Montreal Canadiens v Philadelphia Flyers

Over hockey’s summer months, I’ll be taking on more general topics. Today, fighting. Feel free to submit any requests to


Like Jonathan Moxon of Varsity Blues, I am just one man. How I felt as a player on the bench after watching a teammate drop his mitts is going to be different from my teammates, so you’ll have to permit me some generalization here.

I liked, and found certain types of fights useful, but before we get to those, let’s be real: I also liked watching the pointless ones, so if our meathead was tapped on the shoulder to go fight a meaningless fight, I could care less because it generally didn’t affect the game, and I got to see a fight. In some mid-season game in particular, hey neat, a free UFC ticket. What, I’m going to worry about their safety like their mothers? We’ll be getting back to the actual hockey momentarily.

But there’s a reason some of those guys will dress all year and not in the playoffs, and that’s pretty simply that they don’t really affect the game anymore. Colton Orr-on-John Scott doesn’t affect much because fighters are almost viewed as sidecars to a team these days, like kickers in football. I don’t mean that to be disrespectful or anything, fighting is scary as hell and takes stones, but I think we’re at the point where that’s a reality. “Let’s go get ‘em boys! And you, guy, if you have to fight, good luck!”

Maybe – maaaybe – a hard knockout could get a team fired up. And by “a team” I mean the specific type of player who gets fired up by stuff like that. You gotta keep in mind, not all hockey players are the same. I wrote this on locker room cliques at one point – major junior guys tend to feel that fighting is a bigger part of the game because they’ve never played hockey without it (and are therefore more likely to think the results of fights matter), so it’s possible those guys could be like “Holy sh*t, great body shot by Colton Orr, let’s f***ing keep running over these guys!” or something, but I was more prone to eye-rolling like the (presumed) college nerd I was.

But before the anti-fighting crowd starts feeling too self-satisfied here, that doesn’t mean I deemed all fighting irrelevant.

I occasionally felt a visceral reaction (which can make your legs feel light with adrenaline) over the following types of fights:

* When a guy who doesn’t fight much is playing with so much passion a fight happens organically

I love that sh*t. Sometimes you get a guy on your team who wants to win so bad there’s just no stopping him, and he’s driving the net, and digging in the corners, and getting in people’s grills, so he ends up going windmill-style on an opponent who had the balls to get in his way. That always made me feel like I was playing like a pansy, because if this guy can do it, why can’t I? Ante up, Bourne. We’re after the same cause, we’re teammates, I’m gonna step up my game.

* The reactionary scrap

When you feel one of your teammates has been wronged and a guy stands up for that, I love it too.

What I think a lot of people don’t understand, is how much of fighting is big picture, whether that’s conscious from players or not (I think it usually is). There’s a desire to be a team that sticks together and doesn’t forget. It’s aggravating playing a team who constantly “sticks up for each other,” because you can’t so much as cross a single perceived line without getting hacked, whacked and challenged to fight. It makes a hesitant player – as I may or may not have been – less likely to take shots at anyone (or even drive the net hard) because they don’t want to have to deal with the reaction.

That’s reality at all levels – not all talented players want to deal with the rough stuff, so playing tough against them (fighting anyone who crosses any lines) can make a guy play a more measured, perimeter game to make sure they don’t cross any accidentally. There are big boys out there, but if you let one of those skill guys play a team where nobody says or does a thing to them, and they’ll kill you on the scoreboard.

(Frankly, the above is a reason I don’t mind when guys try to fight after big, clean hits – clean or not, you’re paying for trying to hurt us – which I know is an unpopular opinion.)

And there are other, more specific situations: I like the patient revenge scrap games later, I like a team going into a tough road building and getting into a few early to show they’re not there to be victims, and there’s always protecting your goalie. There’s a time and a place for fighting, and while I don’t think the NHL would suffer much without it, I’m still a fan. Much like actual UFC, these guys know the risks, and are consenting to taking them when they choose to fight.

Winnipeg Jets v Buffalo SabresI think the biggest debate with scrapping amongst those who love and hate it is the idea of momentum, because, y’know, both teams have players in that fight, so what’s the difference?

If you’re pro-fighting, you should probably minimize your use of “momentum” as an excuse. I would say the only time I really ever felt anything that changed my energy level was when a guy who doesn’t fight much got into it. That’s sort of inspiring. I do think going when your team is lifeless and losing that a fight can act as a bit of a defibrillator – any pulse here? It might not work – the team may already be cold on the metal gurney – but it’s worth a shot. (Incidentally, this is why I’d rather not see my team fight unless we’re up a solid three goals or so. It is sort of a wake up call that a game is actually happening and you’re in it.)

There are a couple other things to consider for fans about why players fight, and a big one is perception with the coach. When a game is out of reach and players fight, it’s rarely about being animals free from a cage who are finally cleared to bite. It’s rarely about trying to turn the game around. It’s usually about your coach thinking your team is a bunch of no-heart half-asses, and excusing yourself from the list of players who “didn’t give a f*** last night” by putting your facial features on the line. That doesn’t make it right or anything, but it’s a reason.

I often found myself thinking a teammate’s fight was stupid, mostly because I believe a lot of guys who are paid to be tough guys just fight so they’re deemed to be doing their job. I think it’s often selfish. All this clown has to do is shed his mittens for a 20 second fight, and at the end of the day he’s done his job. I have to create offense or I haven’t. And occasionally, when deciding the lineup the next day, who did their job and who didn’t is taken into consideration.

