Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Hockey Fighting: An Artform

Other than various forms of Mixed Marshal Arts, hockey is the only sport that allows (at times even encourages) fighting.  These players tend to be viewed by fans as expendable.  They must not have any other kind of hockey talent that could keep them in the NHL, so instead they just fight everything that moves.  This couldn’t be further than the truth.

Fight is part of the hockey culture, and with that comes a whole set of both written and unwritten rules.  Nothing may be on your hands (tape, foil, etc) when fighting: written rule.  If you are wearing a visor, remove your helmet before fighting: unwritten rule.  A fighter must be familiar with the ins and outs of all of these rules and still be able to win the fight.

Most enforcers are not necessarily born fighters.  Most of the time they are players who have adjusted their game to be able to keep playing at an elite level.  Experience is key, and it must be learned.  The experienced fighters on the team often spend time in practice showing some of the less experienced guys fighting tips.

King gives Alzner fighting tips (Tom Turk)
One of these training sessions took place at Caps practice yesterday, as DJ King gave John Erskine and Karl Alzner some pointers after official practice ended.  Alzner had said at the beginning of last season that he wanted to add more grit and a little mean streak to his game, and there are few better to show him the way in that regard than King.  King would also regularly hold these kinds of sessions at Blues practices last season as the St. Louis youngsters tried to fill out their games.

There is also an important timing aspect to fighting.  Not just realizing when you should throw a left or when you need to duck, but when a fight is opportune.  Fights can change the entire momentum in a game.  They can give the crowd and the players energy and breath new life into a dull game.

That is the ideal outcome of a fight: to turn the game in your team’s favor.  However it can also potentially cost your team a game.  In the 2009 playoffs, the Penguins were playing the Flyers in the first round.  It was game six in Philadelphia with the Flyers ahead 3-0.  That is when Dan Carcillo decided to fight Max Talbot.  The Penguins would go on to come back and win the game 6-3, closing out the series on the road and eliminating the Flyers from the playoffs for the second straight year.

There is a certain leadership role that is necessary for enforcers.  They have to know when their team needs a boost, and they are able to recognize when that boost is a hard hit or a full-on brawl.  They need to be able to pass on their expertise to the other players (because let’s face it, enforcers don’t dress every game and even when they do they don’t receive too much ice time).  King does this, as did Donald Brashear during his time with the Caps.

Bottom line, enforcers job is just that: to enforce the rules.  Whether those are the written rules of hockey that a ref perhaps missed, or unwritten rules that the players police themselves, enforcers are crucial to maintain respect for the game and fellow players.  They are the ones who need to step in after questionable hits and dirty plays.  They are the ones who provide a disincentive to intentionally injure other players.  They stand up for the integrity of the game, whether it’s written in the rulebook or not.

Without fighting, there would be significantly more injuries.  There would be more carelessness and recklessness because players would be able to live without fear of retribution from someone considerably larger and strong than themselves.  Its doing things like Matt Bradley did last season when Steve Downie was running around giving cheap shots to Alex Ovechkin.  Ovi was ready to fight when Bradley sprinted over and stepped up instead. 

They protect the players, often more than the officials or league disciplinarians are able to, that that earns a special place in the hearts not only of the fans, but their fellow players as well.


  1. Nice write up on the finer points of hockey fighting. If your readers are interested in a little more detail there is a great book by Ross Bernstein called The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL. It really expands on a lot of the things you mentioned here.

    Following you as Defender13 on twitter.

  2. Thank you! And thanks for the RT of the link on Twitter, I really appreciate it. I might have to check that book out, it sounds pretty interesting!