era™ (1942-1967)7 as a lawless, Wild West period where “Gordie Howe hat tricks”8 occurred every other game, men were men, and women were also men. It was so manly, goalies didn’t even have to wear masks; pucks were stopped with a potent mixture of musk, facial hair, and chewing tobacco.


Wrong! Hockey fights actually occurred less than half as often than they do today during the heyday of Le Rocket Richard, Stan Mikita, and, yes, Gordie Howe (who actually only accrued 2 of the eponymous hat tricks during his lifetime).9 Last season’s 0.27 fights/game looks positively barbaric when compared to 1957-58’s 0.20 (Bobby Hull’s rookie season).10


As you can see from the graph below, following the first wave of expansion in the NHL in 1967, the frequency of fighting rose rapidly.11 The league doubled in size while the available player pool remained the same. There wouldn’t be a major influx of new talent into the league until the 1970s and 1980s with first Scandinavians and then Eastern European players joining NHL teams. So, with the same amount of talent and twice as many roster spots, there was more room on each team’s roster for players of a more….pugilistic persuasion.


Fighting 1953/4-2015/6 Note on graph: To account for varying season length, I normalized the graph by plotting fighting majors per game per team, which also accounts for the lockout-shortened 1994-95 and 2012-13 seasons.


No team embraced this opportunity more than the “Broad Street Bullies,” which is one myth that holds up to historical scrutiny quite well. Led by Bobby Clarke, these Philadelphia Flyers teams really earned their nickname, ranking in the top 3 teams in the league in number of fights every single season between 1971-72 and 1981-82. You might have heard that this worked out pretty well for them, winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975 and finishing first or second in their division every year between 1972-73 and 1980-81. So they were both mean and good, directly influencing the NHL’s first attempt to reign in the violence.


The league noticed, but it’s first attempt to crack down on fighting (and the public image it was creating) was risible. The “Third Man In” rule,12 enacted in 1977, was so risible that fighting on a per-game basis actually went up, way up. By the mid-1980s, there was more than a fight per game. Oops.


The 1980s involved big hair, a fight per game, and regrettable uniform experiments. On the eve of its second wave of expansion, the NHL finally hit on the Instigator Rule,13 implemented after the 1991-92 season, a change that either saved the game from the Neanderthals that threatened to turn it into a WWE-style sideshow or was the first step in the destruction of all that was good and right and manly about Canada’s birthright (choose your own interpretation. Nuanced arguments not allowed). The new rule dictated that, on top of the normal five for fighting, any player clearly starting a fight would be slapped with an additional two minute minor penalty and a ten-minute misconduct, which meant that his team would almost certainly have to kill off a power play (whereas before, most fights resulted in both players punished equally).


This rule change occurred (probably coincidentally) in the middle of a significant influx of European players from the former Eastern Bloc, principally the USSR/Russia and Czechoslovakia (as well as from Finland), who followed on the heels of the Swedish players who had begun immigrating a decade before. All this immigration drastically increased the available pool of talented players. These players grew up in hockey cultures less influenced by North American frontier concepts of individual honor and masculinity and more by traditions and ideologies of collective action (and, well, soccer). These differing attitudes combined with the increased punishment for fighting added by the Instigator Rule to produce a rapid drop in the number of fights per game over the next two decades.




So that’s why some people are desperate to keep fighting

This helps to explain where someone like Don Cherry is coming from. Racist and sartorially catastrophic wacko though he may be, the NHL in which he coached (1974-80)14 really looked a lot different than the one he so vociferously criticizes from the CBC broadcast booth today. He blames the league (correctly), namby-pamby Euros (partially correctly), and effete Québécois (not so much) for systematically pushing fighting to the fringes of the modern game and, possibly, eventually eliminating the practice all together.


Is he a dinosaur who should have his microphone forcibly taken away from him? You bet. Is his impression of the “good old days” completely a product of nostalgia? If you define them as “the Original Six Era,” yes, indeed. If you’re talking about the 1970s and 80s (and he probably is), not really, as it turns out.


So, while old-time hockey, from the 1970s and 80s, really does live up to its reputation of kung-fu on ice (just more violent), a product of expansion and the resulting talent dilution, really old-time hockey was actually significantly less rough-and-tumble than popular perceptions of the era would have it. Our grandparents and great-grandparents were right about something: the Original Six Era really was a golden age of hockey for fans that preferred watching Gordie Howe score hat tricks to “Gordie Howe hat tricks.”




