In light of the recent rule changes at the OHL level which will see players suspended for fighting more than ten times per season, one wonders if there will be a trickle down effect at the NHL level? The NHL has a history of adopting new rules that were implemented at the Junior level and the feeling is this will be one of them before long.
Over the past 3-4 seasons there has been a considerable change in philosophy by NHL coaches and general managers in how the game is played and what type of players are being employed.
With the game featuring more and more players that bring a measure of speed, skill and creativity to the ice, many pugilist have found themselves unemployed and/or having to reinvent themselves in order to stay with their NHL clubs.
To be fair, there is still a place for tough/grinding players, but with so many teams choosing not to employ the pure fighters the ones that are left have few foes to combat with, which is slowly making their roles absolute.
According to hockeyfights.com, Brandon Prust of the New York Rangers and Shawn Thronton of the Boston Bruins led the NHL with 20 fights apiece last season, followed by Derek Dorset (19 fights) and Jared Boll (18 fights) of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Zenon Konopka of the Minnesota Wild with 18 fights.
Once you get past the top five fighters there is a steady decline with Gregory Campbell of the Boston Bruins rounding out the top 20 with ten fights on the season.
With that in mind, any rule punishing players for having more than ten fights per season would serve to hurt 20-25 players, which is hardly earth shattering.
The 2001-02 season saw a total of 803 fights. Since the lockout in 2004-05, the NHL has seen the number of fights fluctuate from 466 in 2005-06 to 734 in in 2008-09 and down to a ten-year low of 546 fights in 2011-12.
The evidence also shows that the number of games with more than one fight has declined steadily from 172 in 2003-04 to just 98 in 2011-12.
When you consider the overall numbers, combined with the fact that fewer fighters are now employed at the NHL level, it appears as if fighting is slowly on it’s way out. Of course, it would be foolish to think that the NHL will ever be completely void of fighting, but it appears as if the numbers will continue to drop down to the point that we may only see 300-400 fights per season.
With so many fighters weighing in at well over 200 pounds the threat of a life threatening injury is very real. Many of today’s fighters are boxing and/or MMA trained. These are serious heavyweight fighters, who have the power to injure their opponents with one well placed lethal punch.
The thing is, nobody was complaining when fights declined last season. In fact, few fans, if any, really noticed the decline, which begs the question— does the NHL really need fighting?
Many NHL fans have argued over the years that fighting keeps opposing players in check. They argue that without fighting dirty play would run rampant, which would cause an increase in serious injuries. On the other hand, there are fans that feel fighting is nothing more than a sideshow that has no place in hockey and should be abolished.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The NHL needs fighting, what they don’t need are the “staged” fights that often sees two fighters squaring off for no reason other than to spark their team, the effectiveness of which is debatable.
If the fighters are always the ones that have to answer the bell, how does a dirty player ever learn? Where is the accountability?
The truth is, dirty players rarely answer the bell and when they do you typically see them turtle the first chance they get (think Sean Avery).
Employing players to fight the battles of others never stopped a dirty player from hacking a shin, making contact with an opponents head or running over an unsuspecting opposing player. The fact is, more times than not dirty players are not accountable for their actions, at least not in terms of having to fight their own battles.
Recent rule changes have afforded the NHL an opportunity to suspend dirty players like never before. While not a perfect fix, suspensions hit the players when it hurts most— in their pocket books, which in itself is a very effective deterrent.
With headshots becoming a major concern for many NHL clubs, the NHL tweaked the rule book and increased suspensions and fines. Thus far these rule changes have served the NHL well over the past 2-3 seasons, helping to clean up a league that was headed in a very dangerous direction.
Suspensions and fines have combined to do what the fighters could rarely do— keep the dirty players off the ice, which is good for the players and the league.
Is fighting dead in the NHL? No. But the league is headed in the right direction and they are making no apologies for it.
Known as an honest, opinionated and trusted writer, Mark Ritter brings a unique view on the Maple Leafs and the NHL in general. Mark has been writing about hockey for almost ten years and is known for bringing an honest view on the Maple Leafs. You can view more of Mark’s work at www.theslapshot.com
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