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The Assumptions of Hockey Fight Fans

Vancouver sports talk radio has discussed the importance and role of fighting in NHL hockey with some regularity this winter. The motivation for the discussion is related, I suspect, to a number of high profile and serious fighting injuries over the last few months. But the explanations for fighting in hockey — and, importantly, why it must stay in the game — are unclear to me. They range from ‘it’s part of the game‘ to ‘it let’s off steam’ to ‘it’s part of a code of player conduct,’ to ‘fans like fighting‘ to ‘it controls the chippy play of some players who otherwise can run amuck.’

Much of the discussion revolves around the role of the ‘instigator rule.’ This rule imposes a a two-minute penalty and a, after additional violations of the rule, a game misconduct. The rule essentially prevents immediate retaliation for unpenalized cheap shots. Some suggest it leads to greater violence as unresolved anger is left to stew.

The Team 1040 radio discussed this topic again today, motivated in part by a new Decima research poll that says only 22% of avid hockey fans would support a total ban on fighting (source: TSN). One caller to the radio station asked, however, for evidence that fighting is a necessary outlet for aggression. The on air hosts replied: in European hockey, where there is no fighting, there is a much higher rate of dangerous altercations with the stick. The caller rebutted: where’s the proof? On air host Dave Tomlinson, a former player in the NHL and in Europe cited personal experience as the basis for his response. His playing experience tells him that this is true.

I am not anti-fighting. But, I am increasingly curious to know some of the facts beyond the anecdotal evidence of hockey players turned radio personalties. Tomlinson may be right. But, what are the comparative NHL and European statistics about stick violence? Is Europe that much worse than the NHL? Does fighting actually cut down on other forms of dangerous activity like high sticking? And, is there a correlation between the instigator rule and an increased rate of ‘cheap shots’?

A quick google scholar search indicates that there is a tremendous amount of academic research into fighting in hockey. Can someone point me to some source material which compares hockey violence in Europe and North America? Can someone suggest reasons for continuing to allow hockey fights that doesn’t sound like ‘it’s always been that way?’

(And, before I get every hockey fight promoter providing their own anecdotal evidence, I am trying to find scholarly sources that use qualitative and quantitative research methods to answer the questions.)

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  1. […] CBC Radio program ‘The Current‘ had a fascinating discussion about fighting in hockey and definitions of Canadian masculinity. Sports writer Bruce Dowbiggin and sports psychologist Saul Miller contribute to the discussion. One of the callers to the program was Anne Hartman, anthropology graduate student at York University. This conversation is far more nuanced than the general banter about hockey fights you often hear on …. […]