The first organized indoor hockey game was played at McGill University in 1875. They used a flat block of wood as a puck and goals were fashioned from two poles with flags on the end. People crowded around the ice surface to watch as there was no official seating. According to the Montreal Gazette, the final score was “two games to the single” and spectators were “well satisfied with the evening’s entertainment”.
At the end of the game, a brawl broke out between the hockey players and a local skating club upset about damage to the ice. According to the Kingston Daily British Whig “shins and heads were battered, benches smashed and the lady spectators fled in confusion.” China Ice Hockey
And so hockey was born.
Fortunately, Tonya Harding was not around in the early days of hockey and brawls with ice skaters were not common. However, fighting within the game did become a common occurrence. The lack of rules in early hockey promoted the use of intimidation and violence as a successful strategy for winning games. In order for a team to compete in this environment, it became necessary to employ enforcers – players whose main job was to fight and protect the skilled players.
Flash forward to the present. 135 years later. The game has evolved considerably. The wood block has been replaced with a vulcanized rubber puck and sticks with flags have been replaced with proper hockey nets. Recently, we’ve even been smart enough to sit the spectators behind safety netting
But as far as fighting and violence go, we’re still playing in the 19th century. Despite the fact that we have plenty of rules (the NHL rulebook boasts 87 multi-part entries) and the ability to enforce them (every NHL game is staffed by 4 on-ice officials backed up by a team of video replay judges), we have been unable to eliminate fighting from the game of hockey.
Because we continue to cling to this old school belief that fighting and the role of the enforcer is essential to keep cheap shots to a minimum and protect the skilled players. Unfortunately, this belief could not be further from the truth. The concept that violence leads to more violence is well studied and widely accepted. The notion that it somehow does not apply in hockey is absurd.
So while Don Cherry and other old timers spout anecdotal evidence that is entertaining to listen to, the reality is that allowing fighting in hockey does nothing to deter the headshots, the cheap shots or the stick work. In fact, allowing fighting in hockey only serves to create an atmosphere that promotes violence and disrespect for a fellow player’s physical well being.