The Emergence of the Superstar: Hockey’s New Enforcer
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The fast-paced, intense playing style with skill and physicality mixed throughout is the focal point of hockey’s appeal. This intensity gives way to hits, occasionally resulting in fights, and hockey’s physical reputation. While fighting was never in the original rulebook for hockey, it makes sense that it made an entrance into the NHL rather quickly.
In hockey’s history, fighting has neither been legal or illegal. Referees may not catch all penalties, so fighting regulations are in place if a major hit or injury occurs. The current commissioner, Gary Bettman, encourages fighting, believing the popularity resulting from said fights outweighs the major health risks and the hindrance of the game’s development.
Bettman’s sentiment with this popularity is not unsupported. Hockey’s popularity saw a surge when the sport’s physicality increased. The Broad Street Bullies, the nickname for the Philadelphia Flyers in the early 1980s, began dealing their bruising physicality onto other teams at the time. The New York Islanders, led by a physical presence in Denis Potvin, went on to win four straight cups in the early ‘80s. Wayne Gretzky, dubbed the Great One, who is arguably the greatest player in hockey history, was surrounded by enforcers ready to protect him from the Broad Street Bullies and the Bob Proberts of the game. Gretzky, known for his speed and skill, even fought several times in his career, demonstrating how physical hockey was in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Connor McDavid, the world’s best hockey player right now, has never, and likely will never, start a physical altercation in his career. The reason for this likeliness lies in the dangers presented by fighting. The mental and physical impacts of fighting can be seen in Derek Boogaard’s untimely death resulting from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) suffered from repeated blows to the head. Boogaard’s death shocked the hockey world and the sports world alike, but his death was not an unprecedented incident for the NHL. Many fourth-line fighters like Boogaard have passed away from CTEs, and many others have suffered from depression as well as severe anger and aggression issues. Probert, known for his fighting prowess and physical dominance, was knocked unconscious from a fight. Garrett Klotz, a minor league player, had seizures and was forced to undergo surgery to “reconstruct his face.” The dangers of fighting have long been brushed aside for their rarity, but it’s clear that fighting has a major impact on a player’s life, both physically and psychologically.
The dangers of fighting could be mitigated by the positive effects of fighting. Only, there are none. While fights were a major contributor to hockey’s popularity surge in the ‘70s, they no longer belong in the sport. Over the past decades, fighting’s frequency has nosedived, demonstrating the new emphasis being placed on a skill-dominated sport, flaunting fast, creative players like Auston Matthews and McDavid. Fighting’s presence in the sport prevents this evolution from continuing as fights slow down the game’s tempo and take opportunities away from smaller yet skilled players. For example, Martin St. Louis, who stands at 5’8”, played a slippery and quick game, using his small size to his advantage, and remains an outlier in the league’s history. Many players like St. Louis, small yet incredibly skilled, have missed playing opportunities because of safety concerns arising from fighting. Take away fighting from the league, and the freedom of players expands, followed by more highlight-reel goals. Creativity grows, and the sport promises more big-name players dominating the league, as seen in the NBA and NFL. Today, the NHL’s superstars are just those, superstars, because of their rarity. Andrei Svechnikov’s Michigan goal, McDavid’s end-to-end rushes, and Matthews’s stunning overtime winners become more commonplace as fighting decreases. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, currently a top-five team in the league, were built on skill, not size or physicality. Their general manager, Kyle Dubas, is a big believer in drafting impact players, players with clear talent, not those who can throw a hit or are generally larger.
Similar to the effect of fights, the increase in skilled players has seen a correlating increase in the NHL’s popularity. Take the Carolina Hurricanes from Raleigh, a city in North Carolina not particularly known for its hockey. The Canes built a team centered around their star winger, Svechnikov, which has played off stunningly for them. The season before Svechnikov’s arrival, the Canes ranked dead last in season ticket sales. Just after his rookie season finished, the Canes saw their season ticket memberships increase by 292 percent. The entrance of a big-name superstar, specifically Svechnikov, saw the Hurricanes garner more fans than ever and suddenly rise to third in the league this past season. This sentiment of star players bringing in fans is echoed in the Florida Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov, the New York Rangers’ Artemi Panarin, and the New York Islanders’ Mat Barzal (and previously John Tavares). The NHL’s major problem lies not in the decrease in fights, but in the lack of superstar quantity, influenced by the continued presence of fighting in the league. In fact, according to The Hockey News, there was an increase in attendance as fights decreased and vice versa. So, Bettman’s belief that fighting leads to increased popularity is incorrect. The cost of Bettman’s ignorance had led to star players, or impact players, as Kyle Dubas calls them, being left out of the league in favor of enforcers who have much lower impacts on the game.
The momentum added by fighting was a major contributor to the increased popularity during the Broad Street Bullies’ reign. But fights don’t contribute to a team’s success. Georgetown University’s study found that a fight-winning team is more likely to concede the next goal. Georgetown’s Xavier Weisenreder’s research found that “there is no evidence that winning a fight leads to better results in the immediate aftermath of the fight.” He also concluded that a fight is worth 1/80 of a win in a given game (contrast this to a goal being worth one-fifth of a win). The lack of impact of fights can be seen too by examining the NHL’s top five teams from the recent season. Only one top team (the Florida Panthers) ranked in the top half of the league in fighting majors. The New York Islanders, a top defensive team in the league, were ranked last in fighting majors, sporting only five all season. If fighting doesn’t add anything to a team’s chances of winning, nor to the league’s popularity, why is fighting still in the league?
Fighting’s downside is clear in the recent matchup between the New York Rangers and the Washington Capitals. Their first meeting saw the Rangers’ Panarin suffer a season-ending injury fighting Capitals’ enforcer Tom Wilson. Wilson never received a suspension, and the aftermath of the game resulted in outrage from hockey fans everywhere. The next game, featuring over 100 penalty minutes, including six fights in the opening 10 minutes, was not disappointing from an engagement standpoint, displaying Bettman’s notion of “fighting increasing popularity.” However, the popularity stemmed from one of the league’s star players getting severely injured, not from the actual game, signaling a false sense of hope for hockey fans.
Fighting’s negligible impact on a game and the sport as a whole, combined with its tragic physical implications, illustrate that it’s time for it to go. The hindrance of superstar emergence and the game’s evolution has given way to heavy opposition from the new generation of players and fans alike. As the game evolves to become dominated by skilled players of McDavid’s and Matthews’s caliber, the league must also evolve to welcome this new and more entertaining version of hockey.