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Frozen Grounds: Fighting in the NHL

Hockey and fighting seem to go hand-in-hand, but it's actually a far more complicated issue than you might think.

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

Hockey is an unusual sport in many ways. Probably the most popularized way that it's unusual is the fact that they allow fighting. No other major team sport in North America does that.

There have been plenty of books written about fighting to glorify and condemn it in the sport. However, fighting has always been a part of hockey - and the National Hockey League. According to the website of CBC's show, the fifth estate:

1875 - Legend has it that the first organized indoor hockey game ended in a fight between the players and a group of figure skaters who wanted to take over the ice.

1922 - The NHL introduced Rule 46 to formally regulate fighting. Players who engaged in "fisticuffs", as it was called in the official rulebook, were given a five minute major penalty. This differed greatly from amateur and collegiate leagues, where players were ejected from the game if they fought.

1971 - The NHL created the "Third Man In" rule in an attempt to cut down on the number of bench clearing brawls. Under the rule, the first player who joins a fight already in progress is ejected from the game.

These days, hockey is at a crossroads when it comes to fighting in the game. Last summer, there were three tragic deaths of players who had made their way into the NHL by literally fighting their way into the game - one current player by probable suicide, one current player by an accidental pain killer/alcohol overdose, and a recently retired player by suicide.

And, as with the NFL, there has been some serious concern in regards to the rise of concussions in the sport. The NHL is probably the most forward-thinking of all of the popular North American team sports when it comes to concussions and the specific guidelines required of teams when a player is suspected of having one. But that hasn't always been the case.

Regardless, there are some actual rules about fighting; actual NHL rules, in fact.

  • You cannot fight anyone wearing a half-shield (eye protection that's attached to the helmet), or full face protection (typically used for facial injuries that are healing), since that's a great way to cut open a hand or the other guy's face.
  • Jerseys must be tied down. That is, the fighting strap must be attached to the hockey pants - which is an actual strap that's sewn into the jersey that fastens to the pants. This is so no one can pull the jersey over someone's head and just bash their face in. It gives both players a fair chance by guaranteeing unimpaired visibilty, and thus reduces chance of serious injury.
  • A player cannot obviously start the fight, or they get awarded with an instigator penalty. If two players seem to simultaneously fight, then no instigator penalty is assessed. Three instigator penalties in one season results in a one-game suspension.
  • Goaltenders are not allowed to punch anybody with their blocking glove (the big square thing they have on their non-catching hand).

The instigator penalty is a very controversial rule, and has been since it was introduced in 1992. There are some that believe that the players ought to be able to police themselves on the ice; that if they're allowed to obviously start fights, it'll ultimately clean up the cheap shots and intent to injure hits that keep cropping up. Others think that it'll just cause more fighting overall.

Penalties for this sort of thing can vary, depending on the referees. For a breakdown on penalties, see NHL Rule 46 - Fighting, and NHL Rule 51 - Roughing. Why they're listed as separate rules, I have no idea.

There isn't usually a lot of fighting in the playoffs. Often, the more important the game, the less likely that happens. Which is also why there's little fighting in international tournaments as well.

However, there may be something of an exception to the rule this season. The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers hate each other with a passion. So if you want to see some hard-hitting, nasty hockey with a large potential for violence, you might want to turn into that series. Game 1 is today at 4:30 Pacific on NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus).

As for the other playoff series going on, there probably won't be very much of that sort of thing. So if the violence turns you off as a casual spectator, you can probably take your pick of the rest of the games. The closest NHL team to Seattle, the Vancouver Canucks, are playing the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, and Game 1 for that series is tonight at 7:30 pm Pacific, also on NBC Sports Network.

Fighting or not, the second season for the NHL starts today, and it ought to be a great ride.