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Hockey’s bare-knuckles legacy and why fighting will likely always be a part of the NHL


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In the sport’s earliest days, before the NHL even existed, hockey was known for outbursts of violence — not just fights, but stick-swinging and outright assaults, sometimes involving fans or officials. Fighting has always been a part of hockey but its place in the game has evolved, with marked shifts in how (and how often) hand-to-hand combat is featured. And not everyone agrees on what those fights mean, or why they’re part of the sport’s legacy at all.

Even a century ago, debates raged over whether hockey would need to clean up its act to find a wider audience. In the Original Six era, there were essentially no enforcers — everyone fought, and stars like Gordie Howe were largely expected to protect themselves. With only six teams and just over 100 jobs available, there was no room on the roster for one-note fighters.

But then came the 1967 expansion, which doubled the size of the NHL. More expansion followed, and the WHA arrived soon after, pushing the number of big-league teams into the dozens. And as that shift was happening, one team emerged as the most influential group in the modern history of NHL fighting.

Broad Street Bullies change the game

The mid-’70s Flyers are led by Dave “The Hammer” Schultz and his 472 PIM, backed up by names like Andre Dupont and Ed Van Impe, plus a notoriously dirty superstar in Bobby Clarke. These Flyers lead the league in penalties by a wide margin, but they’re not the only team that’s gooning it up. What sets them apart is that it works. They win back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975.

From the moment Clarke’s hands touch the Cup, the message to the rest of the league is clear: The path to glory goes through the league’s most brutal team. Those 1974-75 Flyers rack up 1,967 penalty minutes, an unthinkable number for the time that’s almost 600 more than any non-Flyers team has ever amassed. In the two decades to come, it will be topped 79 times.

Hall-of-Fame coach Scotty Bowman, on his time behind the Blues bench in the early ’70s: We knocked the Flyers out (of the playoffs) twice. They were in first place the first year. And Ed Snider — I don’t remember him saying it at that time — but 20 years later he said that he was fed up with us beating up his team. And he said that he vowed that nobody will ever be able to beat the Flyers up.

Current Minnesota Wild coach and 13-year NHL forward Dean Evason: Bobby Clarke was my hero. He’s from Flin Flon (Manitoba), so am I. I just loved the way he played. He was gritty. He played hard.

Long-time Detroit Red Wings tough guy Darren McCarty: The whole thing is the accountability aspect. Accountability is the physical aspect. You know you can’t get out of line or you’ll be accountable to someone on the bench. No better accountability in the history of life than when you know someone is going to come punch you in the face.

1990s Blues enforcer Kelly Chase: Fear is a motivator … it motivates me every day. … It’s been a motivator for a million years.

McCarty: Fighting in hockey … deters people from doing stupid s—, with their stick, hit from behind.

The fight-filled ’80s

By the 1980s, just about every team looks like those mid-’70s Flyers, with multiple enforcers whose main role is to drop the gloves. The theory espoused by guys like McCarty and Chase — that fear and intimidation is required to keep the game safer — largely rules the day. Fighting is at an all-time high, with the league averaging more than one fight per game.

Through much of the decade, bench-clearing brawls are common. That changes in 1987, after a wild pregame brawl between the Flyers and Canadiens leads to the NHL instituting harsh suspensions. Still, the one-on-one fights continue. Many of those fighters can also contribute in other areas, but the enforcer role becomes more specialized. Even rookies know they need to establish a reputation quickly, and it isn’t rare to see the same players square off multiple times in a game.

Current Blues coach and journeyman enforcer Craig Berube, on racking up two fights and 26 PIM in his NHL debut: My first NHL game, I was definitely going to make sure I got noticed. … Probably went a little overboard. But I wanted to get everybody’s attention.

Evason: Dale Hunter and I fought three times in one period. We were checking their line and he was pissed off. And when we came out we were both still mad, so we fought again. And the third was a mutual — well, we might as well get this over with.

Current Wild forward Ryan Reaves, who has 80 career NHL fights: Back then there was brawlers that didn’t really care if they got punched. I’d rather not get punched in the face, so I try to protect myself a little bit more.

Ryan Carter, a nine-year NHL veteran who had 25 fights: Ryan Reaves in today’s game, he’d have been a middleweight back in the day.

