W5/TSN investigation reveals decline in fighting is changing the good old hockey game
Chad Derrick, W5 Producer
Published Friday, March 10, 2017 3:32PM EST
Fighting has been a part of hockey since its earliest days.
It achieved particular prevalence in the 1970s, when NHL teams carried specialized enforcers -- otherwise known as goons -- to protect skilled players and stir up emotional momentum for their teams and the crowd.
Strategically-staged fighting was a mainstay of the NHL for decades.
However, an analysis of hockey statistics by TSN and W5 shows that, in recent years, the incidence of hockey fighting has dropped dramatically at all levels.
Fighting in the NHL reached its peak in the late 1980s with an average of more than one fight per game. That has now dropped to less than one fight, every three games. Staged fighting -- and goons -- is gone.
The reasons for the decline are varied and complex. They include rule changes- - to penalize fight instigators -- and others to open up the game to speedy and skilled players.
Labour negotiations after the 2004-05 lockout led to a salary cap and resulting budget restrictions for teams that have made one-dimensional enforcers expendable. Increased awareness about the dangers of concussions and the effects of head trauma on fighters further eroded the public’s tolerance for fighting.
But the main impetus for change in the NHL may be rooted to policy and culture shifts in junior hockey -- where most players are still in their teens. The 60-team Canadian Hockey League (CHL) is the primary feeder system to the pros.
Changes to the junior game have been most pronounced in the Ontario Hockey League, or OHL. Since the 1980s, that league has introduced rules to increase player safety and reduce fighting. These have included suspensions to players who fought more than 10 times.
At the start of this current season, that suspension threshold was changed to three fights. Overall, the incidence of fighting in the OHL has seen a striking decline, from an average of two fights per game in the late 1990s to less than one fight every three games now.
Experts say the impact of this reduction to fighting will affect the NHL with what they call the “trickle up effect.” If the boys aren’t being encouraged to fight, they likely won’t be doing it as grown men.
So, while spontaneous fighting is still part of the junior and pro game, its overall decline may portend something bigger -- fighting’s eventual demise.