The NHL appears to be immune from any outside influence for most issues and fighting is no different. The majority of players, coaches, general managers and league officials all come across as firmly in favour of keeping fighting in the game. This is evident in player polls, roster decisions from coaches and media comments from GMs and the league. If you look at the last 4 decades, the period in which this group came up in the game, it’s no surprise.
So let’s look at some recent NHL history as it relates to penalty minutes and fighting. Even if you are a casual fan of hockey you know that the Philadelphia Flyers changed the face of the game in the early 70’s. If you want to understand how they became the most hated team during that decade then you have to watch the HBO special “The Broadstreet Bullies”. Much of what is presented in the HBO documentary meshes nicely with the chronology below, which outlines how a culture of violence was born and nurtured in the NHL.
1960 to 1967: Fights certainly existed in the NHL but were rare when compared to the next 2 decades to come.
1967-68: NHL expansion arrives and the league doubles in size to 12 teams.
1968-69: In the playoffs the Flyers were badly manhandled by a much rougher St. Louis team. Ed Snider vows that will never happen again.
1971-72: Roster limits expanded to 17 players, plus goalies.
1973-74: Flyers win the Stanley Cup. They once again lead in PIM, with 600 more than anyone else. Only 4 teams have more than 1,000 PIM while the Flyers have 1,750.
1974-75: Flyers win their second Stanley Cup while leading the league in PIM by a wide margin, more than 690 minutes over the next closest team. This was also the year that the players asked the NHL to ban fighting, but the league refused. Only 3 teams have 1,000 or more PIM, Flyers have 1,969.
1975-76: The arms race begins as more teams start to look for enforcers to protect their teams from the Flyers. The Flyers lose in the Stanley Cup final to Montreal but they lead the NHL in PIM again by a small margin. Detroit is only 60 minutes behind them.
1977-78: There are now 7 teams in the league with 1,200 PIM or more, Flyers have 1.668.
1982-83: Roster size set to 18 players, plus goalies.
1986-87: Every team in the league has more than 1,400 PIM, 11 are over 1,800.
1988-89: Poll of NHL players show that less than 50% want to see fighting banned. The culture has taken hold.
NHL direction and strategy is controlled by the NHLPA, the general managers and league executives. All of those stakeholders began their hockey careers during this period where intimidation through violence became an accepted tactic - accepted because the league did little to control it. Obviously all of today’s players came up in a system where fighting is common and an enforcer has been a teammate for most of them, either in Canadian junior or in the NHL. Of the current coaches only 30% were 14 or older in 1973 so they too came to maturity in this environment of dropping the gloves. Additionally 77% of them played junior hockey in Canada where fighting was just as common as in the pro league. The general managers are an older group and 60% of them were 14 in 1973. Still young enough to be impressionable and most played in the violent decades to come.
The players, coaches and general managers all gained their hockey maturity in a culture of violence. An enforcer was always part of their team and they faced intimidation from them on the ice. Any offense felt by this group during their playing career was dealt with through an act of revenge from a team mate who filled a roster spot for just that purpose. They have no experience with any other alternative other than what they have known in the last 40 years.
So don’t blame Bettman for pandering to pro-fighting crowds in the U.S. and using violence to sell the game. The reason that pro hockey continues to tolerate players punching each other in the face has to do with a culture that was established in the early 70’s. The NHL and NHLPA see nothing wrong with it because it has been a part of their entire hockey career and therefore they believe that it’s part of the game.