Evason: There used to be guys who sat on the bench and played one shift. That makes no sense.

Berube on his first meeting with legendary Red Wings enforcer Bob Probert: That game was not long after my first game. It was at the Spectrum. I fought Probert, then I fought (Joey) Kocur. And I went to Detroit a day later, we played them again, I fought Probert two more times.

Mike Rupp, a frequent fighter who played 11 seasons in the 2000s: In the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s — when those guys were just like hired assassins — those guys were tough. Those guys were beating the snot out of each other.

The 1990s: Enforcers, the code, and Fight Night at the Joe

Fighting levels off in the 1990s, partly due to changes in how the longstanding instigator rule is called. But enforcers are still key parts of every team’s roster, and the belief in a code, of players policing themselves, remains. That belief culminates in a memorable night in Detroit. Hockey fans know the beats by heart. Claude’s Lemieux’s cheap shot on Kris Draper a year before ignites the rivalry; Darren McCarty suckers Lemieux in revenge; Patrick’s Roy’s wild sprint from his crease; Brendan Shanahan’s mid-air interception; Roy vs. Vernon.

It might stand as the most-replayed fight in the league’s history, and in the years since it’s been endlessly relived, analyzed, and yes, celebrated. Wings vs. Avs becomes the greatest rivalry of the modern era, and perhaps the last to be truly embraced by the hockey world.

McCarty: If the refs don’t take care of it and leagues don’t take care of it, the players will. (That night) they let the players take care of it.

Wild forward Marcus Foligno: (My brother) Nick was actually at that game with my mom. That was still one of the historical rivalry fights between two teams.

Bowman: We made our team when we got (Brendan) Shanahan. Yeah, Shanahan was a good fighter. I mean, I didn’t like him fighting. But we had Shanahan when we also had (Darren) McCarty, (Joey) Kocur, (Martin) Lapointe — we had four guys that could match up anywhere, with anyone in the league. And that’s a lot. They kind of looked forward to it.

McCarty: I knew Lemieux was on the ice. (Colorado’s Adam) Foote had a good grip of me. Without Brendan Shanahan, none of this happens. Not only does he break me free of Foote, but he picks off (Patrick) Roy. I’m just focused on getting revenge on Lemieux.

Foligno: I wanted Patrick Roy to beat the s— out of (Vernon). I was a big Avs fan. I saw Patty Roy and Shanahan jumped on him. I was furious, I was losing my mind. I remember being like, oh my god.

McCarty: I crashed (Lemieux’s) head against the boards and kneed him in the head. Which you cannot condone. Except I was raised by John Rambo and “First Blood” and he drew it. He drew first blood. He started it. You talk about karma. To this day, Claude Lemieux has a welt on his head he looks at every morning.

Referee Paul Devorski takes in the entire scene and hands out just 22 minutes in penalties. Nobody is ejected. McCarty doesn’t even get a major.

McCarty: I got four minutes of roughing. Today, I’d be suspended for half the year. I’d be done forever. You can see I’d be suspended for life and it wouldn’t surprise me.

Foligno: A crazy game, one of the best games all around.

Bowman: That (toughness) made a difference for our teams — especially in those series against Colorado.

McCarty: I’m grateful, because we’re still talking about it 26 years later. The trajectory of the Red Wings organization changed that day. That’s the ultimate sticking up for your teammate, your best friend. I was best man in (Draper’s) wedding. It was deeper. It was personal.

2005: Dawn of the cap era

On the surface, the 2004-05 lockout and subsequent CBA had little to do with fighting. This battle took place off the ice and was all about how to divide up dollars. Even the unprecedented batch of rule changes introduced for the league’s return in 2005-06 included only one minor change for fighting (an automatic penalty for instigating in the final five minutes, one that’s almost never called).

But in what may have been a case of unintended consequences, the introduction of a hard salary cap creates new limitations on how rosters can be built. And with the new rules opening up the game, the one-dimensional fighter slowly becomes a luxury.

Berube: The game is fast. It’s about speed and skill. And the salary cap too … if you want to have a guy like that on your team, he’s got to be able to play the game or you’re wasting money on a guy to fight. You need players.

Reaves: If you’re going to slowly start to phase out fighting from the game, you’re not going to waste salary cap on a guy who only fights.

