The National Hockey League: How Does a Youth Coach or Parent Explain the Role of Fighting in the NHL to Young Hockey Players?

By on November 6, 2013 9:29 am
Institute of Sports Law and Ethics

No sport fascinates me as much as professional hockey. Perhaps that is because I never played hockey at any level, and have attended only a few NHL games in person. Even a novice like myself can see that the skills, strength, speed and stamina of the players are nothing short of incredible. And within the sport of hockey, nothing fascinates me as much as hockey’s approach to fighting at its highest level, the NHL.

Simply put, for those of you who don’t follow professional hockey, it’s possible for a player to throw punches in an actual fight in an NHL game, serve a penalty for fighting, and return later to the same contest. I can’t think of another professional sport (excepting boxing, ultimate fighting and mixed martial arts, of course) where that is possible.

How can a young hockey player not conclude that fighting has a meaningful place in the sport when it’s been a part of hockey at the highest level forever? How do coaches and parents change that mindset? Or, do they? At least a few parents made the decision to enroll their child in this camp designed to teach him how to fight in a hockey game.

The debate over the proper role of fighting in the NHL is certainly not new. Please see this article for a summary of NHL fighting issues. Then, I’d recommend this article for a report of a recent Mayo Clinic conference on fighting and concussions in hockey.

I’m not going to argue whether fighting should or should not be a part of the NHL, and if you’re a long-time hockey fan you already know the arguments on both sides and have formed your own views. For an example of wonderful hockey without fighting, check out the magnificent gold-medal match between Canada and the USA at the 2010 Olympics. NHL players have been competing in the Olympics for years, and the fighting is almost non-existent. Why? Perhaps because fighting in Olympic hockey results in expulsion from that match and a one-game penalty.

If you know nothing about hockey, I think the most basic argument on behalf of fighting is the assertion that fighting brings self-policing to the game and thus is actually beneficial to the overall safety of the game and its players. It is said that fighting serves as a safety valve, if you will, and provides a measure of needed accountability for players who take cheap shots on the ice.

When I attended my first NHL game years ago a fight broke out between two participants. My companions, life-long NHL fans, explained to me after the match that the fight we had watched was actually between two “enforcers” who fought on behalf of their teammates, and in doing so, served to calm both teams down and keep the game more manageable and safer for all the players.

I had never heard of anything like that, and I certainly had never experienced anything like that in the sports I had played. I was intrigued that men would willingly sacrifice their health for the good of their team, and of course for the significant financial benefit of an NHL paycheck. I thought it was kind of noble in a way. Then I read this article about hockey-enforcer suicides and I have not been able to look at enforcers and their role in quite the same way.

Some have suggested that fighting is on the way out in the NHL. I found this recent article to be of interest in that regard. Perhaps, as the author suggests, enforcers are in fact dinosaurs in the NHL, as more teams decide that they cannot devote a precious roster slot to enforcers in lieu of more skilled performers.

But as long as fighting remains a reality in the NHL, we are left to ask: how are we going to explain that conduct at the highest level of the sport to our children who play hockey? How should a youth hockey coach address fighting?

I never had to confront this while coaching youth basketball. Fighting is punished severely at all levels of play from high school basketball through the NBA, so the kids I coached didn’t have a model to emulate that embraced fighting as a part of the game. Of course, kids interested in hockey can go online and access footage of brawls as well as fights of various NHL enforcers, if they are so inclined.

I’d be interested in hearing from any of you who coach youth hockey. How do you address fighting, especially in an age where models of fighting at the highest level are so easily available online to young players? How do you address this challenge as a parent?

Please contact me at mgilleran@scu.edu with any thoughts. Thanks.

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One comment on “The National Hockey League: How Does a Youth Coach or Parent Explain the Role of Fighting in the NHL to Young Hockey Players?
  1. Jack Bowen says:

    Great article, Mike. Here, it seems that this presents yet another example in which professional sport differs–or, *should* differ–from youth sport.

    I didn’t see anywhere in your article any mention of how the rules differ for youth hockey. I have to imagine that we don’t want 8 year olds throwing their gloves off and hitting each other in the face. Haven’t the rule-makers established a more serious set of consequences for this behavior? That would be a good place to start.

    Part of the issue too has to do with the answer to the question, “What makes one ‘good’ at the game of hockey?” Should we include, “Is effective at hitting others in the face with a closed fist” as a skill to be included under the umbrella of being “good” at this game? It certainly doesn’t seem so to me.

    Thanks for a relevant, thoughtful post.

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