The Enforcers: Examining Fighting In Hockey

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The sound of blades cutting through the ice can often remind an observer of how dangerous hockey can be. But it is the time when the fists come out that really heats up the game.

A close game can build frustration for both teams, where a blowout can leave one team looking for a fight. Fights are often the most exciting part of hockey and can draw large crowds, but these crowds just see a fight. They never think to look past the fight to see how they can really be strategies the players use on the ice. 

This season, forward John Pietramala has been ejected from a game once. Defenseman Paul Sergi and forward Brett Agnew have each been ejected twice. Ejections don’t always happen because of fighting, but it is a popular reason. This year, these players have become familiar with the rougher side of hockey.

“I feel like the penalties I do take are more roughing penalties rather than stick penalties, so like boarding, anything involving hitting usually,” Pietramala said.

However, sometimes these hits are for valid reasons. Not all hockey players fight just to fight, often it is to improve the safety of the game.

“Fighting keeps the game regulated. It keeps cheap shots down. It keeps the game clean, it's kind of an oxymoron saying fighting keeps the game clean but it does,” Pietramala stated.

It’s an odd concept to grasp that by starting a fight a player can ultimately control the amount of fighting in a game. However it seems to work for Ohio’s hockey players.

“A lot of it is about respect. You can’t go around giving cheap shots to players. Fighting is a way of regulating that and making sure that the game stays intense but it also stays clean,” Sergi said.

So if fighting were such a helpful part of the game, then you would think college regulations would allow it. Well you would be wrong.

“I think the style of play in this league and college hockey in general doesn’t really allow for as much roughing and boarding as you would typically see in professional hockey,” Sergi said.

In college hockey the penalty for fighting could range anywhere from time in the penalty box to ejection to even suspension from playing the next game. Sergi went on the elaborate the use of fighters in professional hockey.

“Every professional team will have guys to act as the policeman for the team and keep things in order. There’s a respect amongst those guys in the league,” Sergi said. “They’re all there to do the same job so they have to have some sort of respect for each other because what they do could be considered the most dangerous job in hockey. They will always make sure the other one is ready to fight when they’re about to fight and they’ll generally tap hands or congratulate each other after a fight.”

The fighting in hockey is not as unorganized as it may seem. Instead, there is etiquette involved that makes fighting a lot safer and more professional.

“It’s all about respect,” Agnew said, also adding that it is hockey etiquette to ask one player if he wants to fight before he actually engages in a fight so a punch doesn’t just come out of nowhere.

Sometimes players break this etiquette. This very situation happened to Pietramala during the first game of a two-game series against Arizona on Oct. 19.

“The kid jumped him out of nowhere,” Agnew explained. “He didn’t know it was coming and it’s just rule, almost a code that you don’t do that. So for him to just jump him like that was pretty classless, so to see Pietramala step in there and get his ground and beat that guy was definitely my favorite fight of the year so far.”

This has been the biggest fight of the season thus far, although small fights break out at almost every game. There are numerous factors that can just cause a player to snap on the ice. When that happens a fight is sure to ensue.

 “It could be a number of things,” Agnew said. “When one of your teammates gets a cheap shot, you want to stick up for them, and it’s something that builds camaraderie with the team. Or if the team is not playing well or if everyone is frustrated, sometimes that happens. My most recent ejection was at the end of the game, we were just about to lose. There was just too much frustration and boys will be boys I guess.”

That particular incident happened with one second left in the game. It doesn’t matter how much time is left, when the frustration of giving up a game-winning goal comes to head, then tempers, and fists, will fly.

For spectators, seeing a hockey player throw a punch on the ice has become a common part of the game like skating, passing and shooting. But the respect involved elevates the fighting to a new level of courtesy. Fighting isn't just about the bloodshed.

Pietramala said it best: "We have respect for each other off the ice. So whatever happens on the ice, stays on the ice and we shake hands after and move on.”