McCarty: It’s expansion of the game, it’s Bettman hockey, it’s parity, it’s rules. … The game has changed.

Foligno: The type of goon mentality, the tough guy mentality, I’m here just to fight, those guys are getting exposed. Their skating and level of skill … if I got a fourth line that can score goals too, we’re going to be better off.

Maple Leafs defenseman Luke Schenn, who debuted in 2008: Even when I started, our fourth line we had Brad May, Colton Orr, and the other team would have Georges Laraque or (Derek) Boogaard, you’d have two or three guys who for sure could throw them and get a guy on the back end who was tough too. Your third and fourth line are trained to fight, and work on fighting after practice. Orr would wrestle after practice and show different techniques. Now (the) fourth line is guys that are penalty killers and energy guys (who) might not have a fight the entire year. That’s a change.

The 2010s: Shifting perceptions

For as long as hockey has existed, fans and media have debated the place of fighting. But something seems to have changed in the last decade or so. A key moment comes in 2009, when a 21-year-old senior league player dies from a head injury sustained in a fight. During the 2011 offseason, three former enforcers — Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien — die within weeks of each other, as tough questions are raised about concussions, CTE and addiction.

Meanwhile, the same Red Wings that once intimidated under Bowman dominate without fighters. Even one of the biggest proponents of fighting, then Leafs GM Brian Burke, sees the writing on the wall by 2012, lamenting that “the rats will take this game over”. Average fights per game drops below 0.5 after the lockout; it’s down under 0.3 by 2016.

Current Wild GM and 18-year NHL veteran Bill Guerin: Teams are starting to play differently and put a value on four scoring lines. Detroit was one of the first teams to say, “Hey, we’ll take the power play, don’t worry about retribution.” They were so good, that’s the way they’d win games.

Long-time NHL tough guy Arron Asham: How did we get to this point? I don’t know. I think social media is a big part of it. You have the people that don’t like the fighting game, they haven’t had the need to, you know, to promote it and to talk about it and it kind of just snowballs from there. And the next thing you know it’s not hot to have fighting in the game.

Reaves: I think just seeing guys weren’t getting contracts anymore. Or seeing teams who didn’t have a guy who was 6-foot-6 but could barely skate but was trying to fight two to three times a game, you just didn’t see those guys anymore. And then two or three years later, they didn’t really exist. It wasn’t immediate but it was pretty quick.

Foligno: I think fighting is being eliminated organically. Years ago, kids saw toughness as a strength and wanted to be a tough guy. Now they’re  like, “Whoa, I want to be like a Makar, or a MacKinnon or Kirill (Kaprizov).” That’s great for our game. Who doesn’t want to see high skill?

Guerin: I think for a long time we had so many fights that they stopped having an effect. It was like, what are we doing? Guys were getting hurt. And having long-lasting effects of just doing that.

Brayden Schenn, Luke’s brother, whose first full season was 2011-12: When I got into the league, guys fought. When you lined up against the opposing team, you knew who the agitators or scrappers or guys that liked to mix it up, and with the generation of new players, there’s not a whole lot of it. I think there’s still a huge need for it. Players need to police themselves. I saw the Wild the other night in Arizona had four fights. I loved it. It was old-school hockey.

2012: ‘What the hell’s going on here?’

Late in the 2011-12 season, the Rangers and Devils square off in a game that features multiple fights immediately off the opening faceoff. The fans at MSG roar, but compared to the Wings/Avs brawl from 15 years earlier, reaction from fans and media seems far more mixed.

Rangers forward Mike Rupp: We had a bunch of fights between the two teams, a dirty season between both of us. We were playing at home in MSG and I remember we didn’t know nothing about anything except it was playing against a rival in the Devils. So right after warmups … (Rangers coach John Tortorella) comes in the locker room (and) he kicks the garbage can over. He’s, like, “This is bulls— … this junior hockey mentality — I’m sick of it.”

And then we’re all, like, “What’s he talking about?” He goes, “These guys are starting their tough guys. And I hate to put you guys in harm’s way. I hate to do this to you, bro. What am I … I don’t know what to do. Like, what am I supposed to do?” So, that’s what Torts was like.

He goes, you know, “Rupper, left wing. (Brandon) Prust, right wing.” And he goes and picks (Stu) Bickel, a defenseman, to take the faceoff. Torts leaves the room and we’re all kind of, like, “What the hell’s going on here?”

