Whenever there’s a fight in a hockey game, invariably one of three things will happen:

1 – The player who won the fight sees his team score in the next five minutes

At this point, the goal is credited to the fighter, who did a sufficient job rallying his troops with his fists, bringing his scorers to life, and pumping them with the necessary amount of confidence to get the goal.

2 – The player who lost the fight sees his team score in the next five minutes

Now the broadcasters are crediting the lost fighter with the goal. You see, they saw their teammate sacrifice his face for them. That’s, really, what got the team going. They felt like they just couldn’t lose it for their teammate after he’d put himself in harm’s way for the team.

3 – Nothing, in which case the matter is forgotten about completely

A broadcast will completely forget about a fight if it fails to have any impact on the game. This happens in most cases after a scrap, but are consistently ignored when a commentator tries to make the illogical link between fighting and wins.

Morally, I have no objection to fighting in hockey. I think the players know they undergo certain risks. Just as I don’t begrudge oil sands workers, miners, SWAT teams or the Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender, there’s a market for “hockey fighter” that needs to be filled by somebody.

I don’t doubt that players get pumped up when their teammate fights. I didn’t play hockey growing up, just baseball, but to not want to go over the boards and absolutely annihilate somebody the next shift, you’d have to be the sort of emotionless robot that I’d expect out of a hockey general manager.

Like, even I can appreciate something like this:

Or this:

Problem is… it also fires up the other team, so shouldn’t that nullify the effect?

I watched both of those games, beginning to end, and can assure you that the events resulting from the fight didn’t have a stake in the final outcome of the game. You could make an argument for the Ben Eager-Zack Kassian fight in that Kassian’s removal from the game for the rest of the regulation period guaranteed that Vancouver’s first line would be split up rather than have a chance to play against the Oilers’ fourth line, one that they have historically dominated against. Instead, they played with Dale Weise.

For the Colton Orr-Deryk Engelland fight, well, apparently those two have a history. Half of the Leafs’ players on the bench weren’t even on the team when Orr and Engelland had their first run-in back in October of 2010. I can assure you that fight took place because there are two players who are expected to fight.

Again, there’s no moral issue to this. My grudge is more with the management and coaching aspect that has to do with fighting. It’s not that I don’t think a fight has any effect on a hockey game, it’s that I have yet to see any indication that it adds any sort of strategic element to the contest.

I was looking last night at the usage of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ fourth line, which has contained Jay McClement, Mike Brown and Colton Orr through three of the four games the Leafs have played. The fourth game, last night against the New York Islanders, the Leafs skated Dave Steckel in place of Brown. Only they didn’t. In fact, McClement and Steckel had four shifts in the third period. Orr only had three. This was on the wrong end of a back-to-back, and coach Randy Carlyle, who has otherwise done a very good job making something out of nothing with his top nine forwards, couldn’t be bothered to skate even after it was apparent the rest of the Leafs’ players were running on fumes in the final half of a third period where they looked awful.

Proponents of fighting in hockey should at least be honest with what they really enjoy. I liked Justin’s defence of the Arron Asham scrap with Tanner Glass off the puck drop of the Penguins-Rangers game on the basis that there was less of a strategic element involved, and it was just something he, well, enjoyed. Nothing wrong there.

Where you do go wrong is infer a tangible contribution to the game for either side based after the fact. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, or basically, don’t waste my time with after the fact reasoning. I prefer predictive analysis to reflexive analysis particularly for this reason. When you’re dealing with the end result, it’s a lot easier to skip steps when you’re, as they say in high school math class, showing your work.

There’s something to be said for lining a goon up against a player like Zack Kassian, or Milan Lucic, or Wayne Simmonds, or any big dangerous man who likes to fight, but is also good at other things as well. It’s at least one way to neutralize a threat. However there’s still a cost to bringing along a player like Orr, like Engelland, who won’t contribute offensively, in that you’re taking away that fourth line spot from potentially a good scorer who would thrive in the protected minutes goons tend to get.

As for player protection, well, the Leafs certainly won’t be a healthy club this year. Neither will the Oilers. Neither will any team, really, and it doesn’t matter whether there’s an enforcer around to protect them or not. Milan Lucic and Zdeno Chara were both on the ice when Matt Cooke levelled Marc Savard and probably ended his career. Brooks Orpik was on the ice when Victor Hedman boarded Sidney Crosby and put him out for, well, until the next face-off until Crosby was out with the concussion. There are scores of anecdotal examples to counter every assertion made about Dave Semenko.

Minor leagues are legislating fighting out of the game, and eventually the NHL will as well, but I think by then, teams will have systematically eliminated the fighter. Fighting has dropped 31.3% in the last ten seasons (numbers from hockeyfights.net) and other than a brief uptick last season the year after the Boston Bruins won the Cup thanks to historical goaltending highs fighting a lot, the trend has been that the league’s players are finding something better to do than fight. Tie Domi got twice the minutes in Toronto than Colton Orr ever did, and I think teams are eventually going to come to the realization that it’s wasting a roster spot.

