COLUMBUS, Ohio — Modern hockey is fast and modern medicine now knows that too many hits to the head is a major concern. Both of those developments have made the role of the “enforcer” on hockey teams increasingly unnecessary. So why does fighting in hockey persist? Proponents argue that fights deter greater violence and cheap shots, but researchers from The Ohio State University say that’s not actually true.
Study authors found the exact opposite: NHL teams and players that fight more often are responsible for a disproportionate number of violent penalties across the league.
“The issue of fighting is polarizing within the hockey community and for casual fans. As a former hockey player and a researcher, I wanted to see if the arguments in support of fighting held up,” says study author Michael Betz, an associate professor of human sciences and a former goalie at Ohio State, in a university release. “What I found was that not a single approach I tried yielded any evidence that fighting or even the threat of fighting deters more violent play in the NHL.”
Study authors add that this work is especially pressing due to new medical insights on traumatic brain injuries. So, is settling a score on the ice or trying to swing the momentum in a game worth a brain injury?
“Fighting increases the risk of TBIs but isn’t essential to hockey and removing it wouldn’t fundamentally alter the sport,” Prof. Betz notes.
Fights are on the decline in hockey
Researchers analyzed data covering all regular season NHL penalties between 2010 and 2019. They separated penalties into two categories: tactical (intended to give a player a strategic advantage) and violent (attempting to intimidate or injure an opponent).
Examples of violent penalties include elbowing, boarding, charging, roughing, and major interference penalties. According to Prof. Betz, if fighting was really a deterrent, it would lower the number of violent penalties potentially injuring players.
To be fair, fighting has declined considerably in the NHL over the past decade. In comparison to the 2010-11 season, the 2018-19 season had 65 percent fewer fights per game. Many attribute the decline to a general shift in how the game is played at the NHL level. Players are younger, faster, and more skilled than ever before. Most big bruisers can’t keep up.
However, if fighting really is a deterrent, shouldn’t there have been a big increase in violent penalties over the past decade? In reality, researchers report the opposite occurred. Penalties in general declined in the NHL over the past 10 years, but violent penalties have dropped more than twice as fast (25%) as tactical penalties (12%).
What about the argument that fighting is necessary to discourage cheap shots aimed at stars and top six forwards? Another analysis focusing on the team level revealed that fighting does not protect a team’s players from violent play. Once again, the opposite held true. Every single additional fight a team engaged in was linked to more violent penalties against them.
“If anything, fighting seemed to encourage more violence against teams that were involved in brawls,” Prof. Betz comments.
In-game analyses returned similar results. Study authors report the number of violent penalties increased in a given game following a fight. As far as team rivalries throughout a season, the study also found that a fight between two teams early in a season did little to reduce the number of violent penalties recorded between two clubs in the second game.
The end of the enforcer?
Countless old-school hockey fans (and executives) will tell you that every NHL team needs an enforcer to discourage violent play. So, Prof. Betz decided to analyze the three players who tied for most fights (6) in the 2018-19 season and a player who had one fewer fight (5) that season.
Sure enough, having those top fighters in a team’s lineup had no statistically significant effect on the number of violent penalties incurred by their opponents.
Perhaps fighting did deter more violence once upon a time in the NHL, but Prof. Betz believes it no longer has a place in the modern NHL.
“The league may have other reasons why they want to keep fighting in the game – there is some evidence that more fights increase fan attendance at games,” he says. “But they should just come out and say that and not hide behind the deterrent effect, because there is no evidence for it.”
Prof. Betz is especially concerned about junior hockey leagues in both the U.S. and Canada. These youth leagues are the main training ground for teenage players hoping to one day play in college, the AHL, and the NHL. These junior leagues, following the lead of the NHL, continue to allow fighting.
“These younger players aren’t getting paid, and their developing brains are more vulnerable to traumatic brain injuries. The evidence shows fights are not protecting them from other violence, so there is a real ethical issue here in allowing fighting to continue,” the researcher concludes.
The study is published in PLoS ONE.