Kevin Allen of USA Today revealed an interesting tidbit when he wrote an article on fighting in the NHL today: scraps are down a full 25% from last season.

In the first half of the NHL schedule last year, the League saw just three fights short of 700, coming in at a whopping 697. This year we only had 519 tilts. The number of players with at least one fight also dropped from 252 to 213.

That sharp decline is enough to rule out pure chance – the game is changing, and that’s probably a good thing.

As Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy noted, there are a number of likely factors for this. He cited the changing role of fighters in the NHL (there are very few that can’t play and just sit on the bench waiting to get “the tap” these days), less takers for the true heavies, faster faceoffs allowing for less time to chat and have tempers flare (that one’s a bit of a reach from Craig Button), increased supplemental discipline, and the whole “learning how awful brain injuries are” thing.

Bissonnette has two fights this year, down from eight last year. Cites “no dance partners.”

That’s quite the pool of reasons contributing to the decline.

To add to that, I think the routes players are taking to the NHL are cleaner and just generally better than they used to be. The days of the minor league duster punching your lips for sport are dying.

Back in the 80′s, everybody save for Gretzky and a few other names had to at least have some basic ability to fight, because it was something you knew you’d have to do. That was the procedure: perceived slight, fight, issue resolved. And for whatever reason, the minor leagues were an absolute shitshow. I don’t know how many of you out there have seen an ECHL game these days (let alone an AHL contest), but it’s not exactly Slapshot. There’s plenty of good young talent taking hockey seriously there.

You had to fight to survive your trip to the NHL not that long ago. Check out my Dad’s hockeydb page – he says than when he got sent down to Fort Worth during his 2nd NHL season, he often had to fight to protect himself because he was a good player – how’s that for logic? He has more PIMS in 62 games there than he ever did in the NHL. That helped him become more comfortable with fighting, so he did it more when he got to the NHL (though he was by no means a fighter).

Those leagues were like prison – you usually left harder than when you arrived.

Today, the junior and minor leagues are serious developmental steps where guys can go and play hockey without the fear of a Hanson brother bleeding on them at the next faceoff. Fighting doesn’t even have to cross your mind there, because out-toughing your opponent is the way up the next rung of the ladder for very few people. Hell, there’s even quality supplemental discipline for the guys who act like morons in those leagues now.

So you have a number of players who came up through those leagues and never had the need to fight. As more and more of them join the ranks of the NHL and more of the older guys retire, I think the downward fights-per-year trend will continue.

I could see the number declining until we start averaging a couple hundred a year, then staying there. In a game as intense and physical as ours, it’s going to happen, and I think that’s a good thing. I like having it as a nuclear option when an opponent takes one too many cheap shots.

The way things look right now, one thing is becoming pretty clear: the role of the guy who sits at the end of the bench until it’s time to scrap is nothing if not endangered.

Comments (10)

  1. Is fighting as common in the European game?

    I’m not sure on the percentages, although I’m sure they are out there, but what are the percentages of North American players in the NHL now? What were they 10, 15, and 20 years ago?

    Generally speaking, the European game is about finesse, while the North American version is about power. It seems as though there isn’t as much physicality in the European game, which tends to lead to fewer fights and scrums.

    I could be totally off base and could be proven wrong by the stats though.

    • Nope you’re right. And it furthers my point – they also fight less when they get to the NHL. It’s all about how you come up in the game.

    • There is a lot less fighting in leagues other than the NHL/AHL/KHL, but not because there isn’t as much Physicality.

      Most other leagues follow IIHF rules – a Fight is an automatic ejection and 1 Game suspension (same as the olympics). That reducing fighting. And that leads to increased finesse. That becomes a cycle of Less Fights>More Finesse>Less Fights.

      • Timmyhate
        I don’t get the chance to watch any games from overseas, but every once in a while, I’ll catch a top 10 hits, or highlights or something. They don’t seem to hit as hard or as much. It’s just what I have seen, but may not be true. I’m sure there are plenty of reasons for it (larger ice, different philosophy of the game, etc).

        This is kind of interesting. According to what this poster is saying, some people want to abandon the IIHF rules regarding fighting, and move to the NHL style. I can’t read the linked article though.

    • The general issue in at least Sweden is that a player involved in a fight gets a game misconduct and a one game suspension automatically. Which there’s talk of abandoning in favor of the NHL version, 5 min penalty only.

      And hockey in Europe is fairly physical, altough not on the same level as NHL/AHL etc. I think one of the reasons why besides tradition is that the ice surface is larger and players have more space.

      • The ice surface does make a big difference. Player with the puck has a bit more time and the hitter risks being more out of position. So that probably supports the not hitting type of players better than in North America…..

        But at least in Finland there is still plenty of hitting, especially with certain teams.

    • While it’s true that Europeans fight less, the percentage of European players in the NHL is also trending downwards.

  2. This is just an anecdotal observation, but as someone who goes to 40 AHL games a year and watches many more NHL games, the fights themselves have changed. NHL fights are rarely entertaining anymore, mostly a clutch n grab wrestle-fest. But in the AHL the tilts are typically styled as ‘the best defense is no defense at all’. Some of the most impressive things about the league’s top fighters- Kassian, Gazdic, Bollig, etc- is not how many punches they can throw, but how many they seem able to take. And it’s no free pass for guys like Eric Godard, he got into an exhausting slug-fest last night, and for as many punches as he threw, I can say I think he won the fight.

    • That’s “can’t say”

      • The unsung reason why a lot of fights are clutch-and-grab now – clutch-and-grab works. The jerseys are all tied down, and a player can more effectively tie up a guy they don’t match up well with physically. In the old days, guys could simply yanks their arm free of their jersey and then the other guy was supremely hosed.

        I think it’s also the reason why you see guys jabbing with the hand that’s holding the jersey – a tactic I don’t remember ever seeing until a couple of years ago.

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