Why Is Fighting A Part Of Hockey?
Though ice hockey shares general similarities with sports such as basketball or soccer, one facet that sets the sport apart from most others is the constant and often-sanctioned fighting between players. Since its inception, fighting has become a key component of a team’s success. From brutal origins to modern calls for banning, below is a brief history of fighting in ice hockey and why it persists even today.
Since the sport began its peak rise in popularity in 19th century Canada, fighting has been a pivotal part of ice hockey. Though there’s no definitive theory of how combat between players became part of the sport, the most prevalent idea is that early hockey lacked almost any rules about fighting, so an environment of intimidation and control through physical contact was established. A secondary historical theory also persists that a rise in poverty and high crime rates during the Canadian peak of popularity could also be to blame.
The addition of certain rink features like the blue lines in 1918 is also credited with the rise of fighting in early hockey. By allowing forward passing only in the neutral zone, anyone who handled the puck was suddenly subject to far higher rates of physical contact. As such, the role of enforcers emerged, a player role specifically created for protecting puck handles and fighting whenever necessary.
NHL Code of Conduct
The National Hockey League (NHL) formally regulated fighting, then known as “fisticuffs,” in 1922 by introducing Rule 56. This ruling stated that, rather than wholly ejecting a player from the remainder of a game, a five-minute major penalty would be given to anyone that the referee confirmed was fighting. From its top at the NHL level, this rule and its wording trickled into junior and minor professional leagues across North America. This lightened punishment not only led to an increase in fighting, but certain promoters such as Tex Rickard capitalized on the financial opportunity and presented the most vicious enforcers to be marketing angles for their respective NHL teams.
Though the reference to “fisticuffs” was ultimately removed, fighting became re-regulated under Rule 46 of the current NHL rulebook. Under Rule 46, it is up to the referee’s jurisdiction to decide what constitutes a fight and what resulting penalties apply to which participants. These rulings can depend contextually on who instigates the fight, who continues the fight, and what equipment each participant wears when said fight is instigated.
Punishment and Attempted Bans
Due to major head injuries and even very rare instances of death, there have been significant pushes to limit fighting in ice hockey. Starting in the 2016-2017 season, the American Hockey League imposed a major policy to punish players who engage in fighting. Under this policy, any player who collects ten major penalties for fighting during a single season will be suspended for one game for each successive instance. After the 13th major penalty, a player will be suspended for two games per instance. Though there have been calls to outright ban fighting in any form, league administrators have consistently pushed back against any policy other than increasing rates of punishment.