When the National Hockey League returned from its disastrous 2004-05 lockout season with a revamped rulebook, one of the goals of the league was very clear: to change the NHL from its pre-lockout, defensive trap-minded mentality back to the days of hockey's most successful era, the late '80s and early '90s, and to try to appeal to a whole new market of fans. Gone was the slow, low-scoring snoozefest game of hockey, replaced with a more wide-open and exciting version, rewarding speed and skill.
The changes made perfect sense. Speed and agility are much easier to market to new audiences compared to the Left-Wing Lock and longtime fans missed the glory days of Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky's offensive domination. With the emergence of highly-regarded youngsters Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, the league wanted to ensure that the next wave of NHL superstars would be free of the shackles of the trap and be allowed to turn heads like former greats and attract viewers back to the sport of hockey.
While the NHL was on the right step trying to go back to the way things were, something got lost in translation. The game opened up and the finesse players were able to adjust to new offensive freedom, but it came at the cost of another type of hockey player: the enforcer. The NHL tried to cut back on the barbarity of the sport for potential new audiences, restricting fighting through new rules. The instigator rule was revamped, creating an immediate ejection for being the third man in and a suspension for repeat offenders. Combining the instigator rule changes and the new emphasis on skill, the role of the enforcer became much more limited in the new NHL. The league reached its goal as ratings soared compared to pre-lockout numbers, but not surprisingly, the frequency of on-ice fisticuffs plummeted.
Those running the league turned a blind eye to scrapping and tried to promote finesse as the only key to success in the new NHL. It seemed to be working, but don't tell that to the Anaheim Ducks. Despite seemingly hindering themselves by leading the league in fighting majors and penalties in 2006-07, the Ducks manhandled all those in their path en route to a Stanley Cup championship. Many predicted the skilful Ottawa Senators to win the final series, but the Ducks' toughness overwhelmed the weaker Sens as they won the series 4-1.
Thanks in large part to the successful Ducks, teams remembered the importance of enforcers and adjusted their rosters accordingly. More teams have designated roster spots to fighters this season and as a result, there is a 56 per cent increase in scraps compared to last year. Even the Dallas Stars, a team that formerly heralded discipline, now carries not one but three enforcers on their roster.
These new circumstances are a breath of fresh yet familiar air to the sport. The NHL seemed to forget how big of a role enforcers played in the golden days of hockey that they longed to regress to. Hockey is a physical sport, but enforcers ensure that if you get too physical or dirty with a team's star player, there will be hell to pay as a result. It was not uncommon to see caveman Dave Semenko skating on the same line as Gretzky for the Oilers in the '80s. Taking out Gretzky would help a team's chances of winning, but few were brave enough to do anything stupid and risk the consequences when they knew Semenko would take the role of judge, jury and, above all else, executioner. Much like Gretzky and Semenko, tough guys like Georges Laraque that back Crosby and Donald Brashear are watching out for Ovechkin, the Penguins and Capitals organizations (among others) and are making sure that their franchise players are getting all the protection they need.
Apart from using it as a way to protect your star players, fighting is also a great way to boost a team's morale. Down a goal late in the game? Seeing a teammate willingly put his face in the way of an opposing player's fists for the good of the team is a great motivator for you to get up off your own ass and follow his example of playing with more oomph and you better believe there's an even bigger confidence booster created if he wins.
Practical use aside, fighting also brings a completely different level of excitement and interest to the sport of hockey. Nothing brings a crowd at a hockey game to their feet quicker or entices more eruptions of cheers than seeing two guys drop the gloves and try and give each other free nose jobs. Hockeyfightsdotcom, a user on the video sharing website YouTube that posts videos of every fight that occurs at the NHL level, is impressively ranked as the 25th most-watched channel on all of YouTube, showing how many people still give a damn about hockey fisticuffs. The entertainment appeal of fighting is huge, as the recent surge of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and other martial arts programs in popular culture proves and there's no reason why the NHL can't glorify what has been a staple of their sport for decades and profit from catering to people's lust for bloodshed.
The NHL had it half-right after the lockout, realizing that fans missed the glory days of Lemieux and Gretzky, but they also missed the days of infamous goons like Bob Probert, Chris Nilan and Marty McSorely. After two years of fighting drought, the NHL is back on the right foot and as pressure from the team owners and fans to eliminate the new instigator rule grows, a complete fix of the problem seems very likely for the near future.
The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield summed it up it best when he said, "I went to the fights the other night and a hockey game broke out." For many dedicated fans, they wouldn't have it any other way.