Apr 18, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Frazer McLaren (38) knocks the helmet off of New York Islanders defenseman Matt Carkner (7) during a fight in the first period at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

NHL Fights Serve a Purpose – Believe Me

Astoria, NY – Let me stop you right there; I know what you’re thinking. Before you jump to conclusions, let me set some expectations before we get going.

This is not a piece in which sports-related violence is extolled as some kind of virtue. This column is not a soapbox upon which I stand, preaching to the masses while trying to convert the non-believers and yell to the sky that fisticuffs in hockey should never be outlawed BECAUSE HOCKEY IS ABOUT BEING TOOTHLESS AND TOUGH.

The following is just an attempt at reason.

(And if you’re about to make a, “Hey, can I get you some GIANT sugar cubes for that HIGH HORSE of yours?” joke…I just beat you to it.)

Ardent fans of the NHL have long understood that fighting has its place in the game of hockey, particularly at the elite level. Even if it’s not exactly condoned, fans generally react to a fight in one of two ways: 1) standing and cheering (“LET’S GOOOOO”); or 2) nodding with understanding (“He had to fight there, just part of the game.”)

For all the non-NHL fans, hear me out on this one.

The NHL is somewhat of a self-policing league. The players – with a few exceptions – adhere to a general code of conduct when it comes to physical altercations. Because hockey is a contact sport, it’s inevitable that tempers will boil over at times. When this happens, there’s an accepted method of dealing with it.


Each team has a player who will step up to protect his teammates if things are getting out of hand. Each team “has a guy,” if you catch my drift. Sometimes, teams may carry more than one, but it’s implied that when he suits up, the team is preparing for a physical game.

Players like Matt Carkner and Eric Boulton of the New York Islanders, for example.

They might not be the best stickhandlers, or the fastest skaters, or the best playmakers. But their role on the team cannot and should not be understated. As Isles fans saw last week in the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a well-timed fight – or two – can go a long way in changing the momentum of a game.

Other Islanders players were quick to credit ‘Carks’ and ‘Boulty’ for their willingness to drop the gloves and challenge an opposing player to a scrap. All of the postgame interviews touched on the subject of the Carkner and Boulton fights at least tangentially; most of those interviews focused on the bouts as their main subject.

Six minutes into their game against the Leafs, the Islanders found themselves down 0-2 on the road in front of a hostile crowd, playing against a team that had everything going its way. The situation needed something.

It needed a fight.

Carkner decided to initiate the first one. He might have been atoning for his poor defensive positioning that allowed Joffrey Lupul to score the first Leafs goal; he simply might have realized that his team needed a jolt. To that point in the game, the Isles had been playing uncharacteristically poorly.

Regardless of his motivation, Carkner fulfilled his role as team enforcer. He got five minutes in the penalty box for his trouble, but the fight served a purpose.

Boulton, too, decided to show his teammates that his team wouldn’t be pushed around. His fight came seconds after Carkner was escorted to the sin bin and served as the motivating factor the rest of the Isles needed to jumpstart their game.

By the time Carkner and Boulton left the penalty box, the Islanders had cut the Leafs lead in half. They would go on to score four more unanswered goals en route to a 5-3 victory.

Obviously, every game doesn’t require a fight. But in the game against Toronto, the Isles were in desperate need of some motivation, playing against a bigger, more physical team. Carkner and Boulton were the ones to provide it.

Back to the concept of the NHL as a league in which the players police themselves.

Dirty hits, cheap shots against star players, taking extra whacks at the goalie as he covers the puck: these are all reasons why fighting is necessary. Of course, the referees are there to protect the players and mitigate any unfair advantage for either team.

But ‘The Code’ stipulates that as hockey players, there are certain unwritten rules by which everyone must abide. (Besides, have you seen the quality of NHL officiating lately? Sometimes it’s best left to the players to regulate the on-ice action themselves.)

Sometimes a fight is required in response to a specific incident or to send a message that the next game won’t be a lighthearted affair. It’s tough to explain, but fans of the game know what’s acceptable and what isn’t. For the most part, the players do too.

Yes, there will always be outliers. Players like Marty McSorley, Chris Simon or Matt Cooke who draw negative attention – and rightly so – for committing acts that have no place in the game. But these incidents shouldn’t be the only things cited as proof-positive that hockey is a “barbaric” sport.

Causing physical harm to an opponent is not the goal in an NHL game; on that basis, comparisons to sports like boxing or mixed martial arts are lazy ones. Fighting is only a minor part of hockey and it serves a specific purpose.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Fighting in hockey is OK, believe me. If the NHL was a person, fights would be more ‘idiosyncrasy’ than ‘major personality disorder.’

For fans of the game, fighting will always have its place as long as it occurs within the bounds of the sport’s social contract. It will always be okay if a player does it as part of his job. (Or if that player is Mike Milbury. Then it’s OK no matter what. Unless you’re the guy who loses his shoe.)

