Between the Whistles: My Mixed Feelings about Hockey Fights

Should the NHL continue to consider fighting as just "part of the game".

Posted Apr 29, 2014

I have always been a die hard New York Rangers hockey fan. When the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in the 1993-94 season and a fellow fan displayed a sign that read, “Now I Can Die in Peace,” I fully understood that sentiment. And I’ve always admired the players who stuck up for their teammates, using their fists as needed. Barry Beck (whose jersey I’ve had hanging in my closet for 30 years), Nick Fotiu, George McPhee, Adam Graves and Brandon Prust are just some of the players who were willing to put themselves on the line to protect their Rangers team. So it is with a heavy heart that I find myself at a tipping point where I think fighting should be banned from professional hockey. 

For those not familiar with hockey, the National Hockey League (NHL) is the only professional sports league that gives a player a five-minute penalty and allows him to return to the game rather than being ejected following a fight. Thus, fighting plays a peculiar role in hockey: it is penalized but generally considered “part of the game.” There are even players on some teams whose primary role is as an “enforcer,” skilled in fighting and ready to protect their teammates as needed. Fighting is seen as something of a “harm reduction” approach to the inherent violence of the game, safer than players using their sticks or elbows against one another. And the threat of a fight is accurately seen as a potent deterrent against dangerous cheap shots. 

But several factors have swayed me that the benefits of hockey fights are not worth the costs. First and foremost, more evidence is coming to light of the physical and psychological consequences that plague hockey enforcers. In particular, hockey fighters may be at increased risk for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that can be caused by repeated blows to the head. Upon their deaths, it was found that both Derek Boogaard and Bob Probert, two of the most feared and beloved enforcers in hockey history, suffered from CTE. Those who have CTE can experience a range of psychological symptoms including depression, aggression and progressive dementia

In fact, several former NHL players are suing the NHL because they allege that the league did not do enough to protect the players from concussions, including banning fighting in the NHL. So now when I cheer on a hockey fight, I can’t help but feel that I’m cheering for someone to be horribly and perhaps permanently injured. 

Now some argue that NHL players – especially the enforcers – “know the risks” of fights and accept them. Further, there is a well-known, unofficial “code” for hockey enforcers that allows for fights to be fair and as safe as possible. Fighters can’t start a fight with another player until that player is ready, and a player must stop fighting if the other player is hurt. One only had to observe Colton Orr’s reaction to George Parros being hurt following their fight to realize that these players often have the utmost respect for one another. 

On a moral level, I can stomach two hockey enforcers deciding to fight and accepting the risks. I can even be persuaded that if a player viciously and illegally tries to hurt another team’s player, the opposing players will want to fight for retribution and future deterrence. When this code is followed, it only adds to my admiration for hockey enforcers who are fierce enough to fight but empathic enough to know when to stop. 

But it is much more difficult to accept when the fight does not involve two enforcers, or even two consenting players. It is considered common practice for a member of the opposing team to challenge a player who has made a hard but legal hit. Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals stated this dilemma clearly: “When you hit a guy hard and clean, you’ve got to be ready to fight.” Witness Shawn Thornton of the Bruins attacking the Penguins’ Brooks Orpik for Orpik’s hard but clean hit on Bruins’ Loui Erikkson. Orpik got a concussion, and Thornton got a 15-game suspension. Thornton has always been and is still considered one of the cleanest and most honorable of hockey enforcers, but in the current NHL climate he was faced with a dilemma: under the code, he had to make an opposing player atone for taking liberties with a member of his team. 

Worse, the NHL’s stance on fighting opens the door for people having to fight even if they’ve done nothing other than wear an opposing team’s uniform. This issue came to light most recently when Ray Emery of the Philadelphia Flyers essentially attacked Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals. Holtby clearly did not consent to fight, but he endured repeated blows to the head. Under current NHL rules, very little can be done to prevent this less common but disturbing type of occurrence. 

So what can be done? The easiest action would be simply to eject players for fighting. This would allow for fighting in extreme circumstances but severely cut down on the number of fights, forcing players to fight only in the most extreme circumstances. We already know that stiffer penalties deter hockey fights; when the NHL instituted a rule that hockey brawls would cause a 10-game suspension not only to a player coming off the bench, but also to the coach of that team, bench-clearing brawls disappeared. And we already have a model for what hockey would look like in this scenario based on watching Olympic or NHL playoff hockey. In fact, it’s hard to ignore that in the Olympics or in the NHL playoffs, when the games matter most, fights seem to disappear from the game. The games take place more, as Rangers coach Alain Vigneault says, “between the whistles.” This suggests that with the proper motivation, players can play the game without as much fighting. 

But if hockey is to be lessened in this way, the NHL must look at the protective function of fighting and make rules that compensate for the loss of this deterrent. Hits to the head and careless stick work must be severely punished. Repeat offenders need to face long-term suspensions and possible ejection from the league. This should be even more possible now that each game is videotaped using several cameras; not much goes unnoticed. 

As long as there is fighting in the NHL, I will continue to admire the players who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect their teammates. 

But I hope some day soon they won’t have to anymore.

Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Mike Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.