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The First Word: Fewer punches leading to less pain

Fighting in the NHL hasn't gone the way of the dodo bird, but the number of combatants is on the decline and that's resulting in fewer trips to the infirmary.

Part of hockey's charm is its folksiness. It might also be one of its shackles. The homespun wisdom most of us grew up with includes a host of axioms that have been bequeathed and ingrained through the generations. The two-goal lead is the worst in hockey. Every five-hole goal is bad. It’s your fault if you get clocked cruising across the middle, admiring your pass or forgetting to keep your head on a swivel (also known as an oscillating neck). The problem is, when you put some of these standards to a fact test, they wither. Or times change and the maxims should, too. Scott Stevens built a Hall-of-Fame career, in part, on devastating checks that were legal at the time but now seem excessively violent in light of medical research advancements. Swivels shouldn’t be mandatory.

Fighting as a deterrent to other abhorrent behavior is another traditional belief held by much of the hockey establishment and hardcore fans. In a poll we conducted in 2014 among players, coaches, NHL team executives and agents, 80 percent of respondents said they felt fighting kept players “honest.” The pro-fighting faction has argued that if there were no nuclear retribution threat, the rats would rule. A rise in stickwork and cheap shots would make hockey more dangerous. I could fill this edition with supporting quotes from fight-club members, but this sampling from prominent figures is the gist:

Brian Burke, 2013: “The fact of the matter is I think this game is safer with fighting in it.”

Bobby Orr, in his 2013 book: “The threat of a fight, or the fear of doing something that might trigger retaliation, is a powerful deterrent.”

Gary Bettman, 2016: “Fighting may help prevent other injuries.”

Just a few years later, fisticuffs are in sharp decline. Are we witnessing the Year of the Rat? Anecdotally, there is some evidence the game’s best players are being targeted. As senior writer Ken Campbell identified in our previous issue, foes have taken liberties this season with the likes of Connor McDavid and Elias Pettersson.

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But is this behavior on the rise? Or is it a myth fuelled by the magnification effect of the digital age? How do we determine this objectively? How about man games lost to injury? This stat isn’t officially tracked by the NHL but, for 2009 to the present, it can be found on NHLInjuryViz, a website run by British hockey fan and statistical hobbyist Thomas Crenshaw, who manually compiles the data from a range of sources. And, (you can probably see where I’m going with this), man games lost (MGL) has declined in lock-step with the plunge in pugilism. In 2008-09, the league-wide MGL average was 6.47 per game, while there were 0.6 fights per game. Both are highs over the past 10 seasons. Beginning in 2013-14, when we witnessed the first sizable decrease in fighting, the corresponding numbers were 5.78 MGL and 0.38 FPG. Last season, it was 5.27/0.22.

The explanations for the parallel trends are open to interpretation. Were fighters causing more injuries than they were theoretically preventing? Are the new rules intended to clamp down on head injuries delivering desired results? Is it just one happy coincidence? Doubtful.

I dug a bit further into NHLInjuryViz’s data to try to determine how often prominent-to-star players were getting hurt due to reckless/illegal hits. This isn’t conclusive, but I only unearthed a handful through the first half of this season. Most notably, Vancouver super rookie Pettersson was concussed after being hammered into the boards and pile driven to the ice by Florida’s Mike Matheson. This resulted in a two-game suspension. T.J. Oshie suffered a brain injury on an illegal check by Josh Morrissey, the latter of whom was fined by the league. Mikko Koivu was sidelined after a knee-on-knee hit delivered by Mark Giordano. The dangerous play cost Giordano two games. Jamie Benn missed a game after taking a late hit from New Jersey’s Miles Wood. And that’s basically it.

Of course, plenty of players have been sidelined this season, but the origin of many of their injuries is unclear (thanks to the NHL’s lack of transparency), the result of clean hits, collisions, awkward falls or being struck by a shot. Crease crashing, which could be viewed as predatory, is contributing to the injury pool.

But big picture, players are getting hurt less frequently than they used to – even as teams are being more cautious about head injuries and rushing players back – while fighting has plunged. Sure there are still pests who take liberties, but there is no objective research that proves there are more of them or they’re striking more frequently. In fact, the evidence suggests exactly the opposite.

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