A clear indication that fighting is an accepted aspect of hockey? After engaging one another in a fight, the two combatants will never hit each other after they fall down or the linesman intercedes. Sometimes, you’ll even see the players congratulating one another on a good fight.

Because it’s all part of the game.

And despite what you’d think, there are fewer fights in the playoffs, where the pressure is higher and the intensity is magnified. Proof that the players can differentiate between the purpose of the game and the antics that sometimes accompany it.



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Tags: Eric Boulton Matt Carkner New York Islanders NHL Toronto Maple Leafs

  • Andy Graziano

    Mike : What a great piece. Excellent writing, great points and an all around solid contribution. We are lucky to have someone writing op/ed like this at Eyes. Great job!!

    • Jim Dwyer

      Steve Yzerman, Terry O’Reilly, and Scotty Bowman have been
      around the game for decades as have you and I. But we don’t all agree on all points you’ve made. Because one has or hasn’t played the game in the NHL is not so relevant. Yzerman, for example, believes that a game misconduct is in order for anyone who fights (Google: Yzerman +Fighting + TSN); O’Reilly thinks the staged stuff right after a face-off is unnecessary (Google: “Murphy’s Law” hockey blog + Fighting + Terry O’Reilly). I used to love the fights, but now they turn me off. And I have more questions than answers, e.g., why is fighting illegal? (Google: “Food for Fought” + hockey + Fighting).

      Thanks for providing a forum to share varying opinions.

  • Rich Diaz

    Mike, I tend to agree with you to a degree. In the 70s and 80′s fighting became something of a circus sideshow, even parodied in movies like Slapshot. Bench-clearing brawls were such a nuisance and disrupted the flow of the game considerably. (Glad they’re gone.) I remember an era in which hockey was banned from channel 9 WWOR TV because of fighting. Having watched hockey for over 30 years I can say that if it wasn’t for Clark Gillies fighting O’Reilly or the likes of the Flyers, the Isles would’ve never won any cups.

    Fighting in baseball should be curtailed before it’s ever done in hockey. This much seems to clear. In this day and age of PC, hockey has gone unscathed with regards to its violence, because of the lack of attention hockey gets as opposed to football or the national past time. Honestly, if hockey garnered the attention of the other sports aforementioned, rest assured that fighting would stop.

    Be interesting to see the stats on how many fights occur during an NBC game, etc.

    IMO, you take out fights you may see egregious penalties like we did in the early 90s. Come to think of it, fights that did happen during that era were not televised, as the camera returned to the announcers and/or cut to commercial break.

    This line is a thin one the NHL walks, if you ask me. Do i think it has it’s place? Sure. But you can make that case for any sport, though. If I’m a 3rd place hitter and I get hit with a 99mph fastball, I’d expect my pitcher to go after someone in the next 1/2 inning, esp if i’m in the NL. Even the pitcher. But then when that happens: the next point of escalation will be to have an all out fight between both teams.
    (Ask Don Mattingly how he feels about bean-balling and fights. Ha) And nothing happens to the players who clear the bench. Only the two who started the fray.

    The point you raised about the lack of fighting is a good one, especially in high=pressured situations, but that can all change if a team like the Isles depend on the physical aspect of things, as you pointed out with regards to the Leafs game. I do think that if you lean on it enough the refs will begin to take notice and once a Matt Martin lays a clean hit on someone else, he’ll be called simply to avoid a point of escalation. If a team can satisfy their frustrations at a hard check or “bad hit” with a 4m dbl minor or a simply 2m for roughing, and then score, then fighting only hurts the team. For as you said, the refs are terrible.

    You can have fighting in NHL if the refs are responsible enough to call the game correctly.

    Still on the fence here.

  • Paul Busch

    Why would I believe that fights serve a purpose after reading this article? As someone who has watched and played hockey for 40+ years I have never believed that dropping the gloves is part of the game. Your comments don’t contain any facts or statistics to prove that it changes momentum or reduces cheap shots. Based on research that I have done, the opposite is true and fighting pretty much has a negative impact on the sport.

    You point out one example where a fight changed momentum and the Isles completely dominated the Leafs. But the opponent also fought, so why didn’t they get momentum? What about all the examples where a fight shifted momentum the other way or was simply useless? Several studies on the impact of fighting on momentum have all found the same thing; there is either zero impact or the changes is so slight as to be meaningless (2 stat based studies suggested that it would take 60 or 80 fights to equal 1 win).

    I’ve written articles for my blog – http://itsnotpartofthegame.blogspot.ca/ – that present many counter-arguments to what you have presented above. The only difference is I have presented facts, actual data and research from around the web that puts large holes in the myths and perceptions about how fighting impacts hockey. Looking at facts you find out that teams that fight the most will also incur more non-fighting related penalties, meaning they are responsible for more cheap shots. Teams that lead the league in fighting over the past 30 years are far more likely to be less successful in the standings and in the playoffs.

    If you like fighting, and think that revenge and retribution should be part of a professional sport, then state that. But don’t trot out all the old perceptions about why enforcers are needed in an attempt to provide more meaning to an activity that is against the rules.