One of the notorious aspects of ice hockey is that fighting is allowed in most leagues. The old line used to be that you would go to a hockey game to see the fights. Such was the case in the National Hockey League for some time. Fighting is still legal in the sense that it does happen in games in our current era. However, it is far less than what it was in past decades. The concept of the enforcer has been fading away and fighting has become less and less common for both the New Jersey Devils and the league as a whole.
I never really was a fan of fighting in hockey. I do not like that the hockey game - the thing I love - stops for a fight. I do not like when a player has to sit down for five minutes instead of taking a shift or two (or three) where they could have helped the Devils because they wanted to throw some hands. I do not like players that really do not contribute much but to be an enforcer. And I never really bought into the concept that they protect anyone. If punches are thrown, it is usually after something bad was done and even if the Devil throws a nose-crunching knockout blow, it does not mean the bad action went away or never happened. Nor do I buy into the concept that it gets a team going since both benches are usually up and slapping their sticks in approval after a fight. Therefore, I am more than fine with fighting becoming less common place.
That said, I want to discuss it further at how much has changed and offer some thoughts as to why I think it has.
The Drop in Fighting
If you are a fan of fights in hockey or you want to learn more, then you pretty much need to visit Hockey Fights. It has the information that you would expect from the name of the site. It lists who has received fighting majors by player and team. There is an extensive archive for fighting majors by league and by season. There is a database for players in multiple leagues who have been in scraps. There is even some community aspects like voting on who won a particular fight. Therefore, I will be leaning on Hockey Fights for the information in this post.
There has been a dramatic drop in fighting both for the Devils franchise and the NHL as a whole. Let’s go back as recent as ten seasons ago to the 2008-09 regular season to illustrate this. The NHL was a couple of years into having a hard salary cap, the Rock turned one that season, and the Devils were Good. There were way more fighting majors than you may have recalled. Per Hockey Fights, Anaheim led the league with 82. The Devils were eighth in the league with 57. Only two teams had fewer than 30 fighting majors: Carolina (26) and Detroit (11). From a player perspective, seven players had at least 20 fighting majors of their own including New Jersey’s David Clarkson. Many were not that far off 20, including New Jersey’s Mike Rupp who was tied with a bunch of players at 16. Yes, two Devils accounted nearly two-thirds of the team’s fighting majors that season. That seems like a lot.
It absolutely is compared to this past season. In the 2018-19 regular season, the league leader in fighting majors by a team was Boston with just 26. In fact, only three teams put up more than 20 fighting majors last season. The New Jersey Devils, who were Bad that season, finished around the middle of the league with a mere 15. There were four teams who had fewer than ten fighting majors all season long: Carolina (8), Arizona (7), Vegas (6), and Toronto (6). This is a massive change from where the league was ten seasons ago. Boston’s 26 would have been near the bottom of the league with some perhaps opining that it was an issue. Now, we would see 26 as a lot and something Boston should try to deter.
The change is even more stark at the player level. Hockey Fights’ first page of the player log in 2008-09 had players with a minimum of 16 fighting majors. The first page for the player log in 2018-19 has nobody with over ten fighting majors in the season. The league lead is a massive tie with just six fighting majors. The lead includes players who can actually play the game of hockey including Matt Calvert, Michael Ferland, and Cheap Shot Artist, Tom Wilson. As with ten seasons ago, there is a Devil among the league leaders in this category: Kurtis Gabriel with a whopping four. He may have become the league leader had he played more than 22 games but anyone who remembers Gabriel on the ice knows that he played way too many games last season for the Devils. That in of itself represents a massive change. Gabriel is seen as an enforcer - and he did not even have five fighting majors.
What’s more is that it is possible the Devils will have even fewer fighting majors next season. Gabriel is not returning. Nobody on the roster is really a “fighter” in that it is one of their primary traits. Nobody new to the organization has thrown down a whole lot in recent memory. John Hayden has the most of the incoming Devils with a whopping three last season, but it is not a guarantee he will be an everyday player. Wayne Simmonds dropped the gloves three times last season but who knows whether he would keep that up. As for returning Devils, there may be a bunch of one-offs like last season but a bunch of those names are not guaranteed to be in New Jersey again.
All together, the fading away of fighting at the NHL level is very real. We have witnessed it over the last ten seasons both at the league level and with our favorite hockey team, the New Jersey Devils. I have explained why I do not miss it. I get it if you have grown up with more fisticuffs in the past seasons in the NHL that you might. It is still happening. Why? I have some thoughts.
Thoughts on Why is Fighting Fading Away
One of the primary reasons is that I think teams are smarter about the salary cap and their roster than they were ten seasons ago. While the hard cap was in place in 2008-09, it was not until the past decade where some organizations had to learn some hard lessons about it. Chief among them is that the cap compels an organization to ice a roster that can contribute from top to bottom. Especially if you are a team up against the salary cap. Having someone who can only play a few minutes, maybe chip in a goal or an assist once in a while, and try to beat someone up every night or every other night is limited in terms of how much they can contribute. Fighting may be exciting but it does not help teams win hockey games. Giving such a player a spot in the lineup over, say, a young player with potential or a veteran who can specialize in a part of the game that may help a team win a game is foolish. Teams eventually realized this in time.
