New NHL features a lot less fighting

The salary cap and strict enforcement of obstruction mean fewer pugilist-only players.

Published December 26, 2005

TAMPA - A muscle-bound hockey player sits silently and expressionless as a scantily dressed woman arms him with shoulder pads and prepares him for a battle. "It's time," she whispers in his ear.

An announcer quotes The Art of War by Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu. The player exits the room and walks into a bright light with fans screaming as if he were a warrior entering the lions' den.

Fresh out of the yearlong lockout, this was the new advertising campaign unveiled by the NHL in August. But as soon as the commercial ended, so, apparently, did hockey's violent nature.

Fighting has not totally disappeared from the NHL. Go to a game and there's still a 29 percent chance you will see a fight. But that 29 percent is on pace to be the lowest since the NHL has kept such records. So much so that it appears time to retire the old joke of "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out."

Fighting is being weeded out of the NHL.

"In another year or two, there won't be any fighters left in the NHL," Hall of Fame player and Lightning founder Phil Esposito said. "They're being taken out of the game. It seems you never see a fight anymore."

That's especially true if you're a fan of the Lightning. This season, the Lightning has had only four fights, tying for the league's fewest with the Red Wings. At this rate, it will finish the season with nine fights compared with 44 in 2003-04.

That season, Lightning tough guy Chris Dingman dropped the gloves 16 times. This season? Not once. Instead, Vinny Lecavalier, perhaps the team's most skilled player, and defenseman Nolan Pratt lead the team with two each.

"I'm not really sure what is going on," Dingman said. "I'm challenging guys, but the big thing is fighters just aren't getting the ice time this season."

In years past, a game such as tonight's Lightning vs. Hurricanes almost assuredly would feature a fight between Dingman and Carolina enforcer Jesse Boulerice. Not this season.

"We've played them three times, and I think I've been on the ice at the same time as him once for about 10 seconds," Dingman said. "The opportunities just aren't there."

The Lightning has played 36 games, and Dingman has been scratched from 21. When he does play, he averages five minutes. Boulerice appeared in 76 games for Carolina in 2003-04. This season, he has played in only 18 of 34. In eight of those, he has played less than two minutes, including games of 52, 44, 42 and, get this, six seconds.

"Why isn't there fighting?" Boulerice said. "In my case, it's because I don't play. When I do play, I still go out and do the same things I've always done. But the game is changing. I still think there's a need for it, but ... "

But many don't because the new obstruction rules frown on contact and severely hurt big men who are better at using their hands than their feet.

"The game is becoming more like European hockey," said former Buffalo great Danny Gare, who played during the brawling 1970s and was equally adept at scoring and fighting. "The game is more free-flowing. You don't have those one-on-one battles. You don't have those big scrums in front of the net because the referees are calling everything that looks like a penalty.

"So guys are backing off one another, and as a result, there isn't the stuff that goes on that leads to fights."

The Eastern Conference has been more tame than the West. The Blackhawks from the West lead the league with 22 fights, or about one every other game, with Western teams Los Angeles and Dallas right behind with 21. Of the top 10 in fighting majors, only one (Ottawa with its tough guy, Brian McGrattan) comes from the East.

Meantime, of the 13 teams with the fewest fights, only one (Detroit) comes from the West.

"Still, it's down everywhere, and it's because of the new rules," Esposito said. "If you can't skate, you can't play anymore. That's the bottom line. In the old days, you could have a guy who couldn't do anything but fight because he wouldn't hurt you too much on the ice. But with the up-and-down of the game now, you have to be able to do more than fight. Plus, with the salary cap, you can't afford to keep around guys who fight and don't do much else.

"You watch. In a couple of seasons, there will hardly be any fights at all. That's where the game is headed."

It appears to be already there.