Turn the clock back more than a decade to the 2006-07 NHL season and there was plenty of aggression and action still in the game. The crowds were baying for multi-player brawls and bust-ups on the ice, regardless of whether they were staged or not. In fact, during the 384 games hosted in the 2006-07 campaign, there was at least one major fighting incident in almost a third (31.2%) of the matches. Interestingly, more recent figures would suggest that the vociferous and aggressive NHL fans knew and loved back then is not the one we see today.
A look back at the 2018-19 NHL campaign shows that less than 200 games recorded a “fighting major”, the first time in the modern era of NHL that this figure has fallen to that level. The game as we know it has evolved immeasurably in recent seasons. Now, fourth-liners are no longer utilized exclusively as goons that patrol the ice looking for a tear-up. Instead, these players are increasingly viewed as great-value, with technical attributes that they can bring to the table not just physical attributes. Even fantasy NHL managers are looking for those that can score rather than brawl.
Brawlers Carcillo and Barnaby welcome the shift in mentality
Past players like Daniel Carcillo thrived on the physical battles that ensued almost every week. In fact, in Carcillo’s rookie season in NHL he found himself in the midst of 19 fights, racking up an impressive 324 penalty minutes as a result. However, this was all par for the course. It was expected that the players would down tools and tear strips out of one another when the tension proved unbearable. Yet during the last decade, there has been a steady decline in the number of fights during every NHL campaign. Carcillo himself believes the game is unlikely to return to what it was.
He said that the more placid NHL game will become “the new normal”. Some might say that the NHL is better without the fighting. When you consider that the sport is broadcast by many of the world’s biggest broadcasters, including Fox, who are planning to launch their own sports betting platform – FOX Bet – including NHL markets, such aggression may no longer be a good image for the sport. Interestingly, despite his bad-boy image in the past, Carcillo agrees that the sport “is better off without fighting”, allowing the skill and speed of the NHL’s stars to come to the fore.
The data, compiled by HockeyFights.com, confirms that the number of fighting majors in 2018-19 was down to just 224 from 1,271 regular season matches. That’s quite some drop from the 280 fighting majors received in the previous season. Almost two decades ago, the number of fighting majors in the 2001-02 NHL campaign was an eye-watering 803. Between 2000 and 2010, seven of the ten NHL seasons had a 50% or higher likelihood of a fighting major being received in each game. Contrast that with last season, which saw just one-in-five (18%) of games having fights breaking out, it’s clear to see that the players are making a conscious effort to clean up their act.
Former Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning brawler, Matthew Barnaby was involved in an impressive 59 fights on the rink during a three-year spell in NHL. Barnaby is in agreement with Carcillo that the physicality and pent-up aggression of the sport is unlikely to return on the big stage. Barnaby, who now coaches at a junior level and is a co-host of The Instigators show on Buffalo’s WGR station said that the “way teams are being built” in the present day doesn’t lend itself to all-out aggression. He added that while brawls used to be part and parcel of the game even at a junior level, it’s “not a part of that culture anymore”.
Is a more skillful, technical NHL here to stay?
You could argue that NHL officials have more than played their part. The 2005 lockout ruling saw the game focus more on offensive entertainment, leaving more physical, aggressive players on the scrapheap. Should the lockout system remain in place for years to come, it’s almost certain that bust-ups and brawls will continue to be marginalized.