Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Hockey’s bare-knuckles legacy and whether fighting will likely always be a part of the NHL

In the sport’s earliest days, before the NHL even existed, hockey was known for outbursts of violence — not just fights, but stick-swinging and outright assaults, sometimes involving fans or officials. Fighting has always been a part of hockey but its place in the game has evolved, with marked shifts in how (and how often) hand-to-hand combat is featured. And not everyone agrees on what those fights mean, or why they’re part of the sport’s legacy at all.

Even a century ago, debates raged over whether hockey would need to clean up its act to find a wider audience. In the Original Six era, there were essentially no enforcers — everyone fought, and stars like Gordie Howe were largely expected to protect themselves. With only six teams and just over 100 jobs available, there was no room on the roster for one-note fighters.

But then came the 1967 expansion, which doubled the size of the NHL. More expansion followed, and the WHA arrived soon after, pushing the number of big-league teams into the dozens. And as that shift was happening, one team emerged as the most influential group in the modern history of NHL fighting.

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