Hockey fights: the 5.5555555...% solution

I’m someone who has been fairly tolerant of the status quo when it comes to hockey fighting, so it might surprise you to hear I have a quik-‘n’-EZ answer to eliminating it. Hockey great/political not-so-great Ken Dryden appears in ESPN piffle-factory Grantland.com today with some intelligent, if stale, reflections on the relationship between head injuries and the game we adore. Dryden goes into nostalgia mode, as the camera dissolves to a shot of the Habs battling the Flyers in the old Forum, and he writes:

Once, hockey players did their own fighting. An elbow to the nose or a slash on the arm, and — big or small, good fighter or not — a player had to right his own wrong. Most players were bad fighters. On their skates, they wrestled, slipped, and flung themselves around. It was vaudeville. Now most fights are between designated fighters. Each such fighter knows what he’s doing, and though usually well-matched enough to be able to protect themselves, these fighters are also skilled enough to hurt each other.

This description is verifiably accurate; it’s not romantic nonsense. What Dryden is describing is specialization. The burden of fighting has almost entirely been taken away from otherwise talented players and loaded onto big SOBs who can’t do anything else well. Which, frankly, takes a lot of the fun out of it, and makes the fighting seem more like a distracting artificial appurtenance.

What change in the game might have accommodated this increasing specialization? The very obvious candidate that almost nobody mentions (though it’s a favourite of Roy MacGregor and of hockey bloggers Tom Benjamin and Tyler Dellow) is increasing roster size. If Dryden had ransacked his memory, he might have recalled that hockey teams weren’t allowed to dress 20 people when he played. In the 1960s, as he was stopping pucks for the Junior B Etobicoke Indians and the Cornell Big Red, the figure was 16 skaters and two goalies. It wasn’t increased to 17+2 until he was already a Canadien, or to 18+2 until he was a lawyer.

Many or most of the true goons in the league are frequently healthy-scratched from games and left to rot in the press box, as things already stand. It’s clear enough that if an 18th player were cut from NHL rosters, the loser would, in many cases, be the “designated fighter”. We know this may be so because, as Dryden hints, the DF didn’t appear in the game until around the time the 18th player was added. The goon’s degree of specialization has, over time, become extreme, like that of a punter in football—and it’s worth noting that we do see football teams doing without punters sometimes, in order to open up a roster spot for some other less esoteric specialist.

The DF is in the game because there is just enough room on rosters for a player with a talent that is radically uncorrelated to the skills the game is designed to express. And without a certain critical mass of DFs, there is no use having one around; they no longer, like Dave Semenko, skate on the same lines as young players who need protection. Their confrontations are staged separate from the real hockey—a tacit admission of their irrelevance to game outcomes (if the substantial absence of fighting from the playoffs weren’t proof enough).

I once imagined we might have seen the advent of the shootout specialist in that 18th roster slot by now. Shootout ability, in contrast with the ability to fight, could not possibly have higher leverage in determining game outcomes. But the shootout—contrary to the complaints of its detractors—turns out to, by and large, reward offensive skills germane to the game’s essence; the guys who are good on the SO are mostly the guys who are pretty decent at scoring anyway.

But even if the shootout were likely to pull particular players into the league who cannot otherwise compete, what players would those be?—ones with devastatingly accurate shots, beautiful decoy moves, creativity, and flair? How loudly could a fan reasonably complain about that? As it is, we’re instead dragging players into the NHL who excel at violence, and it’s not even the graceful violence of a well-executed hip check.