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Pulling punches: The decline of fighting in the NHL

Why is fighting in the NHL trending down? Insiders cite rules changes, a faster game, more skilled players and even TV's influence

1987 Flyers, Canadiens pregame brawl

The Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens got into a pregame brawl before Game 6 of the Wales Conference Final on May 14, 1987.

Dave Brown already was settled into the cramped visitor’s dressing room at the Montreal Forum after warmups for Game 6 of the 1987 Prince of Wales Conference finals when word filtered in that Flyers teammate Ed Hospodar was involved in a pregame fight with the Canadiens’ Claude Lemieux.

Hospodar had warned Lemieux not to disrespect the Flyers by firing a puck into their net at the end of warmups, as the Montreal pest was wont to do. The Canadiens’ radio broadcast team reported that Hospodar then speared Lemieux as a prelude to one of the most infamous bench-clearing brawls in NHL history.

Several Flyers outraced Brown, a feared fighter who amassed 1,789 penalty minutes in 729 career NHL regular-season games, back onto the ice to confront the Canadiens re-emerging from their dressing room. But not many. Soon enough, Brown, wearing his hockey suspenders and elbow pads but without his orange road jersey or an undershirt, was squared off against Chris Nilan, who ended his 688-game NHL career with 3,043 penalty minutes.

But out of that melee, which delayed the start of the Flyers’ series-clinching 4-3 win on May 14, 1987, came a rulebook change that, in Brown’s opinion, started the NHL on its path to its current state, in which speed and skill are paramount and the old-time enforcer has all but been eliminated from the league.

The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s assertion that “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out” no longer really applies.

“They brought in the rule that if you come off the bench, it’s a 10-game suspension,” said Brown, now a Flyers scout. “That was the first time they made a significant difference in reducing fighting. You were having four, five bench-clearing brawls per season. That totally stopped it.”

Before the 1987-88 season, the NHL instituted Rule 70.1, which stated that players coming off the bench to fight could be suspended for 10 games and fined a maximum of $10,000. Their coach also could be fined.

The NHL took an equally significant step coming out of the 2004-05 owners’ lockout with a mandate for zero tolerance on obstruction, such as hooking and holding. Coupled with eliminating the red line, which allowed for longer stretch passes, speed and skating ability were thrust to the forefront and the slower players whose game relied on physicality and fighting literally could not keep up.

Brown also believes that NBC’s acquisition of the NHL broadcasting rights in 2006 and Comcast’s subsequent merger with NBC Universal in 2011, which expanded the number of outlets to showcase the league, are other factors.

“I think when they took the game to the big stage, that was the best thing that happened to the game. They had all those channels,” Brown said. “They knew they were going to have to reduce fighting to put it out to the masses.”

NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire, who has worked for the network since 2005, said a push to de-emphasize fighting has never come up in any production meeting he’s attended.

Yet regardless of why, there’s no debating that there’s less fighting in the NHL.

“I think if your sole role is to go out and fight, certainly it makes it tougher,” said 6-5, 237-pound Islanders left wing Ross Johnston, who had three goals, three assists, 62 penalty minutes and four fights in 24 NHL games last season. “You have to adapt with the game. You have to work at all the other aspects and get better at actually playing hockey. The fight is one thing, but to play the game is so huge now, and that’s something I take pride in.”

In 2003-04, the last season before the mandate to eliminate the obstruction penalties, there were 0.64 fights per game and 41.14 percent of the 1,230 games featured at least one fight, including 172 with more than one fight and 340 players dropping the gloves at least once, according to hockeyfights.com.

Last season, there were 0.22 fights per game and 17.86 percent of the league’s 1,271 regular-season games had at least one fight. There were 41 games with more than one fight and 265 players racked up at least one fighting major.

Even with more games because the Vegas Golden Knights entered the NHL, all those numbers were down from the previous season, which had 0.30 fights per game, fights in 24.88 percent of the 1,230 games and 55 games with more than one fight. A total of 285 players fought that season.

Yet few around the sport believe fighting will ever be fully eliminated. Nor do most around the sport want to see it eliminated.

“I still think in hockey there’s going to be fights,” said McGuire, who coached the Hartford Whalers from 1993-94. “It’s an enclosed area with no out of bounds and guys are moving at a high rate of speed. There will always be fights but they won’t be staged fights, where guys line up and say, ‘We’re going.’  ”

Islanders right wing Cal Clutterbuck, who had eight goals, 10 assists and 53 penalty minutes, including one fighting major, in 76 games last season, said the threat of somebody fighting is often as good as an actual fight.