Note that the last place team in fighting majors in 2008-09 was Detroit, who were one of the league’s best teams that season and went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. They got a lot of out of their roster in all three pairings and four lines primarily because they had three pairings of NHL players and four lines of NHL players. There really was no need to have a puncher; they were successful without one. Since NHL organizations tend to follow the lead of successful teams, I think they took note of that. After all, a team’s enforcer was usually a third or fourth line forward or a third pairing defenseman. Those players were (and are) not difficult or expensive to replace in general. So when they were done, they were not really replaced by a similar player.
Additionally, if the player who fights is good enough to stay in the lineup for other reasons (e.g. they can score a good amount of goals, they can forecheck, they can kill penalties, they can be on the power play, etc.), then the solution was easier. The instruction was not to fight so much. Again: the hard salary cap guides teams to get the most out of their roster. Someone who sits in the box for five minutes instead of using their skills is not providing value. The correction is easy: do not do things that make you sit in a box and watch the game.
Given that more teams have personnel devoted to analytics, video review, and salary cap management, I highly doubt this will change. There is more incentive than ever to maximize what all eighteen skaters in a game can contribute. Being a face-puncher may be a spectacle but a player has to contribute to stay in this league and if they can contribute, then fighting is a detriment to their cause to be in the NHL and, to a degree, team’s cause of winning in the NHL.
A second and almost equally important reason is the who is being drafted and where they are coming from. While there was always an element of players being drafted and signed out of college and Europe, that has increased more in recent years. While the many different European leagues may also allow fighting, it is not usually to the extent of how it was in North America. Besides, the players being picked from these leagues are more about their talent than whether or not they can drop a dude with their right hand. While there have been post-collegiate enforcers (e.g. George Parros), the fact that fighting is not allowed in NCAA hockey has led to many of the players not coming out to be guys that seek out fights. While fighting is still a thing in major junior and junior A hockey in Canada, fewer and fewer of the players who get their names called would fit into this category. Even though they did so earlier in this past decade, the Devils are no longer drafting the Brandon Baddocks or Ryan Rehills of the world. Most teams are not either. They’ll take chances on skill, upside, or even hardworking players with a potential to contribute as a lower level instead. With fewer and fewer players coming into the league that would fit the mold of enforcer, it is a big reason why there are not really any players of those type anymore. There does not appear to be any “prospect enforcer.”
Third, and this is somewhat esoteric, but the concept of being “tough” has really changed in this sport. It used to be that toughness was a synonym for someone who was willing to fight, wanted to throw huge hits, and would rack up a lot of PIM as if that is a good thing. That has shifted. This is more of an opinion, but I do not think anybody would call the 2018-19 Bruins soft or weak or pushovers even though they had way fewer fighting majors than most teams in 2008-09. I think the physical aspect is still very much part of the term, but it also would include battling through traffic, winning battles down low, dominating shifts through a cycle - more useful forms of being physical. For years, those who did not like fights in hockey in the past would state that there needs to be a culture change. Well, this is part of that change and I think it has played a role in what we have seen.
Fourth, I would like to think the potential of injury has acted as its own deterrent. We now know more than concussions, vestibular injuries, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) are devastating injuries/conditions that has the potential of cutting a career short and being a detrement to someone’s lifestyle. We have seen this with players, with a number of them documenting their own experiences and how difficult recovery was to just live a “normal” life much less retun to hockey. Former Devils captain, Bryce Salvador, was one of those players and wrote about it in the Player’s Tribune. I would like to think players hear and read these things directly from their teammates and other players they know. I would like to think that would give them pause to risk suffering such a condition or being responsible in putting someone in such a condition. To a lesser extent, the potential of breaking a hand or a finger just to sock a guy would also be its own deterrent. It may be tempting to give, say, Tom Wilson what’s for after running a teammate from behind. It is not really worth it knowing that the scrap could lead to two people being on the IR whilst Wilson would go back to being Tom Wilson and run someone else from behind.
Fifth, and this is a bit of a reach, but I have noticed that referees and linesmen have made a point of it to get in the middle of beefs and squabbles before they turn into full-blown fights. Maybe there is some hard shoving or a punch thrown, but some nights they do make an extra effort to get involved before the gloves go down. What would have led to a fight in the past would be diffused earlier; although, not necessarily without punishment. Usually it would be matching minor penalties for roughing. I do not know if this can be truly quantified but it is noticeable that this happens and it does prevent some potential fights and, by extension, fighting majors from being called.
All together, it really is not much of a surprise. When hockey fans talk about the game changing, then this is one of those things that did change. There really is not much of a benefit of having a designated fighter anymore. And if you have someone who can fight and do other things that are valuable in hockey, it is better than they do the valuable things instead of fighting. Further, the players that would become enforcers and such are just not coming into the league as much as they would in the past. They tend to not come from Europe or college hockey and the prospects being drafted are not known for it, even if they come from juniors. The culture about what it means to be tough as a team or as a player has been changing. Even with fewer fights, few people are claiming that a team or a player is “soft” for not partaking in fist-fighting. Lastly, the additional knowledge about head trauma and the risk of other injuries coming out of a fight appears to be a deterrent. At least, I would hope it is.
These are all factors for something that really does not have much of a benefit. To that end, no wonder fighting has faded among the Devils and other teams in the NHL. I would not be surprised - or be against - that the powers that be in the NHL get to a point where it is formally outlawed. That would appear to be a logical step as fighting becomes rarer than what it was ten (or older) seasons ago.
Those are the reasons I think why fighting is down for the Devils and the NHL as a whole. Even if you disagree with them, it is a fact that the fighting is down. I certainly do not mind it. What about you? What do you think? Please leave your thoughts about fighting and why it is going down in the comments. Thank you for reading.