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Published On: Thu, Jun 29th, 2017

Jarret Reid, Hockey Instructor: ‘Good News, Hockey Fighting In Decline’

Many observers believe that fighting in pro hockey is on a downward trend. With that said, although the goon may be on the endangered list, the species isn’t extinct just yet.

Hockey fights dropped 50 percent during a five-year period ending in 2016, according to Hockey Fights.com, a website that logs fight statistics and incidents. The decline isn’t necessarily because of any specific new rule or regulations limiting or banning fighting during games. As Mike Brophy wrote in The Hockey News: “It just kind of happened.”

Sometimes fights happen for retaliation. Sometimes they happen for no apparent reason at all.

Fighting in hockey is as old as the game itself, dating back to the 19th century. Hockey fighting became wildly popular in the 1970s. “Fighting in the NHL reached its peak in the late 1980s with an average of more than one fight per game. That has now dropped to less than one fight, every three games. Staged fighting — and goons — is gone,” according to a CTV report.  

Shawn Thornton fighting Wade Brookbank photo by Dan4th via wikimedia

In 2011, Trevor Gillies, who then played for the New York Islanders, was suspended for nine games for elbowing and punching then-Pittsburgh Penguin Eric Tangradi. Penguins team owner and former hockey star Mario Lemieux famously chastised the NHL for not doing enough to curb fighting.

“What happened Friday night on Long Island wasn’t hockey. It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that,” Lemieux said. “The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed.”

The Toronto Maple Leafs once led the league in fights until a few years years ago, but team president Brendan Shanahan urged the NHL to impose stiffer penalties for fighting. “Let’s be first,” Shanahan said. “I believe it’s the right thing to do.”

Observers of the game point to several explanations for the decline.

In modern hockey, the emphasis is on speed and skill. Managers are looking for those qualities, not for a good fighter who can only bring that ability to the table.

Team owners in the past were not players. They wanted to maintain the status quo and give fans what they wanted. These days, some teams are owned and managed by former top players, which has led to a shift in thinking at the sport’s highest levels.

Former professional hockey player Jarret Reid thinks that shift is a good development for the game. “Having been a player, you look at things differently than from a purely business perspective,” Jarret Reid says. “Players love the game and have respect for good playing. Getting hurt is part of the risk of playing, but it shouldn’t have to happen because of fighting.”

Higher public awareness of the potential for concussions in hockey and other professional sports has also lessened the appetite for fighting.  Fighters Bob Probert and Derek Boogaard were diagnosed posthumously with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is caused by repeated brain trauma. The Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine issued an anti-fighting position statement in 1988.

“Fighting does cause injuries, which range from fractures of the hands and face to lacerations and eye injuries. At present, it is an endemic and ritualized blot on the reputation of the North American game.”

Maybe the next generation of players won’t even remember when fighting was standard operating procedure. In the 1980s, the Ontario Hockey League introduced rules to increase safety and reduce fighting in junior league hockey. If fighting is no longer part of junior hockey, it may just not make it to the majors someday.

“Aside from the danger of injuries that can happen during fights, fighting is definitely not on the table as a necessary part of the game,” adds Reid, who now works as director of Power Skating and Skill Development at Wave Sports Centre in Burlington, Ontario. “We teach kids to focus on developing skills and learning respect for the game. Skating, stick handling and the ability to think in traffic will win more games than dropping the gloves.”

Author: Frank Graham

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