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" I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out."

- Rodney Dangerfield

You hit the puck with your stick, you try to score, you block shots. And you fight, literally.

Black artist Barkey L. Hendricks' painting of black people dressed in white

The Daily British Whig of Kingston, Ontario, reported, “Shins and heads were battered, benches smashed and the lady spectators fled in confusion.”

Ice hockey has its roots way back in the XIX century, when it was found evidence of a hockey-like game, played in the early 1800s in Nova Scotia by the Mi’kmaq (Micmac) Indians. They appear to have been heavily influenced by the Irish game of hurling, which included the use of a “hurley” (stick) and a square wooden block instead of a ball.

But it wasn’t until 1875 that hockey made its official appearance. The first recorded public indoor ice hockey game, whose rules had largely been borrowed from field hockey, took place in Montreal’s Victoria Skating Rink between two teams of McGill University students. Since the very beginning, this sport got a reputation for being violent. During one of its first matches, The Daily British Whig of Kingston, Ontario, reported, “Shins and heads were battered, benches smashed and the lady spectators fled in confusion.”

In North America, fighting in ice hockey is an established tradition of the sport, with a long history of amateur and professional play that includes some notable individual fights and has stayed a part of this sport since it's risen popularity in 19th century Canada. Experts and professionals have tried to explain the reasons behind this peculiar tendency to fighting and – most important - the reason why it has been accepted as part of the game across its entire history. Some say that the relative lack of rules in the early history of hockey encouraged physical intimidation and control. Others take account of the social background of Canada in the 19th century, considering its poverty and high crime rates. Fighting was actually encourgaed due the implementation of some features such as the blue lines in 1918, that increased the level of physical play. Creation of the blue lines allowed forward passing, but only in the neutral zone. Therefore, puck handlers played at close quarters and were subject to a great deal of physical play. The emergence of enforcers, who protected the puck handlers and fought when necessary, followed shortly thereafter.

In order to somehow handle this agressive tendencye of the game, the NHL (US National Hockey League, by far the most attended and popular ice hockey league in the world) introduced in 1922 the crucial Rule 56: rather than order players off the field, as was the usual practice in amateur and collegiate hockey, where players would be given a five-minute major penalty (ouch!). Nowdays fighting is governed under Rule 46 in the NHL rulebook, but be careful not to be too well-mannered: referees are still allowed considerable latitude in determining what exactly constitutes a fight and which penalties are applicable to the participants. Surprisingly enough - unique among North American professional team sports - the National Hockey League (NHL) and most minor professional leagues in North America do not eject players outright for fighting (although they may do so for more flagrant violations as part of a fight). For the record, major European Leagues, the Olymipcs games and collegiate hockey leagues do send players off for fighting, and multi-game suspensions may be added on top of the ejection, although European Leauges and international competitions are no stranger to brawls ( for further infos: Punch-up in Piestany). Therefore, the vast majority of fights occur in the NHL and other North American professional leagues.

Back to our storyline, records show that although fighting was rarer from the 1920s through the 1960s, it was often brutal (author Ross Bernstein said about ice hockey's early years that it "was probably more like rugby on skates than it was modern hockey.").

During the 1970s and 1980s, violence during hockey games peaked (if you're interested, go check Good Friday Massacre or the Colorado Avalanche–Detroit Red Wings brawl) and the league was forced to take some countermeasures: in 1971, it created the "Third Man In" Rule, which attempts to eliminate the bench-clearing brawl by providing for the ejection of the first player who joins a fight already in progress, unless a match penalty is being assessed to a player already engaged in that fight. Another rule automatically suspends the first player from each team that leaves the bench to join a fight when it is not their shift. In 1992, the "Instigator" Rule, which adds an additional two-minute minor penalty to the player who starts a fight, was introduced. Although mainly captivating the US leagues and despite the bans, fighting in ice hockey is well known also in Europe and international competitions (for further info: Punch-up in Piestany).

Almost one century and a half have passed since the first game in Montreal, and rules and regulation have changed along with cultural and social perception, in hockey as well as in our societies. During the last 20 years, many voices have raised in the effort of banning violence from the game. Sports journalists have articulated the idea that fighting does not bring a positive contribution to the sport and should be banned and they are not alone, since various politicians and hockey figures have also expressed opposition to fighting. Community members often become involved in the debate over banning fighting, but somehow it remains a significant part of the game: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, at a 2007 press conference broadcast on CBC Sports, said, "Fighting has always had a role in the game ... from a player safety standpoint, what happens in fighting is something we need to look at just as we need to look at hits to the head. But we're not looking to have a debate on whether fighting is good or bad or should be part of the game."

Since the start of the 2016–17 season, the American Hockey League imposed a fighting major counter: a player who collects ten major penalties for fighting during the season will be suspended for one game, and will be suspended for one game for each fighting major for the next three penalties (the 11th, 12th, and 13th fighting majors). A player will be suspended two games for his 14th and subsequent major penalty for fighting. If one player involved in a fight is charged with an instigator penalty, the opponent will not have the fighting major count towards suspension. The ECHL added the rule in 2019-20.

Nevertheless, in collective consciousness, hockey and fighting still have a strong bond. No surprise that Steve Miner in the classical horror/slasher movie Friday the 13th Part III chose a particular garment for the dreadful main character of the entire franchise, one that became iconic: a hockey goalie mask.


- Jim Murray

Article by

Fabio Amati


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