While they’re at it, NHL teams should also work together to systematically eliminate the trapezoid.

Comments (18)

  1. One of the best momentum turning fights I’ve ever seen was Max Talbot and Dan Carcillo in Game 6 against the Flyers in 209 – Flyers up 3-0 and after fight give up 5 unanswered goals to win the series. It is so important for a player to know when to and when not to fight – they are truly momentum changers at the right time.

    I think the goon/heavyweight fights no longer have a place in the game. But there are plenty of middleweights that can both play and fight that should never be eliminated from the game. I like the Pens pick-up of Tanner glass – he just got moved up to the 3rd line and is part of the PK group. Why have a guy like Eric Godard or Steve MacIntyre just sit on the bench?

    • Do playoff teams that come back from 3-0 deficits typically do so because of fights?

      When Philly came back down 3-0 vs. Boston, they didn’t need a fight:

      http://www.nhl.com/scores/htmlreports/20092010/PL030227.HTM

      Game 3 between Florida/New Jersey this past playoffs. Devils up 3-0, Florida comes back, without a fight:

      http://www.nhl.com/ice/boxscore.htm?id=2011030133

      Game One between Pittsburgh-Philly in 2012, Flyers come back from a 3-0 lead. No fights:

      http://www.nhl.com/ice/boxscore.htm?id=2011030141

      Those two games are the only time a team came back from 3-0 in a game last playoffs. Neither required a fight.

      • Wow, it’s like CARL never even read your post.

        If the NHL was serious about protecting it’s players from headshots/ concussions, it would tighten penalties for fighting.

        I would think the logical next step would be automatic game suspensions and a sliding scale of suspensions based on your total fights for the year. For example, 1 game suspension for your 5th fight, 2 games suspension for 8 fights, 5 game suspension for 10 fights.

        Enforcing the instigator rule for fights after clean checks would also help.

        Getting the fighter out of the game also puts a better hockey product on the ice.

        • If the NHL is serious about bodychecks to the head, they should ban fighting. Makes sense…you know…if you’re stupid.

  2. Engelland is a Defenseman, just a heads up – the way you worded it was a little ambiguous, but nonetheless I got the point. Just wanted to let you know in case you care.

  3. I’ve always liked the argument that fighting exists as a means for players to “police” themselves and protect one another.

  4. Cam,

    I think you’re overlooking the impact of a fight like the Kassian fight. It’s more than just the one-game that is affected by the fight.

    Here is Ben Eager running Daniel Sedin into the boards a few years ago in the playoffs.

    http://i54.tinypic.com/n4ia2w.jpg This was a dirty play that could have resulted to an injury to one of our top players. Ben Eager is a thug who has taken liberties with Canucks (and other players throughout the league). Don’t you agree that he might think twice about doing that again to a Canucks player since he was just punched out by one?

    Don’t you think other players might think twice about taking a run at Canucks players now that there’s the risk of them getting a concussion in a fight? I do. Fortunately for us, Kassian is a skilled player who can do more than just fight and therefore isn’t a wasted roster spot.

    So, maybe the Kassian fight the other night didn’t impact the outcome of the game, and didn’t create any tactical advantage. But maybe other players in the league took notice and we see less liberties taken with our players this season.

    I think a message was delivered to the League that night. Hopefully the rats of the NHL were watching

    Keep up the good work Cam. I enjoy your writing on here and CA, I just have a different opinion than you on this matter.

    • “http://i54.tinypic.com/n4ia2w.jpg This was a dirty play that could have resulted to an injury to one of our top players. Ben Eager is a thug who has taken liberties with Canucks (and other players throughout the league). Don’t you agree that he might think twice about doing that again to a Canucks player since he was just punched out by one?”

      No. Not in the least. Of all the “arguments” put forth in support of fighting, the “deterrence” one is the dumbest of all.

      Dead on. People who claim that “fighting protects against dirty play” are either blind, or fooling themselves. Players who are “dirty” aren’t “afraid” of getting beat up – so even with fighting, if they even fight at all, they will take their lumps…and come back on the next shift and do the next “dirty” trick. Can you name a “dirty” play that was appropriately head “accountable” by a fight? Seriously, name me a single one.

      in fact, I can point you to the exact opposite. Remember Matt Cooke? Remember when he was running all over the league knocking heads off? Remember when Evander Kane *destroyed* Cooke in a one-punch knockout in 2010? Under your theory, Cooke should have been scared straight. Of course we know that didnt happen. In fact, he was suspended 2 more times the next season for more dirty play, and it wasnt until the NHL suspended him for 10 games and the 1st round of the playoffs in April 2011 that he realized he needed to change.

      This “fear of retribution” argument is the least supportable argument in the world. Carcillo, Avery, Ruutu…pick your pest/goon/whatever. None of them are or were afraid of the alleged “enforcers” on teams. Carcillo gets in fights all the time…he had 17 fights in 09-10, and 13 in 10-11. You think he’s afraid of getting hit one more time?

