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.
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.