Hockey fans may be familiar with the old joke about the game's brutality: “I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out!” Depending on how much you enjoy a good brawl on the ice, fighting is either a reflection of the sport's rugged values or a distraction from the true contest at hand. But while hockey's savage reputation is well-known, does today's NHL deserve its violent rep? Is hockey still true to its bloody roots, or are current players more inclined toward peaceful play?
We decided to find out, studying the percentage of games that have included a fight in every season since 2000. We also discovered which teams are most likely to fight overall, and which rival squads have a habit of squaring up against each other. Read on to learn where the fighting tradition remains alive and well in the NHL.
Fighting Through the Years
Our data reveal a few seasons in which brawls occurred with relentless regularity. In four seasons studied (2001-02, 2003-04, 2008-09, and 2009-10), fights occurred in more than 40 percent of games. Considering the NHL's regular season schedule includes 1,271 separate contests, that's more than 500 fights before even reaching the playoffs. Other years were comparably calm, though: 2005-06, for instance, saw fights in fewer than 30 percent of games. Perhaps the players were feeling a little more solidarity because that year followed a lockout due to a labor dispute during the 2004-05 season.
It's hard to miss the recent decline in fighting spirit, however. No season since 2012-13 has had fights in 30 percent or more of its matchups. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has attributed this shift to teams' focus on hiring skilled players rather than brawlers who are best at bringing the pain. Perhaps this organic decline explains Bettman's lack of interest in further regulating fighting, suggesting it might even serve as an outlet that prevents other injuries.
Beyond general fight figures, which clubs are most likely to engage in fisticuffs? The Philadelphia Flyers were our most violently inclined team, and the antics of their 2017 draft pick Nolan Patrick seems poised to continue that tradition. Behind Philly, however, rank three Canadian clubs: Calgary, Vancouver, and Edmonton. Perhaps a little local fighting enthusiasm rubs off those teams' players, eh? The country is home to plenty of fight-friendly lesser leagues, including one dubbed the world's toughest.
Not so far south, the Detroit Red Wings were our least likely brawling team. That hasn't always been the case, however. Detroit's 1997 battle with the Colorado Avalanche is arguably the most remarkable in NHL history. The Hurricanes and Rangers also averaged fewer than 30 fights per season. Even New York may summon a little rage when they face their crosstown rivals, the Devils, though. On that subject, which teams seem to bring out the fight in each other? We ran the numbers to find out.
Our top fighting club combo involves a long-standing mutual hatred between the Canadiens and Bruins, as fans of either team will readily recount. Of all the times these teams have tussled, the most memorable may be their 1986 “Brawl in the Hall,” although one 2017 episode was remarkable for the reaction it produced in the presiding referee. The Blackhawks and Blues also have a long history of enmity, including bad blood between respective captains Jonathan Toews and David Backes.
The “ Battle of Alberta” between Calgary and Edmonton has also been lively in recent years and promises to feature plenty of feisty young stars on either side for seasons to come. And while some have suggested the Red Wings-Maple Leafs relationship needs some more stoking before it becomes a true rivalry, their fight record is already well-established. Rounding out our top five, the Flyers-Rangers “ Broadway vs. Broad Street” conflict yielded 245 fights of its own.
Better Odds Than a Beat Down
While our results show fighting may be waning in recent seasons, they also prove that the NHL can still throw down with passion on occasion. Even if you'd prefer more frequent combat, there's still a decent chance you'll see the gloves come off next time you attend a game. Plus, fights aren't why you follow hockey anyway … right?
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We analyzed data from the NHL's fight-tracking website hockeyfights.com for each full season since 2000-01.
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