The Big Board

The Original Six Era – 1953/54-1965/66
Season Mean Fighting Majors/Team Mean Fighting Majors/Team/game Median Fighting Majors/team Median Fighting Majors/team/game St. Dev.
1953/54 18.0 0.26 19 0.27 3.5
1954/55 13.7 0.20 13.5 0.19 3.1
1955/56 11.7 0.17 11.5 0.16 2.9
1956/57 15.0 0.21 14.5 0.21 4.7
1957/58 14.3 0.20 15.5 0.22 4.2
1958/59 14.3 0.20 14.5 0.21 5.2
1959/60 12.7 0.18 13.5 0.19 4.8
1960/61 14.3 0.20 15 0.21 3.9
1961/62 9.5 0.14 9 0.13 5.3
1962/63 11.0 0.16 11 0.16 1.8
1963/64 21.0 0.30 20 0.29 6.1
1964/65 11.8 0.17 12 0.17 3.9
1965/66 14.2 0.20 16 0.23 4.2
1966/67 15.5 0.22 15 0.21 3.6

Expansion – 1967/68
Season Mean Fighting Majors/Team Mean Fighting Majors/Team/game Median Fighting Majors/team Median Fighting Majors/team/game St. Dev.
1967/68 14.5 0.20 14 0.19 5.9
1968/69 21.9 0.30 20.5 0.28 9.1
1969/70 24.2 0.32 21 0.28 7.0
1970/71 40.1 0.51 41.5 0.53 11.2
1971/72 32.3 0.41 29.5 0.38 9.3
1972/73 32.6 0.42 31.5 0.40 12.0
1973/74 37.4 0.48 31.5 0.40 11.5
1974/75 37.4 0.47 36< 0.45 12.6
1975/76 37.4 0.47 32.5 0.41 17.1
1976/77 39.4 0.49 41 0.51 12.9

The 3rd Man In rule – 1977
Season Mean Fighting Majors/Team Mean Fighting Majors/Team/game Median Fighting Majors/team Median Fighting Majors/team/game St. Dev.
1977/78 53.7 0.67 51.5 0.64 17.9
1978/79 55.4 0.69 58 0.73 12.8
1979/80 57.1 0.71 55 0.69 19.2
1980/81 65.7 0.82 63 0.79 8.2
1981/82 63.3 0.79 67 0.84 8.5
1982/83 54.2 0.68 57 0.71 7.3
1983/84 65.4 0.82 65 0.81 7.3
1984/85 74.3 0.93 76 0.95 8.9
1985/86 83.5 1.04 82 1.03 11.4
1986/87 83.0 1.04 79 0.99 8.6
1987/88 88.1 1.10 86 1.08 9.1
1988/89 72.0 0.90 66 0.83 9.9
1989/90 73.0 0.91 70 0.88 8.6
1990/91 72.2 0.90 75 0.94 6.4
1991/92 70.0 0.88 69 0.86 7.7

The Instigator Rule (and more Expansion) – 1992
Season Mean Fighting Majors/Team Mean Fighting Majors/Team/game Median Fighting Majors/team Median Fighting Majors/team/game St. Dev.
1992/93 52.2 0.62 49 0.58 7.5
1993/94 63.0 0.75 59 0.70 7.0
1994/95 38.0 0.79 37 0.77 4.2
1995/96 59.4 0.72 57 0.70 7.7
1996/97 68.9 0.84 70 0.85 6.1
1997/98 63.6 0.78 66 0.80 9.0
1998/99 48.3 0.59 46 0.56 9.2
1999/2000 40.6 0.49 36 0.43 7.3
2000/01 45.1 0.55 44 0.53 7.1
2001/02 52.9 0.64 49 0.60 9.1
2002/03 44.1 0.54 46 0.55 6.1
2003/04 52.1 0.63 53 0.65 6.3
2004/05 No data – Lost season. Thanks, Gary Bettman!
2005/06 30.6 0.37 31 0.37 5.5
2006/07 32.9 0.40 31 0.37 5.8
2007/08 43.9 0.53 45 0.55 6.8
2008/09 48.6 0.59 50 0.61 7.2
2009/10 47.4 0.58 49 0.59 8.5
2010/11 42.8 0.52 44 0.54 8.7
2011/12 36.3 0.44 35 0.43 6.2
2012/13 23.1 0.48 22 0.46 3.4
2013/14 31.1 0.38 32 0.39 10.7
2014/15 26 0.32 26.5 0.32 7.3
2015/16 22.9 0.28 22 0.27 8.7



Notes:


1 http://sidelinesmag.com
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2 Schwartz, Daniel, “Are NHL enforcers’ addictions, depression a result of on-ice brain trauma?” CBC News. Sep. 3, 2011, accessed Jan. 25, 2014. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/are-nhl-enforcers-addictions-depression-a-result-of-on-ice-brain-trauma-1.982100
^

