I love hockey fights! After a hard day or a loss from my team I enjoy kicking back and looking up the latest brawls between the toughest guys in the world. Rules for fighting in hockey have become stricter, but it is still there. Not only is it not going away soon, but it shouldn’t.

The argument over fighting in the NHL has been about as knock down and drag out as any fight ever was on the ice. Both sides scrapping and usually the result is exhaustion and more penalties, but the game and the fight will continue another day in another arena. I will say that despite my love of fighting in hockey there have been some contests that were either too brutal or too detrimental to the sport. The Penguins-Islanders brawl on February 11, 2011, was one example of this. That series of fights was the result of retribution for an injury at a prior game and resulted in 65 penalties that included 15 fighting majors and 21 game misconducts adding up to 346 minutes. I may love fighting in hockey, but sometimes the physical harm to players isn’t worth the excitement. Colton Orr knocking Todd Fedoruk unconscious on March 21, 2007 during a Rangers-Flyers game took fighting too far. An injury can ruin a player’s career or cause him to lose games. That is why “fight etiquette” exists to stop fights from getting out of hand. The NHL set Rule 46 (For information on Rule 46 see: http://www.nhl.com/ice/page.htm?id=26336.), which updated the 1922 Rule 56. Rule 56 regulated fisticuffs and introduced the five for fighting major penalty while Rule 46 took out the language “fisticuffs” and introduced stricter penalties and fines. However, it is the unwritten “etiquette” that keeps the fighting tradition alive while preventing it from reaching unhealthy levels.

Cases such as the Penguins-Islanders Brawl and the Orr-Fedoruk fight are extremely rare instances of fighting getting out of hand, but they are used in many arguments by the media and some NHL officials to ban fighting from the NHL. The majority of fights don’t get out of hand and serious injuries are rare. This is not due to Rule 46, but due to the unofficial “fight etiquette” that is upheld by “enforcers”. In hockey, there are unwritten rules that are understood by its players and are built out of respect and fairness. The role of “enforcer” on a hockey team is unofficial. Enforcers occasionally play regular shifts like other players, but their primary role is deterring opposing players from rough play and protecting star players. A basic overview of the “etiquette” is as follows: Opposing enforcers must agree to a fight, either verbally or in physical exchange on the ice. An agreement such as this helps both players avoid being given an instigator penalty, and helps keep unwilling participants out of fights. Enforcers typically only fight each other, and it is a rare occurrence for players who are not enforcers to participate or instigate fighting although it does happen in cases of retaliation. “Free passes” are given by enforcers to rival enforcers who decline fights due to playing with injuries because there is no glory in winning a fight with an unfair advantage. If one of the enforcers has to decline an invitation to fight during a given game it can result in a rematch when the teams meet again. This is one of the reasons that enforcers may fight early in a game without obvious reason; long standing rivals may have the same early game fight result as well. An enforcer trying to initiate a fight with another enforcer who is near the end of his shift is bad etiquette because the more rested player will have an advantage. Another aspect of this unwritten etiquette is that players remove gloves and discard sticks and other equipment to prevent serious injury as well as never assaulting referees and linesmen. At the end of a fight, whether the player wins or loses, he must accept the outcome or risk losing of respect from players and fans alike. Justice is handed out in the form of retaliation when this basic fight etiquette is deemed violated.

“Fight etiquette” is not limited to enforcers. There are occasions when fights break out in heat-of-the-moment situations (see retaliation fights below) between non-enforcers. These fights have their own etiquette that are not only based on respect, but also prevent players from getting injuries. Players, even in a scrum in front of the net, tend to pair off one on one and fight only from the front. Back fighting, sucker punches, and ganging up are rare and discouraged both by the rules and by “fight etiquette.”

There are many reasons why fights occur; many are strategic reasons and others are personal reasons.

Strategic reasons could be retaliating for unfair play either between a victim and assailant, enforcer on the victim’s team and the assailant, or enforcer on enforcer. These types of fights can take place instantly after an incident, later in the game in which the incident happened, or in retaliation for actions taken in previous games. An enforcer must time fights that take place after an incident carefully because the instigator rule could put the opposing team on a Power Play. In a close game this is not advisable.

Another strategic reason for fighting is to build momentum and gain a psychological advantage. This type of fight raises morale for the winner’s team, and can get the home crowd energized. It’s a gamble to start a fight for momentum; if an enforcer loses the fight, the momentum can swing the wrong way. He could energize the other team and psych out his own.

Intimidation is another strategy used. An enforcer intimidates other players that may be a threat to the more skilled player’s game and thus creates space and safety for his team’s star players. In the 1950’s Gordie Howe showed himself as an enforcer by breaking Lou Fontinato’s nose. This incident intimidated opponents and allowed him more space to play and score. Intimidation is also used by teams that play each other frequently as a warning.

On rare occurrences enforcers will start fights with more skilled players when their team is trailing in points at the end of a game when they have nothing to lose. In these cases they are trying to cause a reaction penalty, but these are rare due to the instigator rule.

There are typically two personal reasons for fights. The first is that young enforcers need to prove themselves as enforcers to keep their spot on their respective teams. The other personal reason is rivalries that rarely involve individual incidents and are based on bad blood between teams or players.

On ESPN NHL in 2007 John Buccigross interviewed Ross Bernstein who wrote the book, “The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL”. When Buccigross asked “What would happen if the NHL banned fighting?” Ross Bernstein responded “It would not be good. Believe it or not, fighting serves a purpose in the game and actually deters 99 percent of would-be acts of disrespect and dirty play. Fighting has no place at the youth levels, but in the professional ranks, the game polices itself. The specter of seeing a hulking figure such as 6-foot-7, 275-pound Minnesota Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard sitting at the end of the bench makes guys think twice about what they do out on the ice. Plus, fighting sells tickets. Like it or not, it is a part of the game.” Fighting allows players to deal out justice for incidents that referees may have overlooked, it has many strategic values, and it protects more players