I think fights sucked me into games more than they pulled me out of them, because they add to the storyline, and they add to the (bad) relationships between and your opponents. I’m certainly not of the mind that they helped my team win many games over my career, if any, but I do think they probably made some of the games better overall. And, if you believe your team is the better team, as so many players do, you might as well try to raise that level as high as it’ll go.

I really don’t see the need to glorify or condemn fighting in hockey. As it currently stands, it just…is.

Comments (14)

  1. I think the best example of “momentum” from a fight is the Talbot – Carcillo fight in the ’09 playoffs.

    Philly up 3-0 in the second and looking to be well on their way to force a game 7, when Talbot challenges Carcillo. Carcillo handily won the fight, but seeing how the Pens players reacted to Talbot was back on the bench 5 minutes later, and then watching them score 5 unanswered goals to win the game and series, shows how the momentum totally changed from that fight.

    • Game 2 Isles-Pens this year: Okposo gets in his first career fight and leaves Niskanen bloody. The team was down 3-1 at that point but the fight really seemed to spark something. The Isles scored two that period to tie and went on to win. I think the sport will always have room for these kind of fights.

  2. Good article bourne, must ask, did you ever drop them during your career?

  3. Although I am in the pro-fighting delegation, I completely agree that it should be celebrated a little less, especially staged fights. I like it as a nuance of the game, not as a sideshow.

    I always enjoyed it when gritty guys who have skill fight; you know they have to pick their spots well, so it’s usually due to defending a teammate or running on high emotion. Also, it’s a real risk vs. reward situation when they choose to do so because if they do not acheive their desired effect, they have cancelled themselves out for five minutes. When Brendan Shanahan, Gary Roberts, and Keith Tkachuck faught, they did so because it was neccessary, they rarely lost, and it would set the emotional tone for the rest of their bench.

  4. I’m definitely not in the camp that says all fights are good fights no matter what (I mean, having Cam Janssen fight a Ranger two seconds into every Devils-Rangers game is downright silly). That said, I’m all for the standing up for your goalie/teammate fights (especially the “guy who doesn’t fight much” ones where you get some little scorer going loco on someone 6 inches taller than him).

  5. Lecavalier and Iginla, SC finals. <3 the best type of fights.

  6. I think what makes some fights feel more dangerous and frightening these days is that some players now pretty much train like boxers.

    If I want boxing ill watch boxing. A hockey fight should be two tough hockey players (emphasis on ‘players’) swinging wildly from adrenaline and passion!

  7. I’ve watched hockey closely for a long, long time. I watched hockey during the Big Bad Bruins and Broadstreet Bullies were beating people up and winning Stanley Cups. I watched as teams started hiring thugs upon the realization that physical intimidation was becoming a vital component of winning. I’ve ridden a thousand busses and sat at a thousand bars with hockey players discussing the pros and cons of fighting in the game. I understand those who want to eliminate the “instigator” penalty. I understand having someone who will protect the star players…if they need it. And I understand fights that take place when they are fueled by passion and sparked by on-ice incidents.

    When I think about the brand of hockey that most entertained me, I always come back to the kind of hockey played by the New York Islanders during their Stanley Cup winning days in the ’80s. There was skill and there was toughness. Yes, there were many fights, but 99% were a result of something that happened on the ice. In those days, the line separating skill guys from tough guys was far less clear than it is today. Tough guys played regular shifts…usually on the fourth line, but they played. I don’t ever recall seeing what is now referred to as a “staged” fight. Hockey tough guys bristle at the term “goon.” I understand that… conjures up a neanderthal image. Was Clark Gillies the toughest guy in the league at that time?….maybe….was he a goon? Never.

    In today’s game the role is clearly defined….if not in writing, it is in practice. A huge percentage of the fighting now is a side show. When John Scott and Colton Orr skate onto the ice for the next face-off…..everyone in the building knows what’s going to happen. I like watching those fights, but I don’t confuse them with hockey. There’s no bell being rung to start those fights…..instead it’s the face-off. It’s kind of like stopping the game for a few minutes to feature a segment of Jerry Springer.

    With the size and strength of today’s players, the physical risk is there every time they drop the gloves. A good defenseman has 25 minutes to show his worth. A fighter usually has just one chance and, if he gets smoked, he has until the next time he plays to carry that humiliation. I’ve personally known a lot of tough guys and I know the psychological toll their job can take. They know who they’re playing next and they know exactly who their next opponent will be. And they know what’s on the line. Usually for those guys, it’s their reputation and when winning or losing a fight in front of thousands of people is the measure of your worth, it’s a had reality to deal with.

    Next time you see a team’s gunslinger decisively lose a fight, watch his teammates….they don’t know what to do. They want to comfort him with stick taps, but they don’t want to acknowledge the “loss.”

    At the NHL level, reducing the one on one fighting is going to be a tough thing….but what would happen in the ECHL…. where the roster is 16 skaters and 2 goalies…..if they eliminated one roster spot. 15 skaters and 2 goalies. Who would be the odd man out? I’m not saying GMs would, across the board, get rid of their “tough guy” but it would force the tough guy to also be a “player”. There wouldn’t be a guy sitting on the end of the bench waiting for the “nod.”

    If fighting was eliminated from the NHL, I’d still love the game and keep my “Center Ice” subscription…..but I’d miss the element of intimidation and the anticipation of what might happen next….

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