Hockey Central

Fighting and Hockey

Its Part of the Game!?

The historic Royal York Hotel in Toronto was the scene; a speech to a business audience on the future of NHL hockey in Canada was the subject; the day was April 15, 1998, on the eve of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The guest speaker: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

While the speech to the Canadian Club was a prelude to a presentation less than two weeks later by the six Canadian-based NHL clubs to the Parliamentary Sub-Committee on Sport on a matter that has sparked considerable debate in recent years – namely the future viability of NHL teams in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver – the audience of more than 400 people was most interested in what transpired towards the very end of Bettman's presentation.

Following his speech, Bettman took a few questions from the audience on a variety of subjects. The final question touched a cord that has been the subject of numerous debates and discussions throughout the course of the NHL's 80-plus years.

The inquisitor wanted to know what the league intended to do about fighting in hockey.

Without hesitation, Bettman proceeded to stun the audience by asking for a show of hands as to who in the audience wanted to keep fighting in the NHL and who wished to have it eliminated. The result of the informal poll? Approximately half of the gathering in the room were for fighting and the other half wished to see it eliminated.

The room was polarized: Canadian television network executives voted both for and against its abolishment; executives from some of the country's biggest corporations also were split on fighting's value; members of the fifth estate – some for and some against; and most importantly, some of the most knowledgeable hockey fans in the world were also divided as to what place, if any, fighting should hold in their beloved game.

The Royal York Hotel has been the sight of dozens of NHL owners' meetings since the first time they gathered at the historic building in the heart of Canada's biggest city in 1929. It is safe to day though, that none of the business they have transacted down through the years generated more public interest than Bettman's straw poll conducted on the spur of the moment that April afternoon.

That people were divided on the issue of fighting in hockey should come as little surprise. A question posed to thousands of hockey fans in a league-commissioned market survey throughout Canada and the U.S. during the same month as Bettman's speech asked the question – Is there too much fighting in the NHL? The results: 13 percent of the respondents said there is too little fighting; 39 percent said that there is too much fighting and 48 said that there was neither too little or too much fighting in the game.

Such is the delemma that has faced the leaders of the game for more than 80 years. What would the effect of eliminating fighting in today's game have on the league? Would some of the fans who buy tickets to the games be inclined not to do so? Would the game become even more popular among hard core fans as well as attract untold numbers of new fans without fighting?

To illustrate the effect of a fluctuation in the attendance of a sport that derives more than 60 percent of its revenue from ticket sales, a five percent fluctuation in attendance either way would mean untold millions in either revenue or losses. The upside would no doubt be terrific for all concerned, but how many franchises could live with the opposite result?

It is a question that has been asked since the beginning of hockey's time. But also one that is unanswerable. There are persuasive arguments on both for and against fighting – and for that reason it remains a part of the game.

To be sure, people entrusted with looking out for the best interests of the game have not stood still on the issue of rules to curb fighting. In the 1970s, for example, the more "tough guys" a team had the better off it was. For some teams, they couldn't have enough tough guys. Clearly, this has changed in the 1990s. There are some teams today that don't have a player whose principal role is to be a fighter on the roster. The pure fighter is fading out of the NHL as teams think that they are better off with a good fourth-line checker than using an enforcer.

One of the two strictest pieces of legislation in this regard was adopted in 1987 when the league took steps to eliminate bench-clearing brawls, an element of the game in which fans seemed to be united in their distaste. (The others substantive change was the "third man in rule.")

To hockey fans, the 1970s are probably best remembered as much for two teams – "the Big Bad Bruins" and "the Broad Street Bullies" – as for a Montreal Canadians club which put together a streak of four straight Stanley Cup championships from 1976 to 1979. The Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers each won two Stanley Cup titles immediately prior to the Canadians' run and helped to popularize the art of intimidation through fisticuffs.

The Bruins and, subsequently, the Flyers of the 1970s were two of the all-time best at intimidating their opposition. Teams hated to play them because they knew that they would be punished. Just as today's NHL where 30 clubs attempt to copy the style of the time Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils, so too did teams begin to employ in the 1970s the lumbering hockey player who could meet the challenge of a Bruin or a Flyer.

While the league averaged only one fight for every two games played (versus today's game which sees one fight for every 1.5 games played), the issue of fighting received much attention due to the frequency with which bench clearing brawls would occur. It was not uncommon for all players to leave their benches during the course of a game in the 1970s and take part on a brawl that could last up to 20 minutes.

In late 1975, the public attention to fighting and brawling reached a fever pitch when then Ottawa Attorney General Roy McMurtry got into the act by threatening to charge NHL players with assault for their actions on the ice. He did just that on five occasions in the span of two years.

McMurtry defended his position at the time: "A hockey player can't get away with something on the ice if the tactics which he employs would cause him to face arrest out on a city street."

The league's reaction to the Attorney General's attempt to make use of the courts to police the NHL was summed up by then president Clarence Campbell in May, 1976: "The hockey of today is patsy compared to what it was in the days of the six-team NHL. The increased coverage via television and the expansion throughout the U.S. has placed it more in the spotlight. I still believe that is it up to the NHL to police its own game."

While Campbell would not admit to the role that McMurtry would play in ridding the game of some of the brawling, it seemed more than a little ironic that less than 12 months after McMurtry laid charges against several Philadelphia Flyers following a multi-player brawl during a playoff game in April 1976 in Toronto, the league adopted its "third man in" rule which called for the removal of a player from a game who became involved in a fight already in progress between two other players.

