This might be the last thing fans and critics on one side of the longest-running debate in hockey want to hear, especially in light of the rising number of concussions:
The first-of-its-kind statistical analysis of the sport confirms the dirty little secret coaches and players have known since the dawn of the NHL. There’s no more readily available, sure-fire way to shift the momentum of a game than to send a player out to start a fight.
By measuring offensive output in the three minutes after play resumes, researchers at powerscouthockey.com concluded that fights produced a surge by at least one team an eye-popping 76 per cent of the time. The remaining 23 per cent of the time, roughly one out of every four fights, both teams raised their games. Surprisingly, it isn’t always the team whose players dominate the fisticuffs that benefits and researcher Terry Appleby said more work needs to be done to determine if those surges pay off in goals or wins.
Either way, the findings passed muster with a handful of players interviewed by The Associated Press earlier this week
“I’ve been made aware of what our record is when I fight and never really gave it a thought,” said Boston’s Shawn Thornton.
For the record, the Bruins were 38-13-8 in games when Thornton was involved in a fight. Even so, he might have embraced them a little too enthusiastically.
“I think it’s just a testament to how hard our guys play and how we try not to let each other down,” Thornton added. “But I’m a big proponent for keeping fighting in the game. I think it’s an important part of the game. If these stats encourage it, then it’s an encouraging sign and I’m all for it.”
Like most hockey fans, Appleby is conflicted about the role of fighting in the NHL and didn’t undertake the effort to bolster either side’s argument. He’s a retired senior economic research analyst for Alberta’s provincial government and 20-year member of the Society of American Baseball Research. He borrowed some of the metrics now commonly used by baseball executives to measure performance and adapted the models and algorithms to the game he grew up playing as a boy in Canada. Think of his work as “Moneyball” applied to hockey.
The website made its debut in October 2010, but Appleby has analysed more than 14,000 NHL games and the individual performances of 12,000 players and 28,000 goaltenders going back to 1988. He rates players in 12 different skill categories and goaltenders in 11, and his work routinely turns up on Sportsnet.ca. But he had little doubt his research on fighting would draw the most attention. That finding is based largely on how many shots a team gets on the opposing goal in the three minutes after a fight—a measurement Appleby settled on after developing a number of ways to analyse momentum.
Detroit general manager Ken Holland considered the findings briefly and noted there are plenty of ways to generate a surge: “You can analyse first goals, first shots—there are so many things in a hockey game—and come up with a different angle.”
Appleby personally subscribes to the theory that fights are effectively safety valves for players, a way to settle grudges that develop on the ice without resorting to using sticks against one another. He also pointed out that fighting was the only way to change momentum on demand, with little more than a knowing glance from the coach toward the toughest guy on the bench. It’s been part of the DNA of the sport forever.
“It might be provocative, and there are sure to be a lot of people who don’t want to hear it,” Appleby said, “but that’s what the data says.”
One of those tough guys, Buffalo’s Patrick Kuleta, said anecdotal evidence convinced him of that long ago.
“Most definitely. I think the biggest thing you’ll notice is the energy change. It could be going one way, and you go out there and fight—whether it’s a guy bigger than you, same size, whatever it is—you see a guy giving up their body and doing it for the team, just to create that energy is huge,” he said. “I’m sure you can feel it up in the stands watching, too.”
The finding comes at an uncomfortable time for the NHL, which is dealing with a growing number of concussions and still reeling from the deaths last year of three former enforcers, whose fates—at least one prominent neurologist suggested—may have been linked to repeated fighting. Coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, the league tweaked a number of rules to speed up the game and cut down on fighting, all the while mandating changes in equipment, rinks and medical regimens to make the game safer. And they’ve worked, to considerable effect.
“There have been no fights whatsoever in 66 per cent of our games this season. That percentage is a five-season high,” spokesman Frank Brown said Thursday. “The average number of fights per game this season is 0.8. The last time we were that low for a full season was 1974-75. While we have not seen this individual’s report, we are at a loss to understand his explanation for momentum swings in the 66% of our games when there isn’t a fight to support his theory.”
Yet the presence of an enforcer on the bench of just about every NHL team suggests coaches and general managers already believe what the research has concluded: But just like the number of fights, the number of enforcers in the league has been steadily dropping. Even so, fighting won’t go away easily or anytime soon. Earlier Thursday, Toronto general manager Brian Burke groused about sending his enforcer, Colton Orr, down to the Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate.
Burke previously served as the league’s chief disciplinarian, a job now held by former player Brendan Shanahan. Burke said the team was barely able to use Orr—he appeared in just five of Toronto’s 39 games—because hardly anyone wanted to fight him. He worried that this would result in more players taking cheap shots and seeking revenge in even more dangerous ways.
“I wonder about the accountability in our game and the notion that players would stick up for themselves and for each other,” Burke said. “I wonder where we’re going with it, that’s the only lament I have on this. The fear that if we don’t have guys looking after each other, that the rats will take this game over.”