“The fights you see now are out of passion, I don’t want to call it anger, but it’s an in-the-moment type of thing, and I think that’s the way it should be,” Clutterbuck said. “I don’t think you can take it out completely because there are things that need to be policed a certain way. Even if fights aren’t happening, there’s still a threat that someone is going to be able to fight.”

“I think it’s still a viable part of the game,” added Butch Goring, the MSG Network Islanders analyst who won four Stanley Cups with the team and coached them from 1999-2001. “I think it keeps everyone honest. We’ve seen teams that have been taken advantage of over the last five years even though there hasn’t been as many fights. I know a lot of people talk about maybe you don’t need it in the game because you don’t see a lot of it in the playoffs, but I just think there’s more stickwork when people aren’t held accountable.”

Another factor is teams now routinely roll all four of their forward lines, again leaving little ice time for a one-dimensional player.

In the days of the Original Six, through 1967, and even through the reign of terror by the Flyers’ “Broad Street Bullies” in the 1970s, teams got by rotating three lines, leaving space on a fourth line for the all-out brawlers.

Still, the tough guy has not completely exited the NHL.  He’s just evolved.

Two examples are the Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds and the Capitals’ Tom Wilson. Both play hockey with a snarl. (Some would say Wilson, currently appealing a 20-game suspension for his hit to the head of the Blues’ Oskar Sundqvist in the preseason, plays with too much snarl too often.)  Wilson, the NHL’s most penalized player since entering the NHL in 2013, was suspended for the fourth time since last September.  Yet both Simmonds and Wilson are skilled enough to play among the top-six forwards.

The 6-4, 218-pound Wilson had 14 goals, 21 assists and 187 penalty minutes last season for the Capitals while playing right wing on the top line with center Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin. His 13 fighting majors tied for second most in the NHL behind the Panthers’ Micheal Haley (22).

Simmonds, 6-2, 185 pounds, has 226 goals, 218 assists and 958 penalty minutes in 762 career regular-season games entering 2018-19. He had three fighting majors last season and a career-high 10 in 2011-12.

“I think the guys that can play and be a little bit of a physical presence are pretty valuable,” said Islanders coach Barry Trotz, who led the Capitals to the Stanley Cup last season. “I had a player like that in my former job that was pretty effective. A lot of teams don’t have that. A lot of teams don’t have an answer and that does have an effect on the other teams. It does discourage guys. There’s not a lot of fighting, but if you can discourage a guy from playing his best, be it with your skill or your tenacity or your physicality, if you can make him change his game, then you’re being pretty effective.”

McGuire, citing the skilled play of superstars such as the Oilers’ Connor McDavid, the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby and Kuznetsov, among others, said, “I don’t think hockey has ever been played better.”

Brown, admittedly “old school,” isn’t so sure. He believes fighting held a strategic place in the NHL.

“Say a team came out flat, you had another way of turning momentum in a game, whereas the way it is now, you can’t do that,” Brown said. “You could scare teams into having some advantage. Human nature is to be afraid if, physically, you’re going to get harmed. We all knew back then if you hit a guy, crushed a guy with a clean check, hurt him, that was an advantage to you.”

At the same time, Brown, 55, can only wonder whether he would have been able to play 13 NHL seasons in the modern era, as he did from 1983-96.

“I don’t know. I might not have been able to play,” Brown said. “My job was so centered around taking care of my team. I went too far to that side. I could have concentrated more on the game, been a better player. I was always thinking about fighting, I was not thinking about the game as much.”

Often in Brown’s era, a wordless tap from a coach was signal enough for an enforcer to hop over the boards and do his job.

“There isn’t a tap anymore,” Johnston said. “The game is played at such high speeds, those hits are going to happen, and when those hits happen, guys are going to hold each other accountable. It’s still there. You’ve got to pick your spots a little better.”

NHL: Drop in dropping the gloves

Games Games with morePlayers

Seasonwith fightsthan one fightwho fought

2000-01469155329

2001-02519172348

2002-03464139321

2003-04506172340

2004-05   (Lockout season)

2005-0635780276

2006-0738487292

2007-08473143324

2008-09509173355

2009-10493171341

2010-11458117348

2011-1242398321

2012-1326466245

2013-1436678288

2014-15                33145276

2015-16                28850269

2016-1730655285

2017-1822741265

SOURCE: hockeyfights.com

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