The adoption of this rule was seemingly the league's first admission that the game had been debased by the deliberately intimidating tactics of some players through the first half of the 1970s.

Bench-clearing brawls continued to escalate in numbers in the early 1980s before the league adopted a series of rule changes, culminating in 1987-88 with a piece of legislation that has effectively eliminated bench-clearing brawls from the game. That rule sees a 10-game suspension to the first player to leave the bench to start or join a fight. The second player to leave the bench from either team is slapped with a five game suspension. While the league has had to suspend more than a dozen players since for 10 games, it is also true that the league has not had a bench-clearing brawl since 1987.

Bench clearings were also a significant part of the league's early era. In his description of an October 1950 game between the Canadians and the Bruins, the Boston Globe's Herb Ralby wrote: "Hockey fans must have thought they came to the Garden on the wrong night. 'Sugar' Ray Robinson was introduced between the first and second periods. He heads the fight card at the Garden tonight against Joe Rindonr. But the 10,984 fans who came to see the season's local hockey opener last night at the Depot rink could justifiably have expected him to climb into the rink after watching the wild third period brawl."

"A dozen players, seven Bruins and five Canadians staged the biggest donnybrook on Garden ice since Christmas night 1930, when the entire squads of the Bruins and the defunct Philadelphia team paired off in slugging bees all over the ice. It was the wildest brawl in the NHL, according to Canadians coach Dick Irvin, since 1936 when 32 Toronto and Detroit players battled on Detroit ice in a Stanley Cup final."

One of hockey's greatest myths is that each club needs at least one roster spot to protect the star player on their team and give him the maximum amount of room on the ice in which to operate effectively without feeling intimidated. Marty McSorley has made a career of providing one of the game's greatest players, Wayne Gretzky, with the room to showcase his skills, first with the Oilers and then with the Kings. "Without fighting, you would increase those guys who don't look at themselves as being finesse players," he told the Los Angeles Daily News. "They try to intimidate your goal scorers through harassment. Your tough guys don't bother your goal scorers... The tough guys monitor the goal scorers and the tough guys get rid of the gnats; get rid of the annoying guys who slow the game down."

The most concerted effort to eliminate fighting in the NHL took place in the period from June to August 1992. The matter was supposed to be on the agenda of the league's Board of Governors annual meeting in June, but the resignation of NHL preseident John Zieglar at that meeting led to the matter being tabled in August.

In the interim period, a great public debate raged among owners, general managers and coaches as each side – the abolitionists and the proponents of fighting – lobbied for public support. At issue, should the league adopt a rule that would remoce a player from a game should he become involved in a fight. Two position papers were prepared by groups conprised od owners and general managers – one supporting fighting; the other, opposing it. The very public debate proved to be one of the most divisive chapters in NHL history as arguments from both sides found their way into the media.

The report of the anti-fighting group stated, "We have huge revenue growth potential with television in the United States. But until fighting is prohibited, cashing in on this opportunity will never happen."

The pro-fighting group, not surprisingly, drew an entirely different conclusion: "There is a common misconception that the NHL cannot attract a national TV contract as a result of fisticuffs. Yet Molson, who is a franchise holder, a TV producer and a rightsholder wants fisticuffs in the game."

On the issue of the league's growth potential outside North America, both sides were also diametrically opposed. The anti-fighters: "European hockey absolutely does not allow fighting. Asian audiences will not accept systematic violence in team sports. Do we think that we will ever really expand into these markets as long as we allow fighting?"

The supporters of fighting thought so. "While the NHL has adopted many things from the European game that are good. Europeans have adopted the physical part of the NHL games. There are bigger, stronger Europeans joining the NHL every year."

The essence of the debate was crystallized in the following opposing stances: "The pro-fighting side wrote: The North American psychology in sports favors the man who stands up for himself. He is applauded if he confronts a wrong. The issue comes down to what kind of a confrontation is desirable. Hockey players carry weapons [sticks]. Is the player who is frustrated by illegal tactics to respond with an accepted, safe and natural release of emotions through fisticuffs or is he to resort to stickwork?"

The abolitionists added: "hockey players are quality young men who have a tarnished image because of the public's perception that hockey is a sport with an accepted code of violence. We need to market our hockey players as gifted athletes – not bullies."

Finally, the debate dealt with the economics of fighting. Those who supported fighting wrote: "The NHL plays to 92 percent of capacity. This indicates that season-ticket holders, the casual fans, and sports fans in general like the game as it is. This is a business. With player salaries and costs increasing exponentially some member clubs are riding a tenous line between fiscal failure and success. This is not the time to experiment. Elimination of fisticuffs may be a disaster.... and once removed will be impossible to reinstate without a media backlash."

The anti-fighting group responded by asking several crucial questions: "How many more potential fans stay away because of the fighting? Another key question we would ask is, 'Do we actually think fans would stop coming to the hockey games because we abolish fighting?' We feel we open the sport up to many more new fans and families by eliminating the single most negative factor in our game today – the fighting."

It is an endless cycle of counter-balancing argument. The trend in the NHL through the 1980s and 1990s has been to increase penalties for dangerous play like checking from behind and careless stickwork. These eliminate some of fighting's familiar flashpoints. But as we go forward – in the absence of any one resonant event that turns fans, broadcasters and advertisers against fisticuffs – gloves, on occasion, are likely to continue to drop in the NHL.