TORONTO – Shawn Thornton used to scan the roster of his team’s next opponent for players he might have to fight, but in today’s NHL that’s no longer necessary.
It’s a new reality embraced by the 38-year-old one-time enforcer.
“I’m OK with not having to lose sleep every single night,” Thornton said.
Fights have plummeted nearly 50 per cent from only five years ago, according to HockeyFights.com, a stunning reversal for a league that has long contemplated fighting’s place in the game.
The NHL is on pace for about 300 fewer fights from the 2010-11 season, a 47 per cent drop, and nearly 400 fewer scraps from the more 730 of two years before that. In fact, the NHL is likely to see fewer fights this season, about 345, than the 347 during the lockout-shortened 48-game campaign in 2013.
The Anaheim Ducks led the league with 78 fights as recently as the 2009-10 season. They may be the only team to hit 40 this season.
It’s become clear in internal emails made public last week that the NHL has wrestled with fighting amid the rise in concussion awareness. But it’s apparent that fighting has diminished almost naturally in a game that relies on speed and skating more than ever before.
“It’s just like anything,” said Maple Leafs forward and long-time fighter Rich Clune, “the fat’s getting trimmed.”
Toronto led the league in fighting as recently as two seasons ago with heavyweights like Colton Orr, but has since veered in the opposite direction under team president Brendan Shanahan, adding as much speed and skill as possible.
Previously the NHL’s senior vice-president of hockey operations and player safety, Shanahan advocated for fighting’s removal in the fall of 2011, internal emails show. Earlier that year, three former players and regular fighters, Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, died in the span of a few months.
Shanahan urged league officials to adopt stiffer penalties for fighting. “Let’s be first,” Shanahan said of becoming the first North American hockey league to adopt such rules. “I believe it’s the right thing to do.”
The NHL did not follow his lead ultimately, making small tweaks instead that penalized players for removing helmets or fighting with visors.
“…I think the NHL is cognizant of the fact that they can’t eliminate it and turn it into a non-contact sport because I don’t think it’ll sell,” Clune said. “I don’t think it’ll sell, especially in America where the game is still growing.”
A faster game, Thornton suggests, has left less room for the “one-dimensional” enforcers that once roamed the ice, the kind Shanahan described in a 2007 competition committee meeting as “essentially trained fighters.” Teams don’t dress players like that much anymore, buoyed by analytics that shine light on who’s actually effective and who’s not.
Internal emails suggest that the NHL’s concern in eliminating fighting would mean that the role and job of fighters would simply die. But that’s happened anyway.
The leading fighters of today mostly average at least 10 minutes, including the Islanders’ Matt Martin, who plays a regular shift with a heavy presence on New York’s fourth line.
Fourth lines with some degree of skill are more common today.
“Some guys (are) going to play in the league because they’re gritty and they’re going to fight sometimes,” said Florida’s 23-year-old winger Jonathan Huberdeau. “But I think these days there’s no fighters that can’t play hockey.”
Young players today just don’t fight like they used to either. Many of the leading fighters this season are pushing 30 or older. Recent rule changes in junior hockey tied to taming fighting have also added to the changing culture.
Increased awareness about concussions has led some, including top league officials, to question fighting’s place in the game, but not Thornton. He estimates one, maybe two concussions in a career that included hundreds of fights.
The Florida Panthers veteran thinks a speedier game with higher-impact collisions is primarily to blame for the prevalence of concussions.
“How many guys get them from fighting? It’s few and far between,” said Thornton. “It actually kind of pisses me off a little bit that the fighting thing is the first thing that’s thrown out there when they talk about concussions.”
At the GM meetings in the spring of 2009, the league’s “Fighting Analysis” showed that about half of all fights that season could be described as “Want to go” fights, which happened for no apparent reason, or “Face-off Fights”, which happened immediately after a faceoff, the internal documents revealed.
Thornton knew, for example, that when his old Bruins squad played the Sabres he was dropping the gloves at some point with six-foot-four heavyweight Andrew Peters. He’s glad those staged fights don’t happen anymore as is Clune, who describes them as “embarrassing”.
“I’m selfish,” Clune said. “I don’t want to have John Scott breathing down my neck.”
Fights today mostly occur as organic flare-ups or as retaliation. The number of fights per game has dropped nearly every season, from a post-lockout-high of 0.60 fights per game in 2008-09 to less than half that at 0.28 on average this season, according to HockeyFights.com, the go-to source on fighting stats.
Whether fighting eventually dies altogether some day is unclear. Some believe a good balance has emerged.
“I don’t know but I would assume if you asked every guy on my team they like when I’m in the lineup,” Thornton said. “You always want to know somebody has your back. I just think you have to be able to play now.”
“I like to fight,” Clune added. “But I like to play hockey more. I think where the game is going right now is pretty close to where I think it can still sell and it’s a lot safer for the players.”