Fighting in Ice Hockey: It’s Time for a Change

    Charles A. Popkin, MD, an orthopedic sports medicine specialist with the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, is bringing attention to fighting in professional ice hockey. Dr. Popkin has a particular interest in the management of ice hockey injuries and serves as a team physician for USA Hockey and is a member of the USA Hockey National Safety and Protective Equipment Committee (SPEC). He is also the team physician for the Fordham University Rams (Bronx, New York).

    image of Dr. Charles Popkin

    Dr. Charles Popkin

    In the May 30, 2022, issue of The Physician and Sports Medicine Dr. Popkin and his colleagues in the Center for Shoulder, Elbow and Sports Medicine at Columbia call on the National Hockey League (NHL) to address the ramifications of fighting on the ice. Since its inception in 1917, the NHL has been defined by the toughness of its players and for allowing a form of vigilante justice on the ice. In tracing the history of fighting in the NHL, the authors describe how years of violence became ingrained in the sport as promoters began to tap into fighting as a “source of fan enticement.” As the incidence of fighting increased, there were attempts at regulation, but never an outright ban.

    As Dr. Popkin explains, those who seek to allow fighting point to the fact that it has been intrinsically a part of hockey since its earliest days and that banning it would ruin the game. Supporters also subscribe to the “catharsis theory” in that it is better for players to fight “safely” in order to release aggression, rather than retaliate with hits from behind and other cheap shots. If intentional, fights appear to be for the sake of entertainment, energy, and intimidation, while more spontaneous fights serve to “deter dirty play, blow off steam, and protect star players.”

    “There have been three main arguments that the pro-fighting camp uses to justify the continued role of fighting in professional ice hockey,” says Dr. Popkin. “Fighting attracts fans and it helps win games, and fighting serves as a code or social regulation amongst players. Our recent research casts serious doubt on all these arguments. Attendance is on the rise in the NHL, despite the rate of fighting decreasing, only two teams since the modern era of Ice Hockey started – in 1967 with the expansion to 12 teams – have led the league in fighting and won the Stanley Cup: 1974-1975 Philadelphia Flyers and the 2006-2007 Anaheim Ducks. Finally, since the Instigator Rule was initiated in 1992, there has not been an uptick in the number of minor penalties.”

    Physical and Financial Consequences of Fighting

    Although concussions in hockey may result from a variety of sources, some can be directly connected with fighting, where the purpose is to strike the opponent in the head, which can result in a concussion causing force to the brain. According to Dr. Popkin, concussions in hockey put players at risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy and its neurobehavioral consequences. Hits to the head change the brain and over time change the player. “How many former players suffer from memory loss, mood swings, depression, and chronic headaches that we don’t hear about? Concussion rates have been on the rise in the NHL and are estimated at 5.8 to 6.1 per 100 games,” says Dr. Popkin. “This trend has continued despite the addition of Rule 48 for the 2010-2011 season that made it illegal to target an opponent’s head.”

    Dr. Popkin also notes that fighting contributes to the economic burden as the result of injuries, including concussion, broken metacarpals, facial fractures, and lacerations that are commonly sustained in hockey fights. Currently, two studies have looked at fighting in NHL players, with the incidence ranging from 3.6 percent to 8 percent. It is estimated that 51 percent of all NHL players missed at least one game in a season due to injury, resulting in an estimated cost to the NHL of over $200 million a year in lost salary for all injuries. Concussions were responsible for over $40 million.

    “Harkening back to the early days of the NHL, it has often been argued that fans attend and tune in to hockey games for the sake of watching fights between two tough guys on the ice,” states Dr. Popkin in the journal article. “Functioning under this assumption, the concern with decreasing the incidence of fighting is that it would potentially result in a decrease in ticket sales and overall decrease in team revenue.”

    In spite of arguments for the importance of allowing fighting to continue in hockey, Dr. Popkin cites a study that shows that the number of fighting majors per game has steadily decreased over the last 20 years in the NHL. Following that finding, he recently led a study to determine if declining rates of fighting have impacted NHL fan attendance. He and his Columbia colleagues hypothesized that despite decreasing rates of fighting in the NHL during the last two decades, viewership trends have been stable or even increasing during that time. “Furthermore, if fan attendance has not been affected by diminished rates of fighting, this would call into question the economic and entertainment value of fighting and its role in the modern-day NHL,” says Dr. Popkin.

    The Columbia researchers reviewed two public databases to determine attendance, fighting major penalties, goals scored, and games played for each NHL team from 2000 to 2020 and averaged on a per game basis. Their findings, which were published in the June 30, 2022, issue of Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, showed that fights per game decreased from a peak of 0.64 in 2002 to a low of 0.18 in 2020, while average attendance increased from a low of 16,549 in 2004 to a peak of 17,768 in 2013, before settling between 17,400 and 17,500 during the final three seasons of the study period.

    As a team physician keenly aware of the damage fighting can have on hockey players, Dr. Popkin is taking the lead in calling for a change to the rules of the game and making fighting a game misconduct penalty. It is currently a 5-minute major penalty.

    The NHL has intervened in the past and changes to the rules have had a positive impact on the safety of the game. With the Instigator Rule that was introduced in 1992, which carried harsher penalties for the individual responsible for initiating the fight, there has been a significant drop in the number of fights.

    “NHL fighting rates have diminished during the past two decades, while fan attendance has increased,” note the study investigators. “Our study shows a significant negative correlation exists between fan attendance and fights per game, casting doubt on fighting’s entertainment value. Meanwhile, we noted a significant inverse correlation between goals per game and fights per game. Taken together, these findings suggest fans may prefer higher scoring and less violent competitions. We conclude by suggesting that prohibiting fights in the NHL could improve player safety without negatively impacting fan attendance.”

    The Ultimate Goal: Protecting the Athletes

    The NHL’s promotion of brawls between players for personal retribution, team unification, and entertainment has evolved over the years. Although the era of the enforcer – the player charged with responding aggressively to violent plays by the other team – seems to be in the past, fights are still occurring with a spike seen recently in the COVID-19 bubbles during the 2021 playoffs.

    “We propose...to make fighting a game misconduct penalty. Furthermore, we recommend retaining the Instigator Rule and ‘third-man-in’ penalties. We are not suggesting in any way that all contact be removed from hockey as we recognize the sport is a physical one. There are numerous intrinsic hazards to playing this game. However, injury and concussion risk are very real concerns, and it is vital that we set the precedent of protecting our athletes by limiting unnecessary and intentional hits to the head.”

    “Player safety should be at the forefront of the NHL’s agenda,” adds Dr. Popkin. “It is a worthwhile investment in the League’s players and the long-term health and viability of the game.”

      Read More

      National Hockey League Fights per Game and Viewership Trends: 2000-2020. Fortney TA, Tedesco LJ, Kopydlowski NJ, Korzelius JF, Desai SS, Popkin CA. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. 2022 Jun 30;4:890429.

      Morrissette C, Anderson FL, Fortney TA, Tedesco L, Boddapati V, Swindell H, Trofa DP, Popkin CA. The Impact of the Instigator Rule on Fighting in the National Hockey League. Translational Sports Medicine, vol. 2022, Article ID 7024766, 7 pages, 2022.

      Fighting in professional ice hockey: It’s time for a change. Plassche GC, Fortney TA, Morrissette C, Korzelius JF, Popkin CA. The Physician and Sports Medicine. 2022 May 30:1-9.

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      Dr. Charles Popkin
      Dr. Charles Popkin
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