Pro-fight fans and the majority of NHL players will tell you that fighting reduces cheap shots or dangerous hits. Therefore we should clearly see a correlation between fighting and clean hockey where penalties are minimal and rat behavior is nonexistent. I’ve published several articles on this site using an analysis of fighting and Rat PIM stats to demonstrate very clearly that the opposite is true. So let’s take another alternative view of this data to see if past results are consistent.
Looking at penalty statistics from 2008 to today I’ve compared the fights per game to Rat PIM per game. Remember Rat PIM is the combination of cheap shots that are not fight related. This includes roughing, slashing, cross-checking, boarding and unsportsmanlike. It also includes any major penalty that is not a fighting major.
Over the past 6 years there has been a steady decline in the number of fights per game in the NHL. Therefore we should be seeing a flourishing of the rat and a proliferation of stick fouls and dangerous hits. Unfortunately that myth dies a quick death when you deal with the facts. As fights per game have been reduced there has been a similar reduction in the exact penalties that dropping the gloves is supposed to control.
If you look at that same data broken out by team the facts remain consistent. Individual team personalities cause some fluctuation but overall the trend is obvious – less fighting = less rat behavior. Teams that play with an edge, or on the edge, but don’t drop the gloves that often, will stand out – like Buffalo, Montreal and in particular Pittsburgh. More on them in a moment.
One of the biggest cheerleaders for the role of the enforcer within the NHL would be Brian Burke. Last fall he contributed an article to USA Today that explained how fighting controlled the violence in the game. Here are a couple of excerpts from his guest column:
It's hard to quantify where our game would be without fighting. It's easy to be repelled by a scary injury such as George Parros'. But I thought the hits on Danny Boyle and Niklas Kronwall were much more dangerous, as was the hit on Max Talbot (which I believe was legal). These are examples of times when fighting did not act as a deterrent. In fact, we can all recite a list of players who clearly operate outside of a system of honor. But today, these are the exceptions. Horrific injuries, stars being mugged, rats who run around hitting people from behind — these stand out to us because they don't happen with regularity. It's fighting that keeps these incidents to a minimum.
In my humble opinion there are no facts that support the statement that “fighting keeps these incidents to a minimum”. The facts I have presented above clearly show the opposite, that when you have more fights you have an increase in the cheap shots that Burke states are driven from the game. If fighting controls the rats then please explain Dale Hunter, Patrick Kaleta, Ken “The Rat” Linesman, Dave Schultz who loved to hit from behind or Wayne Cashman, a master with the stick. What about Dave Brown? He was famous for a two handed baseball-type swing at the face of Tomas Sandstrom of the Rangers. Other recognized dirty players include; Eddie Shore, Bryan Watson, Gary Rissling, Willi Plett, Dennis Polonich, Claude Lemieux and countless others. A large number of these rats played when the enforcer role was prominent but it didn’t stop them from playing their style.
Ninety-eight percent of NHL players voted to keep fighting in the game, yet somehow members of the news media take it upon themselves to try to convince the players that the scribes know what is best for them. They don't write about the times a heavyweight skates by his opponent's bench to say, "Settle down, or I'll settle you down," and it works. They don't notice a tough guy warning an opponent at a faceoff. They've never heard a star player march into their office, slam the door and demand the team get tougher because he's getting killed out there by opponents playing without fear. They've never seen a chippy game on the edge settle down after a good fight.
I may not have played competitive hockey at a high level but even I can imagine sitting on the bench with my teammates when the heavyweight skates by and tells us to “settle down”. I can’t image NHL players being intimidated and I can imagine that they would be laughing, and one or two would leap over the boards and pound that guy. Burke is right about not seeing a chippy game being put under control because of a fight. That’s because that situation is extremely rare. In two other blog posts, looking at the Leafs last year and a month of games this season, statistics reveal that cheap shots are 240% and 297% (respectively) more likely after the first fight in a game. Once the teams drop the gloves the game is pretty much guaranteed to become more violent.
Let’s revisit the Pittsburgh Penguins. I’ve made the statement previously that they play a chippy game and take a lot of Rat PIM. Think about when they play another team that also is known for truculence and grit, like Philadelphia or Boston. Would any intelligent hockey fan characterize those games as “getting settled down after a fight”. If you take aggressive athletes playing a tough sport and try to intimidate them through violence you will get more violence. No hockey player is going to back down and the team mentality demands that you stand up for your teammates and exact revenge when wronged. Pounding your opponent in the head won’t generate respect and it won’t cause servility amongst the rats.
Fighting is retribution. Players feel that it must remain in the game because they don’t believe that the officials can control the game or that the penalties are not sufficient to meet their perception of justice. Fighting is a symptom of that breakdown in how the game is played and enforced – and based on facts and common sense it has no positive policing role in hockey.