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In the 1920s, fighting in the National Hockey League was formally recognized as part of the game when the NHL introduced hockey fighting rules. With the NHL's Rule 56, you might say the war gates were opened in pro hockey. These rules and the subsequent penalties were then adopted throughout minor league and club hockey.
Until the introduction of NHL Rule 56, players in hockey games were automatically ejected when they fought. When Rule 56 entered the books, "fisticuffs" (what fighting was called at that time) became governed by penalties.
For the record, then as now, hockey rules state that fighting is illegal and is a violation that will be penalized. Still, NHL hockey fighting continues to this day.
In the late 1970s, movie fans were treated to the comedy Slap Shot starring Paul Newman, about a ragtag minor league hockey team that resorts to fighting and violence to gain popularity and crowd support. Hockey fighting thus entered the mainstream. Today, the NHL rules for fighting are covered under Rule 46—and fighting remains a pretty common part of professional hockey in the US, though it's technically disallowed and still regulated by a range of player and team penalties and league fines.
Theories abound about how and why fighting became expected and accepted in professional hockey. Maybe fighting was simply always a part of the game, before any rules were put in place to stop it? Or maybe in economically depressed and crime-ridden areas of Canada (where hockey is so popular it's part of the culture) fisticuffs were just the way that conflicts were decided—bare knuckle negotiation, in other words.
Often, fighting in hockey is a means of retaliation or retribution (payback, that is): when you see a hard check in hockey, you can understand why that kind of hit might cause a fight. Another explanation is one team intimidating the other team in an effort to swing the momentum of a game. And you can't ignore human nature and testosterone—sometimes, players just can't stand each other and want to throw down.
No question, as a fast and physical sport, hockey has body-to-body contact that can quickly escalate into a mano a mano slugfest or an all-out brawl. Even though penalties will be called, passions explode, tempers flare, and fights happen in hockey, especially in the NHL.
The NHL has a range of penalties for fighting or instigating a fight, including the "third man in" penalty for the first player entering an in-progress, one-on-one fight; penalties are stiffer for players leaving the bench to join in fights. During play, receiving two instigator penalties or taking part in three fights in the same game will result in the player being ejected.
Generally, penalties increase with the severity of the infraction and are characterized as minor (for example, a two-minute penalty), major (a five-minute penalty, as in "five for fighting") and game misconduct (ejection) in addition to minor or major penalties. The penalties called are up to the referee's judgment.
If you're curious about specific hockey fighting rules, check out the USA and NHL hockey rule books.
NHL rules give us the common phrase "the gloves came off" because players are required to drop their protective gloves when facing off in a fight, otherwise the leather and plastic covering of the gloves might inflict more damage than knuckles. Because dropping gloves is a signal that a player is preparing to fight, a referee can penalize a player solely for that action whether or not a punch is thrown.
NHL rules state that players must be non-weaponized when they fight—they have to drop their sticks, can't kick with their skates, and can't tape their hands like boxers to prepare for a bout. Fighting with a weapon brings a major penalty in pro hockey, usually ejection and the player can't be replaced for five minutes so the offending side plays shorthanded; also, stiff fines are levied by the league.
Hockey coaches can be penalized and fined, too, for letting their team's players leave the bench to fight, for example. The NHL uses the fines from penalties to fund emergency assistance programs and the NHL Foundation.
Fighting in hockey brought various strategies to the game, like intimidation. NHL teams often have designated enforcers known for their rough play, who either protect their skilled, non-fighting finesse teammates or use tough-guy tactics to intimidate opponents; they're quick to start a fight, but must avoid being called for instigation penalties, limiting how much aggression they can use and get away with.
In a kind of cold-war agreement in hockey, aggression is usually met with aggression, so hockey coaches must try to temper the violent aspects of their team's play so they don't constantly face retaliation, which keeps a lid on the frequency of fights, cheap hits, or dirty play. In this way, the threat of fights keeps hockey policing itself—which is probably one reason the NHL doesn't outright ban fighting.
But it's also true that some players are sent out on the ice to start fights, and they earn the dubious distinction of being known as goons.
You don't see much fighting at the college hockey level, in European leagues, or in the Olympics—fighting simply isn't allowed or tolerated. In NCAA hockey, players are ejected for fighting and suspended for subsequent games; fighting is like a failing college grade. In European hockey and in the Olympics, fighting earns strict penalties, enough so that most players just don't do it. Of course, hockey being hockey, fights do happen in Europe and players are ejected.
So maybe fighting in hockey is just an unavoidable part of the physical contest when men wearing skates, moving fast, and holding sticks clash on a frozen surface? Of course, fans eat it up (as the NHL knows) so you could argue that the promise of NHL hockey fights fills arena seats and brings television ratings—and NHL hockey is definitely a spectator sport.
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