Devils forward Ryan Carter, who paired off with Bickel in the brawl: It’s a long story, but the Rangers came into our building in Jersey and started their fourth line, their tough guys. Our coach thought it was a good opportunity to get a good matchup, so he put our top guys. They ran around and took runs at Kovalchuk, Parise … we had to respond. My first shift that game in Jersey, I fought (Brandon) Dubinsky. I broke his orbital bone. He left the game. We went to their building and our coach wanted to start our tough guys and (Tortorella) is like, well, screw you Pete DeBoer, I’m going to start my tough guys, and that’s how it went.

Rupp: Bickel comes over and he goes, “Guys … how do I take a faceoff? Like, how do I put my hands?” And I’m, like, “You’re not out there to win the draw, dude.”

Foligno: There was like two really heavy tough guys in that. Bickel is tough but he’s like we are now. Carts was tough, too, but more of a versatile player. I feel like that was also a turning point where it’s slowly getting out of the game. No team in this league has a fourth line with three tough guys anymore. It’s crazy.

Rupp: I mean, we are on “PTI” — what’s that guy’s name, (Tony) Kornheiser? Yeah, those guys are just ripping us. You know, whatever … it kind of caught me off guard. And after that incident … it was talked about quite a bit. And then I think the next one after that was the one in Vancouver with Calgary, when Torts kind of went after Bob Hartley. And that was the last one that I think we’ve seen like that in a while.

The future

As the 2022-23 season draws to a close, it feels like the sport is nearing another inflection point. The NHL is looking to tighten rules around certain fights; the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is going even further, with a plan to become the first major junior league in Canada to ban fighting altogether.

Meanwhile, fighting numbers continue to drop, hitting a modern low in 2019-20; those wild days of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s probably feel almost incomprehensible to newer fans. That’s left some to wonder if there’s still a place in the game for fighting.

Reaves: I don’t think we’re (eliminating fighting). I think it’ll probably be a thought, some higher-ups that maybe want that. But I think hockey is too fast, too physical to take fighting out of it. Sure you want to take fighting out of hockey. OK, look what happens the next year, it’ll be a guy like me or Lucic who is going to absolutely blow up one of these superstars with no repercussions. What do they have to lose? There will be these little ratty guys that will play like rats but don’t run guys over as much cause we have guys like me in the lineup and there will be repercussions. Now they’ll have nothing to answer for. If they’ve got nothing to answer for, well, what’s not to say they’ll lay a knee into somebody and take their one-game suspension? What’s going to happen in the playoffs? A guy will take a one-game suspension for kneeing McDavid or Kaprizov with no repercussion? Then why wouldn’t you? I just don’t think it’s a sport where you can take it out and expect your superstars to stay healthy?

Brayden Schenn: I think there’s still a huge need for it. Players need to police themselves.

Foligno: I don’t see how you can change the rules. I believe fighting is still a part of the game in terms of bringing a team together, standing up for guys. … It’s always in the back of your mind, if you do something stupid someone is going to grab me. It makes the game cleaner and more efficient.

Luke Schenn: I hope it’s always a part of it. I don’t think it’s right to take it out. People making those decisions probably haven’t played.

Rupp: I don’t think that there should be fighting in junior hockey — because these are kids. And when we look back and just sit there and think that I was a 17-year-old playing in the Ontario Hockey League, and fans would get on their feet and cheer for kids fighting. What were we doing? I’m OK with junior hockey not having it. But I think there’s gonna be ramifications from it. I think checking is going to get even more dangerous. You’re always going to try to grab momentum in games. And if (fighting) is a way that’s not allowed, then there’s going to be other ways to do it.

Asham: The league will always have stars, you know? Sid (Crosby), (Connor) McDavid — these guys need safety nets so they’re not worried about fourth-line guys trying to take their heads off. I’m old school. I think it should be in the game. And I think the Quebec League is making a mistake taking it out. … I think there’s gonna be a lot more hitting from behind, high-sticking major penalties when a simple drop of gloves would take care of it.

Carter: If I had to make a bet, I say this on the physicality side: I think the game is cyclical. I think with concussions and all the other stuff, there’s outside pressure to remove that stuff from the game. But as long as it’s legal, at some point it’ll become important to the game.

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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