Puttin' on the foil, coach

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Ross Bernstein's The Code: The Unwritten Rules Of Fighting And Retaliation In The NHL provides these 10 reasons why hockey fights start:
  1. Retaliation and retribution.
  2. Swinging the momentum
  3. Intimidation
  4. Sending a message
  5. Trying to draw a reaction penalty
  6. Deterrence
  7. Job security
  8. Protection
  9. Prison justice
  10. Bad blood

There's a bit of redundancy here, but it's striking the extent to which fighting has been integrated into game strategy. For instance, here's reason 2:

The second reason for fighting is to provide a spark or catalyst to wake up your team. Fighters will challenge opponents when their team is down for the sole purpose of winning the fight and thus swinging the momentum of the game. If a player battles like a warrior and wins, the crowd gets pumped up and the players get a shot of adrenaline to inspire them to work harder. It is all about gaining a mental edge or psychological advantage in hockey and a good scrap can achieve that in a heartbeat.

Here's Marty McSorley:

The code can be completely different for guys when they are playing on a bad team. When you are an enforcer on a bad team it is your job to go out and try to turn the game around. A tough guy knows that he can swing the momentum 180 degrees from a dull, boring game to one the fans are totally into, and the players respond to that. That guys knows when he has to use his shift to try and stir it up out there in order to get his teammates and his fans back into it. That is a tough job, I have been there. It is particularly tough when you are playing on the road and an opposing team's home ice. It goes against who you are as a person and as a player to go out and start something when nothing is going on. But hey, it is the nature of the beast with this role.

I would also add that when that situation arises, it means even more to be able to do it with respect and honesty. What I mean by that is if it was my responsibility to go out and sti something up, then I would go up to their tough guy and bring it up with him directly. ... I would talk to him directly and put him in a position to address me out on the ice, with respect.

Now that tough guy knows the code and knows that he needs to match you, because that is your job. ... Even if he is tired or sore, he knows that he needs to face you and give you your shot to turn your team's momentum around that night. It is a battle, one on one, and we both know our roles. A victory will spark your team's emotions and foce them to play harder, while a loss can do just the opposite. It is a tough job, but a true fighter relishes that momentum out there and fights for his teammates.

Another notable point is that many of the former players interviewed by Bernstein (admittedly most of them enforcers) believe that fighting is a critical part of keeping the game orderly, because it gives players an informal way of keeping other players in line for behavior that the refs don't notice (or that might not be explicitly illegal). The "instigator rule" which gives extra penalty time to whoever starts a fight comes in for particular criticism on the theory that it interferes with informal dispute resolution resulting in more aggressive play, more injuries, and more heated fights when they happen. I don't know if it's true, but it seems clear that if the NHL really cracked down on fighting effectively, it would dramatically change the strategiy shape of the game.


There is a current trend toward diminishing the role of the enforcer in hockey that has nothing to do with the fighting debate at all. It's a natural evolution of game strategy.

Over the last several years (in particular since the popularization of the neutral zone trap, and the ensuing NHL rule changes) skating speed has become an increasingly important factor in scoring ability. It has become too much of a disadvantage to have a slow line on the ice against an opposing line of fast skaters. Accordingly, enforcers are getting less ice time, and some teams have dropped the role altogether. Just having an enforcer on your line can be a strain against a fast team, because it will increase the ice time of your other non-enforcer lines, and correspondingly, their fatigue levels.

Not surprisingly, the increased emphasis on youth, speed, and agility has led to a less physical game, and fewer fights.

NHL fight statistics.


Fights per regular season game --

1990-91: 0.98

1991-92: 1.00

1992-93: 0.69

1993-94: 0.80

1994-95: 0.84

1995-96: 0.77

1996-97: 0.90

1997-98: 0.82

1998-99: 0.63

1999-00: 0.53

2000-01: 0.58

2001-02: 0.68

2002-03: 0.55

2003-04: 0.67

2004-05: N/A

2005-06: 0.41

2006-07: 0.43 (as of Jan 5 07)

There appears to be a significant drop around 98/99, and then a huge drop after the strike (that's when they legalized two-line passes, among other rule changes).

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