Mastering the Basics: hitting and fighting in hockey

What roles do fighting and hitting play in progressing the game of hockey?

SFU player squeezed against the boards in front of his own bench by an opponent
Defenseman Matt Brown takes a hit to make a pass to his teammate, a common but selfless play. Jake Friedrich / SFU Hockey

By: Greg Makarov, Sports Writer

The role of hitting and fighting in sports has been debated for many years, especially in hockey where contact is frequent. Players move at high speeds to hit an opponent off the puck or use their body to gain position. Although the game has evolved over the years for player safety, the competitiveness of throwing punches has been left relatively untouched. 

Hitting — Another Ambiguity

Interestingly, the NHL does not provide an official definition for a hit apart from a safety video released some years back. This only adds more questions for the hit statistic that is commonly seen on game summaries, especially for players who might have a bonus hit incentive. 

What counts as a hit? How is it initiated?

The general understanding is a hit is a harder check, incorporating three basic conditions. 

  1.   The player receiving contact must have the puck or gotten rid of the puck within three seconds. Otherwise, the hit is considered late and may be eligible for a two-minute penalty or game misconduct (10 minutes). 
  2.   The player initiating the contact “must impede the opposing player in some manner” directly. If not, the player initiating contact must have used their stick or hands. This may be eligible for a tripping, hooking, or holding penalty. 
  3.   The contact must be “intentional and legal” (only shoulder to shoulder contact).

Seems simple, however, the game moves at an astounding pace and no play is ever identical, including the times when a player may get hit high on their body while bent down. This increases the difficulties of properly assessing penalties. Usually, most hits take place at the boards with one player checking another into the glass. On occasion, there are open-ice hits that tend to be powerful as both players travel at their respective speeds.

These unclear understandings sometimes lead to a disconnect between reality and what’s reflected on the statistics sheet. However, they do provide us with information on team play styles; some teams rely on possessing the puck and never throwing hits, while others use hitting to force the other team to turn over the puck.  

Fighting — Risky Business

Fighting, on the other hand, has always been clear cut. One player has a gripe with another. Usually, it is due to a hard check, something that was said (referred to as a chirp), or to defend a teammate. Fights have stayed in the game from the beginning; the only difference is their frequency and intensity. 

Fighting in the early hockey eras was more visceral and less controlled, as players had little to no protective padding and heavy solid wooden sticks. In 1922, a new rule implemented a five-minute major penalty for fighting. It wasn’t until the late 70s–80s that fighting evolved to become entertainment for fans. Players called “enforcers” would be employed exclusively to protect star players or simply for intimidation. These players are usually less skilled and are big in stature. This style of play was also encouraged by a lack of penalties called and less interference by linesmen, who are tasked with breaking up scrums.

Hitting continues to be an effective tool in hockey. While fighting has decreased by about 0.37% since 2001, it’s still used to resolve issues between players or protect goalies/star players. Although the league’s five-minute major effectively decreased fighting, it exacerbated hitting and the need to have a physical presence on a team. Without any clear distinctions, hitting teeters a dangerous line between career-ending and career-defining.