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Five for Fighting: An in-depth analysis of fighting in the NHL — Part I

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Part one of a series exploring the effects of fighting in hockey on players, teams, and fans.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Fighting has been associated with hockey for as long as the sport has existed, and why wouldn't the two be related? Hockey is tough and physical, and what better way to further that reputation than by allowing players to engage in an on-ice fight?

But is fighting a necessary part of the sport? As hockey evolves in the modern era, many people are questioning the purpose of two grown men punching each other in the face. The spectacle of losing teeth, getting a black eye and bleeding for one's team continues to be glorified. This glorification covers up the nastier side of NHL pugilism; the substance abuse and brain damage that have affected many current and former enforcers, ultimately leading to numerous tragic deaths in recent years.

Why do fights happen?

In the 2014-15 season, there were 391 total fights in the NHL, with at least one fight taking place in 331 of the 1230 games played; roughly 27% of NHL contests. The number of games with more than one fight is significantly lower, at just 45 games. In total, 276 NHL players dropped the gloves last year, which is the second-lowest total since 2001.

The main narrative about the reason for these fights is that they are started to "gain momentum" for a team. Ross Bernstein has stated in his book, The Code, that fighting occurs as a form of intimidation and retaliation as well. As many hockey fans have witnessed, retaliatory fights can stem from any number of incidents, whether it be an opposing player skating into a goalie or a response to a dirty hit from weeks before.

Let's flash back to 2007. Chris Drury of the Buffalo Sabres takes a shot on net, and has his head down. Enter Chris Neil, who blindsides him and causes him to lay face down on the ice in a pool of his own blood. What followed was several minutes of chaos that added over 100 penalty minutes to the scoresheet.

Going back even further to the late 90s, there wasn't a single game between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche that didn't degenerate into an all-out brawl, this all thanks to Claude Lemieux boarding Kris Draper in the Western Conference Final two years beforehand.

Intimidation, however, is a different narrative altogether, and one that has been thoroughly torn apart over the years. The theory is that the mere presence of an enforcer in a team's lineup will deter opposing players from taking shots at star players for fear of being attacked by a professional fighter. However, there are many anecdotal cases of tough guys not preventing dangerous hits from happening, and they definitely do not prevent dirty opponents from taking liberties with the skilled teammates they are supposed to protect.

Look no further than the infamous Matt Cooke hit on Marc Savard for proof of this. Cooke — a player with a history of questionable play — blindsided Savard with an elbow and ended his career, all of this occurring with noted tough guy Milan Lucic on the ice not 30 feet away.

cooke/savard
Image credit: Copper and Blue

A top enforcer in the NHL was on the ice while this happened, and yet Cooke clearly felt safe enough to throw this incredibly illegal hit on Savard.

From a Habs perspective, we can flash back to the decision to place big George Parros in the lineup for games against the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs in 2013-14. In one of those games against Boston, Brandon Prust was boarded from behind by Shawn Thornton while Parros was on the ice, with Prust ending up the one dropping his gloves in his own defence. What's the point of skating someone as a deterrent if they don't a) fight the other enforcer, or b) stop dirty hits from happening?

Repercussions

The Physical Toll

Hockey is a brutal sport. There is no denying that it takes a heavy toll on the human body. Body checks being thrown, pucks and sticks flying everywhere ... it adds up over time. Fighting, however, adds increased risk to an already high-contact sport. According to Dr. Robert Cantu of Boston University, the average NHL player will suffer a concussion "about once every four fights." A 25% chance that in any given fight a player could suffer irreversible brain trauma, coupled with the fact that most enforcers will fight upwards of 10 times a season, and you've got a recipe for disaster.

The average NHL player will suffer a concussion about once every four fights.

Perhaps even worse are the after-effects that concussions have on the human brain. Former enforcers Bob Probert and Reggie Flemming had their brains studied post-mortem by Boston University. Both showed they suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a degenerative brain disorder.

The Mental Toll

The effects of CTE can be devastating, potentially leading to memory loss, confusion, depression, aggression, and, in severe cases, dementia.

Depression suffered by athletes is coming to light much more often following the tragic deaths of Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, and Derek Boogaard in the summer of 2011. All three were known as tough guys around the league who always stepped up to fight when called upon. All three suffered from depression which could be related to the repeated head trauma brought on by fighting so often.

Former NHL player Jim Thomson recalls having "a steady diet of booze and painkillers to relax." The same lifestyle eventually cost 28-year-old Boogaard his life. Boogaard, like Probert and Flemming, showed signs of CTE when examined, only in a much more advanced state than had been seen previously.

Without even having delved into the statistical side of things, we already have a bleak picture of the effects fighting has on past and present players in the NHL. Personal effects of fighting aside, the statistical implications are just as negative, including how just one player can cost a team multiple wins per season by being in the lineup, as we'll discover in Part II.

Part I: The Personal Impact Part II: The Offensive Impact