3 Possibly originated by Rodney Dangerfield. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/multimedia/photo_gallery/1002/nhl.hockey.wit.and.wisdom/content.2.html
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4 The relative violence of penalties other than fighting majors, such as high sticking, slashing, tripping, elbowing, spearing, et. al. is almost impossible to determine simply from the record of penalties in minutes. It would be fruitless to attempt to parse out violently intentional slashes (for example) from the cases where contact is incidental or accidental; the exact same penalty is assessed in all cases short of a flagrant intent to injure.
All raw data on fighting majors used in this article was gleaned from Hockeyfights.com and in accordance with their use policy (use with attribution). All statistical calculations, tables, graphs, and larger analyses of that information by author.
^

6 A phrase coined by the 1977 movie “Slap Shot.” Although in the movie itself, the term was used to refer to a nostalgia-tinged idea of “old time hockey” based on skill and skating prowess, it quickly came to refer to the goon-filled buffoonery of the movie’s protagonists. Listen to Paul Newman’s speech. He’s referring to “the way it used to be” as the antithesis of violence. That is to say, most people today use it to mean the exact opposite of what it signified in the film.
^

7 From the 1942 folding of the New York Americans (partially because of the reduced player pool resulting from Canada and the US’s entry into WWII) through the 1966-67 season, the NHL had the following six teams: Montréal Canadiens (founded 1909), Toronto Maple Leafs (1917), Boston Bruins (1924), Chicago Blackhawks (1926), Detroit Red Wings (1926), and New York Rangers (1926). This group has been referred to as the “Original Six” since soon after the 1967 expansion. The California Golden Seals, LA Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, & St. Louis Blues all joined the NHL for the 1967-68 season.
^

8 A goal, an assist, and a fight in the same game. Most recently done by the San José Sharks’ Brent Burns on March 7, 2016 at Calgary. The all-time leader is Rich Tocchet with 18.
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9 McGourty , John, “Going inside the ‘Gordie Howe Hat Trick’,” NHL.com Jan. 25, 2010, accessed Jan. 24, 2014, http://www.nhl.com/ice/news.htm?id=514973
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10 See table at end.
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11 The data on fighting majors at HockeyFights.com is sketchy before the 1953/4 season. The data for the 1952/3 season lists 4 total fights (for the entire league), a pretty much impossible-to-believe figure. The gap in the data represents the lost 2004-05 season.
^

12 “A game misconduct penalty, at the discretion of the Referee, shall be imposed on any player who is the first to intervene (third man in) in an altercation already in progress…this penalty is in addition to any other penalties incurred in the same incident.”
National Hockey League. “Section 6 – Rule 46.16 – Third Man In.” In Official Rules.
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13 “An instigator of an altercation shall be a player who by his actions or demeanor demonstrates any/some of the following criteria: distance traveled; gloves off first; first punch thrown; menacing attitude or posture; verbal instigation or threats; conduct in retaliation to a prior game (or season) incident; obvious retribution for a previous incident in the game or season. A player who is deemed to be the instigator of an altercation shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major penalty for fighting and a ten-minute misconduct. If the same player or goalkeeper is deemed to be the instigator of a second altercation in the same game, he shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major penalty for fighting and a game misconduct. When a player receives his third instigator penalty in one Regular season, he is automatically given a game misconduct following that third violation.”
National Hockey League. “Section 6 – Rule 46.11 – Instigator” In Official Rules.
^

14 Cherry was head coach of the Boston Bruins from 1974-75 through 1978-79 and the Colorado Rockies for the 1979-80 season, after which he began his broadcasting career with CBC. “Don Cherry,” Hockey-Reference.com Coaches Database. Accessed Jan. 25, 2014. http://www.hockey-reference.com/coaches/cherrdo01c.html
Cherry also was a minor league defenseman from 1954-72. He played in one NHL game, a playoff game with Boston in 1955. “Don Cherry,” Hockey-Reference.com Player Database. Accessed Jan. 25, 2014. http://www.hockey-reference.com/players/c/cherrdo01.html
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About The Author

Architeuthis Rex, a man of (little) wealth and (questionable) taste. Historian and anthropologist interested in identity, regionalism / nationalism, mass culture, and the social and political contexts in which they exist. Earned Ph.D. in social and cultural History with a concentration in anthropology from Carnegie Mellon University and then (mostly) fled academia to write things that more than 10 other people will actually read. Driven to pursue a doctorate to try and answer the question, "Why do they all hate each other?" — still working on it. Plays beer-league hockey, softball, and soccer. Professional toddler wrangler. Likes dogs, good booze, food, and horribly awesome kung-fu movies.

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