      What people who make this argument REALLY want, but are not comfortable admitting for some reason – is for it to be “fair” for a team that has been “wronged” by a dirty player to be allowed to “retaliate” against that dirty player – eye for an eye justice. They want revenge first, and if deterrence happens, even better. Because these people know, deep down, that you can never “stop” players who cross the line – even if you are allowed to beat them up (with or without fear of an instigator penalty).

  5. Sounds very much like what your colleague Ms. Etchingham identified as a falsifiable narrative last week, no? Assigning the same action as a cause regardless of the outcome, using different logic to justify in each case?

  6. I think in the case of fighting to change momentum, you might be overlooking the possibility that one team needs a lift, while the other team (potentially) does not. If one team is out there getting dominated, it is usually pretty obvious which side has the momentum. So, if fighting does in fact “fire up” a team, perhaps the effect is more pronounced for the team that has lacked the energy to compete in the game. It would be reasonable to assume that each team can only get so pumped up by events on the ice, so if one team is skating with energy already, perhaps the team that looks flat benefits more from the fight.

    Either way, i don’t think that fighting is necessarily about just giving one team or both teams a lift. Sometimes guys fight because they want to send a message, or because they need to stand up for themselves or for somebody else. Just the other night, Boyle and McQuaid went at it because McQuaid didnt appreciate taking a puck to the foot after the whistle. Sometimes these guys fight simply because they are pissed and aren’t going to let the other team take liberties. The tactical value may not be in any sort of momentum shift, but instead might simply be about keeping a mind set that I/we won’t back down.

  7. Eager’s hit on Sedin resulted in a number of powerplay goals and cost the Sharks ta playoff game.

    Eager was out of the Sharks lineup the next game because his coaches recognized he was a liability.

    The Sharks did not offer Eager a contract the following summer.

    I think that is enough incentive for Eager not to cheap shot anyone again.

    • To expand on the first point, my thought is that the best enforcer is a good powerplay.

      • That is exactly what the Canucks thought in 10-11, then their pp went cold against the Bruins in the Final and they went home without the Cup. They really needed some physical presence in that series because the pp is not an enforcer.

  8. You’ve misidentified at least one non-fighter (not non-goon–a guy who doesn’t fight unless he’s jumped) as an enforcer to stretch a point and suggested scratching a 20 point defenseman to play an extra scorer as a 13th forward (because, you know, teams just have finishers sitting in the press box hoping coach will go with 2 D pairings next game).

  9. There’s one thing that really bugs me about all the fighting/no fighting debates. Look, players understand the risks involved in sport, especially contact sports. Fighting, 98% of the time, is a choice. That other 2% is normally because you just whacked a star player or did something in otherwise dirty fashion and in all likelihood knew what the result would be. It is not the job of impartial observers to argue about useless fights. If a goon-on-goon fight truly grinds your gears (because, yes, most of them are relatively useless), than simply don’t support the product; somebody else will.

    On another note, the presence of pure goons in todays game is being depleted. It’s all but mandatory, with some notable exceptions, that if you fight, you had better be able to play as well. Speaking as a player with a few fights under his belt, let me make one thing clear: fighting is fun. It is. Does it always add value to the game? Absolutely not. But you can bet that if I win, I know my bench is pumped. I don’t give a shit about the other bench. Speaking as a fan: what’s not to like about rooting for your team’s tough guy and hoping that he can take the cake against the opposing teams tough guy? There’s a certain primal factor within hockey that shows that fans and players want their team to be the toughest.

    Last point: the simple presence of fighting does allow for an on-ice police presence not wearing black and white stripes. Goons fight goons, establishing the fact that they are not afraid to to throw bombs, and take a few themselves. This also sends a message to everyone else on both benches that should one of them take liberties on a teammate, they will answer for it. Because, if we willingly do this to one another, just imagine what we can do to you. Does the mere presence of a fight have any tactical importance? No, but in some circumstances it definitely can. 1. Your teammate wins the fight. Your bench is pumped. The other bench is NOT. They just watched their teammate get shitkicked. Forget this “oh he put himself in harms way we better pick it up”. Wrong. There is nothing short of getting scored on that is more demoralizing for a hockey player than watching a teammate badly lose a fight. And 2 (and this is the lone exception to what I just said). Someone who doesn’t fight stands up to someone who does (think Myers/Lucic) because the situation calls for it. This player is probably going to lose. They know it, you know it, but they do it. That is the only time when losing a fight can possibly motivate a team.

  10. I agree fighting is pointless and goons are a wasted roster spot – in today’s league. I am not sure today’s reality applies to every era equally.

    Gretzky’s credits Semenko’s effect on his early career. I think it was different at that time, and the league was not on Gretzky’s or the Oiler’s side at first. Goons were still hockey players, and there wasn’t the option to not fight and avoid backing yourself up like now, which makes the real difference.

    Back to today’s league, it’s time to crack down on overly violent players and fighting. Times are changing, we know too much of the reality of what fighting does to player’s bodies and lives, it just doesn’t bring anything to the game now, at all.

  11. I see from my ECHL club that getting both fighters off the ice for 5 opens up the ice to 4-on-4 and gives the teams a chance to get something going with a spark.

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