Over aggression in hockey: Where does it come from and how can we control it?

min - read
Sam Scouler
min - read
If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what you should know:
Being tough has been in hockey's DNA since it was linked to winning
Junior Major in Quebec clamped down on the agression
Progress has been made

What's all the ruckus about?

Since its inception, hockey has always been a physical, feisty sport no matter where or at what level it is played. But why is hockey such a violent contest? And how can tempers on the ice be controlled beyond just the basic rulebook?

Firstly; we should look at how hockey became such a violent and physical game and how it gained its reputation as a fighters’ sport.

From the long-list of enforcers who’ve dominated their side’s PIMs and fighting minutes, to the high case numbers of line brawls and incidents of over-aggression which have resulted in long bans or fines, violence in hockey is rife and ever-evident, but where does it come from?

The now infamous ‘Broad Street Bullies’ and ‘Big Bad Bruins’ teams of the 1970s were some of the first NHL teams to incorporate fighting into their Modus Operandi.

That Flyers’ team won back-to-back Cups in 74’ and 75’ while the Bruins claimed two Cups in three years between 70’ and 72’.

The success of these teams coined the idea that in order to get a better grip on the cup, you’d have to take your gloves off.

This set up a long-term stigma in the NHL, which still in part stands to this day, that teams had to be willing to go toe-to-toe in order to be number one.

We’ve seen since then though, that this simply isn’t true. 

Both the Flyers and Bruins were halted from reaching higher heights in the 70s by the same team, the Montreal Canadiens. 

The Habs won eight cups in 12 years during this period, including four-straight from 75’-79’, and relied on the skill, speed and intelligence of their players to get their names on Lord Stanley.

The Flyers still haven’t seen their bright orange reflection on the Stanley Cup since 75’, while the Bruins took almost 40 years to hoist the Cup again after the success of their barbaric early 70s side.

When Zdeno Chara got the eight-spoked B back on the face of the trophy in 2011, their success was once again largely down to the physical nature of the squad.

The Bruins were second in the NHL for fights per-game that year, at a rate of .72 fights per game, lacking only behind the New York Rangers who had a rate of .77.

The preparedness to drop the gloves at any moment and the physical determination of the 2011 Bruins side was an anomaly among Stanley Cup winners since the 1980s though.

Flyers on ice fighting

After the Cup made its way back to Massachusetts, the New York Times ran an article reflecting on the significance of an overly physical team winning the Stanley Cup.

The Times reported that from the 1980 to the 2010 season, teams that ranked in the bottom three for fighting minutes in a season had won the Stanley Cup 11 times.

This included some of the NHL’s greatest ever teams, from two of the Edmonton Oilers’ teams during the Gretzky years in 84’ and 87’, as well as both the 91’ and 92’ Pittsburgh Penguins teams.

While teams that ranked in the top three for fighting minutes in a season only lifted the Cup twice within that 30-year period.

The QMJHL’s clamp down on fighting by awarding one-game bans to instigators of fights as well as a minimum of a two-game ban for aggressors in fights plus an ejection from the game for all participants is exactly what is needed for the sport to progress in the right direction.

While it does bring some backlash from fans who support fighting in hockey for its entertainment value, it still improves the overall level of skill and value of the league and allows the best players to shine on the ice.

Former NHL stars such as Terry ‘Bloody’ O’Reilly and Dave Semeko were renowned primarily for their fighting proficiency and their skills as enforcers.

Between O’Reilly and Semeko, they achieved a total of five Stanley Cups in their careers with the Bruins and Oilers respectively.

The success of players like these and the success of teams like the Big Bar Bruins of the Bradstreet Bullies of the 70s are what makes fighting such an enticing part of the sport.

The spectacle of a big-open ice hit, a glass-shattering check into the boards or a drop of the gloves at centre ice is what makes hockey an exciting sport to watch for some people.

But it doesn’t come without repercussions, from the injuries it causes to the hesitance it brings upon young players in playing the sport for fear of being checked into next week by some 6’5’’ Semeko wannabe.

The best players in the NHL are the best because of their innate ability to play the game and outsmart their opponents, not their ability to knock someone out on the ice.


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