The Established Tradition of Fighting in Ice Hockey
Fighting is not uncommon in most amateur and professional sports, but in ice hockey, it's an established tradition. Although players who engage in fights are usually penalized, officials do tolerate fighting during hockey games. Unlike major European leagues, the National Hockey League and most minor professional leagues in North America don't eject players outright for fighting.
Some players consider fighting during games essential for the sport as it allows teams to protect their star players, helps deter other types of rough play, and creates a sense of solidarity among teammates. Another benefit is the fact that fighting is one of the reasons why fans attend games. The majority of fans oppose eliminating fights from professional hockey games.
During the 2010-11 NHL season, there were over 600 fights. Since the 19th century as ice hockey rose in popularity in Canada, fighting had already been integrated into the game. It is believed that physical intimidation and control was encouraged because of the lack of rules at the time. Eventually the emergence of enforcers, those players who protect the puck handlers and fight when necessary, became part of the game.
The NHL began regulating fighting in 1922 when they introduced the five-minute major penalty. This rule prevented players from being ejected from the game and gave referees considerable latitude in determining what constituted a fight and what penalties to impose on the participants.
Enforcer-like players, usually not the most skilled, were signed by teams to help protect and fight for smaller offensive star players. Although their "enforcer" role on a hockey team is not official, their primary function is to deter opposing players from rough play.
One of the many reasons for fights during a hockey game is for retaliation. It can be an immediate response to an on-ice incident or from incidents or actions from past games. Most of the time fights break out between any two opposing enforcers. Sometimes an enforcer will start a fight to build game momentum designed to draw the home crowd into the game and provide a psychological advantage over the opposing team. This is a risky tactic since the momentum can swing the wrong way should the enforcer lose the fight.
Fights may also break out as a form of intimidation. Enforcers try to intimidate opposing players so they will refrain from agitating skilled players. Some enforcers gain such reputations that they are given plenty of space on the ice making it easier for them to score goals. Teams often start fights near the end of the game if they are losing badly and have nothing to lose. Personal rivalries are also reasons why fights occur.
Even though fighting is part of the game, players do follow certain informal rules of etiquette. Enforcers typically only fight each other. Fighting fairly and cleanly is also another important aspect of etiquette. These fairness rules include not wearing equipment that could cause injury to the opposing fighter, such as gloves, masks, face shields, and pulling the opposing fighter's jersey over his head. Both players about to fight must also drop their sticks so they aren't used as weapons. Assaulting referees and linesmen is also not allowed. Breaking these rules of etiquette will result in a player losing the respect of their teammates and fans.
The referee and linesmen have a role in preventing fights throughout a game. They have to manage the game by calling penalties and breaking up scuffles. Most linesmen will allow a fight to run its course for their own safety, unless one player has significantly gained advantage over his opponent. A player is automatically ejected and suspended if he leaves the bench to join a fight or uses a skate or stick as a weapon against another player, or if he commits three major penalties during a game.
Despite the criticism of fighting in ice hockey, it will continue to have a role in the game as well as the crowd's approval.