Hockey fights: the 5.5555555…% solution


I’m someone who has been fairly tolerant of the status quo when it comes to hockey fighting, so it might surprise you to hear I have a quik-‘n’-EZ answer to eliminating it. Hockey great/political not-so-great Ken Dryden appears in ESPN piffle-factory Grantland.com today with some intelligent, if stale, reflections on the relationship between head injuries and the game we adore. Dryden goes into nostalgia mode, as the camera dissolves to a shot of the Habs battling the Flyers in the old Forum, and he writes:

Once, hockey players did their own fighting. An elbow to the nose or a slash on the arm, and — big or small, good fighter or not — a player had to right his own wrong. Most players were bad fighters. On their skates, they wrestled, slipped, and flung themselves around. It was vaudeville. Now most fights are between designated fighters. Each such fighter knows what he’s doing, and though usually well-matched enough to be able to protect themselves, these fighters are also skilled enough to hurt each other.

This description is verifiably accurate; it’s not romantic nonsense. What Dryden is describing is specialization. The burden of fighting has almost entirely been taken away from otherwise talented players and loaded onto big SOBs who can’t do anything else well. Which, frankly, takes a lot of the fun out of it, and makes the fighting seem more like a distracting artificial appurtenance.

What change in the game might have accommodated this increasing specialization? The very obvious candidate that almost nobody mentions (though it’s a favourite of Roy MacGregor and of hockey bloggers Tom Benjamin and Tyler Dellow) is increasing roster size. If Dryden had ransacked his memory, he might have recalled that hockey teams weren’t allowed to dress 20 people when he played. In the 1960s, as he was stopping pucks for the Junior B Etobicoke Indians and the Cornell Big Red, the figure was 16 skaters and two goalies. It wasn’t increased to 17+2 until he was already a Canadien, or to 18+2 until he was a lawyer.

Many or most of the true goons in the league are frequently healthy-scratched from games and left to rot in the press box, as things already stand. It’s clear enough that if an 18th player were cut from NHL rosters, the loser would, in many cases, be the “designated fighter”. We know this may be so because, as Dryden hints, the DF didn’t appear in the game until around the time the 18th player was added. The goon’s degree of specialization has, over time, become extreme, like that of a punter in football—and it’s worth noting that we do see football teams doing without punters sometimes, in order to open up a roster spot for some other less esoteric specialist.

The DF is in the game because there is just enough room on rosters for a player with a talent that is radically uncorrelated to the skills the game is designed to express. And without a certain critical mass of DFs, there is no use having one around; they no longer, like Dave Semenko, skate on the same lines as young players who need protection. Their confrontations are staged separate from the real hockey—a tacit admission of their irrelevance to game outcomes (if the substantial absence of fighting from the playoffs weren’t proof enough).

I once imagined we might have seen the advent of the shootout specialist in that 18th roster slot by now. Shootout ability, in contrast with the ability to fight, could not possibly have higher leverage in determining game outcomes. But the shootout—contrary to the complaints of its detractors—turns out to, by and large, reward offensive skills germane to the game’s essence; the guys who are good on the SO are mostly the guys who are pretty decent at scoring anyway.

But even if the shootout were likely to pull particular players into the league who cannot otherwise compete, what players would those be?—ones with devastatingly accurate shots, beautiful decoy moves, creativity, and flair? How loudly could a fan reasonably complain about that? As it is, we’re instead dragging players into the NHL who excel at violence, and it’s not even the graceful violence of a well-executed hip check.


Hockey fights: the 5.5555555…% solution

  1. I read article a few weeks ago and made me think about hockey. 

    Increasing the number of players allowed on roster at first allowed a specialist fighter but I am convinced teams want specialist fighter now, they aren’t necessarily going to disappear if league reduces allowed number of players. 

    When I read description of how fights use to be, I am not surprised NHL owners or GMs want a specialist fighter. Way back when, players were expendable because they were not paid much and could be easily replaced (except for legends like Howe or Richard and the like). Now, even a marginal player can earn millions and teams need to protect assets. 

    Right now, I think only way to reduce fighting is to increase penalties on fighting so substantially that players won’t think it is worth it. In future, we need coaches and other tacticians to create new style of play that doesn’t involve bully boys. 

    Goal website ~ With Signing Of Cesc, Barca Could Begin Next Great Tactical Revolution:

    Arrigo Sacchi, the innovator who coached AC Milan to a pair of European Cups, once declared that the next step in the evolution of football would be the conversion of the entire pitch to one midfield area. The teams at the vanguard of tactical rejuvenation would be able to count on players to line up in a range of positions on the field of play but actually function as midfielders; closing space and passing accurately within their sectors, using the ball intelligently, moving well off it.

    • Vanguard of tactical rejuvenation?

  2. No thanks – move on to the next media outrage please

  3. I suggest high-heeled shoes for women – go

  4. I do wonder if a serious cost were attached to fighting we might see it decrease.
    Perhaps the NHL might trial an immediate game misconduct with an mandatory 3 game suspension without pay attached for every player involved in the altercation.
    Basically every player that drops the gloves gets an immediate game misconduct plus a 3 game suspension, without pay. Teams that have players under a 3 game ‘fighting’ suspension are NOT allowed to dress additional players, the suspended player is counted as a dressed player for the duration of the suspension.

    The NHL would be seen to be seriously addressing the issue, the players would be subject to serious consequences that affected both them personally and the team. The downside is you may see more serious and dangerous checking, but there are rules currently in place to deal with this issue.

    I see it as a win win win win situation, most players do not want to fight, coaches would no longer allow designated fighters to dress for games, fans would see this aspect of the game disappear and the NHL would be actually addressing the issue with an iron fist (so to speak).

    • Fine the team by eating away at the next year’s salary cap and it won’t take long before those cheers from the bench turn into the clicking of calculators.

  5. If the teams were smart, they’d use the Goon slot for a guy like Reggie Leach or Ken Linsman, a tough guy with great playing skills. With luck, it would eventually be a handicap to carry a designated puncher. 

  6. Reducing the roster size is an interesting idea.  How about going one step further and reducing the number of skaters from 5 to 4?  IMO, the development that has generated the most excitement in NHL hockey in the last decade or so has been the introduction of the 4 on 4 overtime period.  The fact OT is “sudden death” is, I think, only partial explanation – equally responsible is that there is simply more open ice for the skilled players to play and correspondingly more risk associated with employing the sort of clutching and grabbing defensive style that often prevails during regulation time.

    Reducing the number of skaters could potentially offset the DF reduction Cosh speculates might occur if rosters are reduced, but I doubt it would – most teams would still want to use up the reduced number of roster spots with fast and skilled players in preference to DFs, whose opportunity to contribute would be further curtailed in games that placed an even higher premium on speed and skill.  Creating more open ice would also result in greater opportunity for highly skilled players who simply lack the size to successfully compete against the Charas and Prongers.

    Alas, a league that still considers “excitement” to be two players racing at full speed toward the end boards to see if one or both can avoid shattering their femurs is highly unlikely to seriously consider any such changes.

Sign in to comment.