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Ottawa Senators' Chris Neil (24) takes a punch in the face from Boston Bruins' Milan Lucic during first period NHL preseason hockey action in Ottawa Friday September 25, 2009. THE CANADIANPRESS/Fred Chartrand (FRED CHARTRAND)
Ottawa Senators' Chris Neil (24) takes a punch in the face from Boston Bruins' Milan Lucic during first period NHL preseason hockey action in Ottawa Friday September 25, 2009. THE CANADIANPRESS/Fred Chartrand (FRED CHARTRAND)

Why fighting in hockey is not worth fighting for Add to ...

As the debate about the role of violence in hockey continues in living rooms, around kitchen tables and in arenas across the country, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman alluded to the part it plays in the league's business model.

"You're asking what would happen if we took a part of the game away that has always been there, so we just don't know," he said on a conference call with reporters. "But all the research we do finds that fans understand that it's part of the game, and they don't want to see it removed."

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The league doesn't divulge the details of its internal research, and contemporary data on the relationship between fighting and revenue remains scant. Instead, the argument is framed by conflicting anecdotes, a dearth of recent studies and die-hard diatribe.

The only hard truth is this: In the corridors where something can be done about fighting - populated by owners, general managers, players, and the league office - there is a nearly unshakeable consensus that tradition is tradition and is best be left alone.

Or as NHL analyst Mike Milbury, a former player and general manager, summed it up on NBC last weekend, "We have [fighting]because we like it. We like fighting. We like it when a player gets hit and knocked down and his teammate comes and gets immediate retribution in the nose. … We love it when teams stand up for themselves."

While academics and former players might argue that fighting is red meat for the fan base, consider that the three most-watched hockey games in history were played under rules that strictly ban fighting: the 1980 Olympic semi-final (the U.S. "Miracle on Ice"), the 1980 gold medal game, and the 2010 Olympic final in Vancouver.

By the same token, the NHL playoffs attract more interest than regular-season games, and given the stakes, punch-ups are rare. And at the grassroots level in the United States, on which the NHL depends to build its brand, fighting in the pro ranks is not a winning proposition for development.

"I understand the role it plays, although it doesn't help us to sell hockey to kids and families," said Dave Ogrean, the executive director of USA Hockey, the pre-eminent voice for minor and amateur hockey in the United States.

Then there's the recent experience from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, which in 2008 set out new measures to crack down on gratuitous violence.

Attendance has dipped slightly in each of the last two years, but league officials say there's no evidence that has anything to do with the sharp reduction in fights.

While the NHL's revenues continue to grow - they are projected to reach a record $2.9-billion this year - it can be argued the league's current business strategy is something less than a resounding success.

Indeed, there's a case to be made that getting rid of fighting could broaden the audience.

After all, in the United States, the NHL remains a niche sport, competing for attention with sports where fisticuffs are forbidden. While the 2010 Canada-U.S. gold medal game may have attracted nearly 28 million viewers, the 2011 Super Bowl had 111 million. In the meantime, as many as 16 NHL teams, according to some reports, are losing money.

In Canada, where revenues are propping up the rest of the league, polls show that a clear majority of respondents want to do away with fighting, while self-identified hard-core fans want to retain it.

As a business proposition, the absence of violence would have less than a seismic effect on network advertising, the lifeblood of pro sports.

"If someone came into my office today and said the rules have changed and there would no longer be fighting in NHL hockey, I would have no reason to believe initially that viewership would go down," said Sunni Boot, CEO of media buyer ZenithOptimedia.

And it's not like fighting isn't dropping off already.

While recent outbreaks of 1970s-style violence have grabbed headlines, the incidence of fighting has been cut in half since the peak season of 1987-88, and the current NHL season is projected to have fewer fights than the previous two. (That said, the frequency of fights is still greater than it was in the 1960s.)

Montreal Canadiens defenceman Hal Gill said this week that he believes fighting has its place as hockey's self-regulating mechanism, but paused when asked if he can conceive of an NHL without it.

"I can envision it," he said. "But it's not my NHL."

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