Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

LITKE: NHL Knocks Out Fighting Tradition

Fighting is undoubtedly ingrained in the National Hockey League’s identity. Seen as just another part of the game to many, the age-old tradition of dropping the gloves has become a significant part of hockey culture. However, the once-glorified practice is under fire.

In a game as physical and fast-paced as ice hockey, the potential to get hurt and to hurt others is high. This is where many feel fighting plays an important regulatory role. Throughout NHL history, players who took liberties on others were subject to being embroiled in a fight. The aptly named “enforcers” of the NHL have traditionally been in charge of dealing out this punishment. What these players lacked in skill they made up for in size, strength and intimidation.
As the NHL enters the 2014-2015 season, there is a noticeable lack of enforcers on each team. Even the Philadelphia Flyers, known for their physical play and penchant for fighting, do not have one. This is emblematic of hockey’s recent shift away from the controversial act of fighting.

Since the 2004-2005 lockout, the NHL has operated under a strict salary cap. Teams cannot spend over a predetermined amount in yearly salaries. For many teams, enforcers were seen as disposable under such a system. Their salary could be better spent on more skilled players.

The salary cap era has also seen an active opposition to fighting from league officials. The NHL has actively tried to shift its identity away from violence in favor of the increased speed and skill of the modern game.

After the lockout, the NHL adopted the instigator rule. If a player instigates a fight without clear consent from their opponent, an two extra penalty minutes will be given to the instigator. This rule significantly changed the nature of fighting in the game; there was a noticeable shift away from spontaneous or retaliatory fights.

The instigator rule rendered enforcers even more expendable. After the lockout, enforcers struggled to intimidate opponents as players simply refused to fight them. Instead, enforcers were relegated to fighting each other — a practice that seemed unnecessary.

Many supporters of fighting resent the instigator rule. They argue that if players have to consent to fights then they can evade accountability for their actions. In other words, they fear that players can get away with cheap shots without having to face the physical consequences of the past. The NHL has stuck by this rule, however, arguing that the NHL’s discipline system can serve to reduce cheap shots in a controlled manner.

Proponents of the new rule changes cite the growing concern for player safety.

In 2011, the tragic deaths of two NHL enforcers raised some serious questions about fighting. New York Rangers forward Derek Boogaard died from an apparent overdose on pain medication. Over the course of his NHL career he had developed a serious addiction to a variety of pills. Vancouver Canucks forward Rick Rypien struggled with clinical depression throughout his fighting career and took his own life.

These deaths served as a scary reminder of the physical and mental consequences of fighting and fueled significant backlash against the practice. The NHL is under pressure to prevent such tragedies from repeating.

There have been tangible results that suggest the NHL is rapidly moving away from its fighting culture. Before the 2004-2005 lockout, the NHL averaged 0.64 fights per game. Last season, there were only 0.38 fights per game.

With a significant reduction in fighting, the NHL now faces a complicated decision. Should it take the next step and abolish fighting completely? Evidence suggests that this may be difficult. Many still feel fighting still plays a necessary role in regulating the game — including those affected most. A 2012 survey of the National Hockey League Players’ Association revealed that 98 percent of NHL players do not think fighting should be abolished from the game.

It is likely that this debate will continue on for the foreseeable future. Thus, as players continue to drop the gloves, it is imperative for the NHL to do its best to protect its players. If fighting must exist, it is the NHL’s responsibility to make sure that lives are not in jeopardy.

Daniel Litke is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Capitals Hill appears every Friday.

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