Fight, Flight or Play Hockey

The NHL (and hockey, in general) has always been under scrutiny for one fact: brutality. And not just for boarding, dirty checks and slashing. The main point of concern here is fighting – that post-whistle, glove-dropping moment where adversaries circle each other in gliding motions waiting for their opportunity to grab the other’s sweater. And with criticism mounting, and injury numbers soaring, it’s easy to say “what’s all the fighting for?” But to be honest, hockey just wouldn’t be hockey without it—and that means a lot more than just hot heads.

Enforcers

Shawn+Thornton

The first topic to address is that of the “enforcer.” This all-too-common role on a team is pretty self-explanatory. If you’re an enforcer, you aren’t super skilled, your slapshot isn’t that brilliant and you can’t score as well as the first-liners. But your role on the team is still integral. Your job is to protect your teammates, keep the opposing team in line and, above all, fight. It’s the sole reason that players like Thornton of the Bruins and Cooke of the Penguins (a few years back… not nearly as much now) exist. So, if you remove fighting from the sport, you remove the position entirely, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Momentum

The reason for fighting is as simple as an everyday argument. If you’ve ever gotten into a heated disagreement with someone, you know how important emotion is. The argument sways both ways, both parties feel confident when a good point is made and defensive when the opposite happens. In other words, an argument can be won with a simple sway of momentum: you start making good points and suddenly your adversary has less confidence to keep it up.

Well it’s the same thing in hockey. If your team is getting slammed with checks, goals and penalties, your enforcer needs to step in and shift the momentum. They do that with hard, clean checks to keep skill players on their toes. And they might even throw down their gloves to pick a fight with the tougher, scrappier players. It may result in penalty minutes and it might not give you any leverage for a direct goal, but it will pump the team up, which is all the edge you could need. Light a big enough fire and you’ll need a smoke evacuation system at the arena.

Strategy in Today’s Sport

Many argue that momentum isn’t enough of an excuse for fighting in hockey. And “it’s just part of the sport” doesn’t usually fly as an explanation. Well, there’s a solid place for it from a strategic standpoint too. And rather than speak in hypotheticals, it’s time to touch on an actual game. Let’s look at the Canucks-Flames game that happened a few nights ago.

Seeing that Vancouver is a deeply skilled team, particularly on the first line (can you say “Sedin?”), Calgary decided to throw them a curveball by throwing out their fourth line at puck drop. This matches up Calgary’s collection of enforcer-style brutes against Vancouver’s decidedly skill-focused first-liners. Canucks’ head coach Tortorella took issue and sent out his fourth line in response. This resulted in an immediate, glove-dropping brawl to begin the game.

The lesson here was that the Cancuks weren’t going to let the Flames sway the game momentum with an immediate lineup curveball, so they fought force with force. While the drama here (including some post-game locker room scrums) isn’t exactly common, it shows a situation where a team, without a breadth of skill players, can still keep matchups interesting. And that’s the name of the game with fighting: to keep all teams competitive and to keep the gameplay vibrant. Think about that the next time you’re wondering why a fight breaks out.

Scott Huntington is a writer, reporter, blogger, and long-time hockey fan.  Scott will posting his thoughts on the NHL throughout the season and you can find him on Twitter @smhuntington 

You may also like...