Fighting in pro hockey doesn’t deter greater violence, a study finds

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Allowing fights between players in the National Hockey Leagues doesn’t deter greater violence in the modern game, new study finds.

In fact, teams and players that fight more often are also responsible for a disproportionate number of severe penalties across the league.

The results disprove arguments by league officials to keep the fight in play, he said Michael BezAuthor of the study and associate professor of humanities from Ohio State University.

“The topic of combat is polarizing within the hockey community and among casual fans. As a former hockey player and researcher, I wanted to see if the arguments in support of the fight held up,” said Betz, who played as a fellow Ohio State goaltender and briefly as a pro in the ECHL (East Coast Hockey League).

“What I found was that not a single approach I tried produced evidence that fighting, or even the threat of fighting, discourages more violent play in the NHL.”

The study was published in the journal today (June 22, 2022). PLUS ONE.

The topic is particularly important now with the increasing understanding of the consequences of traumatic brain injuries, said Betz.

“Fighting increases the risk of TBIs but is not essential to ice hockey and removing it would not fundamentally change the sport,” he said.

For the study, Betz examined data on all regular-season penalties from 2010 through 2019. He separated penalties into tactical penalties intended to give a player a strategic advantage and those that were violent and aimed to intimidate or hurt an opponent.

Severe penalties included boarding, tackling, elbowing, roughing, and large interference penalties. If fighting worked as a deterrent, it should reduce the number of those severe penalties that could injure a player, Betz said.

Overall, fighting in the NHL decreased dramatically during the study period – the 2018-19 season had 65% fewer fights per game than the 2010-11 season. Much of this decline was attributed to the league having access to faster, more experienced players and not needing as many players who relied on intimidation.

But if fighting is necessary for deterrence, there should have been an increase in violent penalties as the number of fights decreased. But exactly the opposite happened. While all types of punishments decreased over the study period, violent punishments fell more than twice as fast as tactical punishments (25% vs. 12%), according to the study.

Another team-level analysis also showed that fights did not protect a team’s players from more violent play: in fact, each additional fight involving a team was associated with harsher penalties being imposed on them.

“If anything, fights seemed to encourage more violence against teams engaged in brawls,” Betz said.

Even within games, the results showed similar patterns. Betz found that the number of severe penalties in a game increased rather than decreased after a fight.

The study also found that a fight between two teams early in a season did not significantly reduce the number of violent penalties in a second game between teams later in the same season.

One possible explanation is that having a top fighter on your team who can take on any opposing player reduces the level of violence against the fighting player’s team. Betz examined this by looking at the three players who had the most fights (6) during the 2018-19 season and one player who had one fewer fight (5) that year.

Whether or not these top fighters were in the lineup had no statistically significant impact on the number of heavy penalties their opponents inflicted on their teams, the results showed.

If fights have ever deterred egregious violence against players, this study shows that is no longer the case in the modern NHL, Betz said.

“The league may have other reasons for wanting to keep fighting in the game –– there’s evidence that more fighting increases fan attendance at games,” he said.

“But they should just come out and say so and not hide behind the deterrent effect because there’s no evidence of that.”

Betz said he is particularly concerned about the junior hockey leagues in the United States and Canada, which serve as the primary training grounds for players ages 16 to 19 aspiring to play in the collegiate and pro ranks. These junior leagues follow the lead of the NHL and, unlike colleges, allow fights.

“These younger players are not getting paid and their developing brains are more prone to traumatic brain injuries. The evidence shows that fighting does not protect them from other violence, so there is a real ethical issue here in allowing fighting to continue,” he said.

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