Death of the Enforcer: 4 Reasons Why Fighting In Hockey Should be Banned

By Ben Krieger & Sommer Stein (Students of Haverford College)

NHL hockey is synonymous with fighting. To fully understand how fighting has become a staple in hockey, the only sport in which it is not totally against the rules, the lens must be turned towards the foundation of the sport hockey itself. The first hockey game was played in 1875 by groups of English Canadian rugby players looking for a winter sport to play. Initially the game was played exclusively by the English and Scottish elite. Within the first 20 years, it became more accessible to the public. It was over the course of this transition that fighting and hockey became inseparable. Hockey clubs were backed by various ethnic groups, creating a gang-like atmosphere. This bread a physical game that combined soccer, rugby, and a lot of improvisation, which was governed by British ideas of self governance and fair play. In its early years stick slashes were frequent, and there are reported cases from the late 19th century and early 20th century of players dying on the ice from these concussive blows to the head. Fist fights were seen as a release valve, preventing escalation to head hunting stick swings, and the first rule governing fist fights was created in 1922 by Rule 56, describing penalizing actions such as removing gloves and throwing a punch (NHL Rule Book). Ever since hockey and fighting has been inseparable. Up until the 1960’s there was on average one fight for every 5 games, a rate that reached its zenith in the ‘87-’88 seasons, when there was 1.3 fights per game. The current number has leveled out to about one fight in every 4 games.

Here we present four reasons why it is finally time for the NHL to abolish fighting.

  1. Hockey fights are illegal in European leagues, the Olympics, at the collegiate level, and in Women’s leagues

The NHL and some of its subsidiaries are the only leagues in the world that condone fighting. While fighting is punished by ejection and often suspension in collegiate hockey and European professional leagues, in the NHL, fighting does not result in ejection, but rather a five minute penalty that does not affect the number of skaters on the ice. By abolishing fighting, the NHL brand of hockey would simply emulate the rest of the hockey world. More broadly, fighting in the NHL reflects how American sports tend to value violence as much as athletic achievement. As long as violence and fighting are condoned in hockey they will be seen as acceptable and enviable by its fan base, perpetuating a cultural acceptance towards violence and aggressive behavior.

2. The economics of removing fighting

Another argument for the continued ‘legality’ of hockey fights is viewed through the lens of an economic cost/benefit analysis. The argument states that if fighting is banned in hockey, similar to how it is banned in every other professional sports league in the US, then fans will be less interested in the games, fewer will buy tickets to watch games in person, and the club will make less money; fighting is a money making aspect of the game from the eyes of the ownership. A number of studies have been conducted, looking at the difference of cost for the club between NHL “Enforcer” vs a traditional 4th line wing player, and league cost for continuing to allow fist fights to occur. These studies show that it costs the club more to pay an ‘enforcer’ than a traditional 4th line wing player. However, fight promotion in hockey is not a profit maximizing strategy, and while older studies may show contrasting results, in the last decade there has been a shift in economic value of fights. In dollar values, enforcers who win fights are paid a wage premium of $13,921, compared that to the wage premium per point scored, $10930, showing a $2,991 PER FIGHT incentive. This wage premium is part of the hockey player’s contract, as negotiated by the Professional Hockey Player Union, introducing the intriguing idea that the players union is well aware of the premiums of fighting and demand higher pay for fights than skilled play to a certain degree. At the end of the day, hockey sells physical play just as much as goals and skilled play. The league pays their enforcers more per fight than for comparable skilled players per point (an assist) and they advertise this physicality to hopefully offset the negative impact fighting has as a profit maximizing strategy. It is one of the few cases in which a league rule puts the fans interest before player safety, jeopardizing both the short term and long term health of their players.

3. Fighting may lead to traumatic brain injuries

While the data remains limited, there is some evidence suggesting that fighting may lead to chronic traumatic brain injury in hockey players. Similar to football and the NFL, it is believed that repeated contact to the head can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE has been found in a handful of hockey players, many of them former enforcers. By continuing to allow fighting, the NHL is putting the long term health of its players at risk of chronic traumatic brain injuries. It is one example of how the NHL is valuing entertainment and a masculine-driven culture over the safety of its own players.

4. Fighting does not affect attendance

One of the primary arguments among proponents of fighting is that it attracts fans. However, over the last two decades, the prevalence of fighting has decreased while attendance has actually increased. In the 2015–2016 season, there were 0.28 fights per game, which is the lowest ratio since the 1967–1968 season. In fact, the number of fights per game has been generally decreasing since its apex of 1.31 in the 1987–1988 season. Meanwhile, attendance has remained relatively constant during the decline in fighting. For example, the average NHL game attendance for the 2015–2016 season was 17,548 people, which shows a slight increase over the previous season and a 4% increase over the previous 10 years (ESPN). It is clear that fans are continuing to attend games despite less incidence of fights, demonstrating shifting fan attitudes towards the once revered hockey tradition.