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Fighting in Hockey: Incentives and a Change in Culture, part one

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Are the argued incentives to keeping the status quo in fighting -as they currently stand- logical and sufficient to keep it as is?

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Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

James Mirtle wrote an excellent piece on the demise of the enforcer. As with all great articles on controversial topics, the discussion inspired widespread debate; debate that I enjoyed watching transpire.

A common misconception on the topic of fighting in hockey is believing the argument simply boils down to pro-fighting versus anti-fighting groups. The validation of fighting's effectiveness is multifaceted and not everyone sits all on one side of the fence. You can be pro-fighting in regards to one aspect, while anti-fighting in regards to others.

Over the last few articles we have looked at these different topics with fighting individual, and the reasoning behind both sides. Now we turn to incentives for culture to stay the same this article, and will look at incentives for change next article.

Why care about incentives to fighting?

The opinions on fighting is not simply black and white. There are some people in the extremes, those who want to keep the status quo and those who want fighting abolished. As norm with most opinions, the majority falls in between the extremes; most (admittedly myself including) enjoy some aspects of fighting in hockey but long for the current status to change.

Combine the ineffectiveness of pugilistic enforcement, the physical and emotional dangers to fighting, and most hockey fans desire to remove enforcers and you have a push for change that the league should react with.

The best way to prompt change in decision making is to alter the incentives. The less incentives there are to fighting; the less often low or no impact fighting -like enforcer stage fights- will occur. By reflecting on the disincentives and incentives to fighting, we can evaluate the optimal decisions for the league in promoting change.

Disincentives to change

Resistance to change

The biggest disincentive to change is the natural reluctance for culture to change quickly. Resistance to change is human nature.

How often has "it's always been part of the game" thrown out as a counter argument? It is a bit disingenuous argument. Fighting has long been part of hockey's culture, but not always and even less in it's current form and uses. After all, fighting has always been penalized, much like spearing and tripping has always existed but been penalized.

Line changes were not always part of the game. Nor were helmets and goalie masks. I have some doubts in the games original construction -pre-dating line changes and other currently held rules- players would stop to have a boxing match to enforce the rules or attempt to alter momentum. Usually fans are citing the mid-80s, where fights per game hit their all-time peak. The 19080s -also known as the enforcers glory years- were in fact less the traditional norm than the current trend.

The impact of resistance to change within industries has been studied in depth in business. Unfortunately, business sectors current best answer is to counteract this disincentive with empathy and education.

Education and empathy will not do much for educating current players. Articles like this series are unlikely to change culture or the opinions of players like Kris Barch with thoughts like this. They do however promote longterm change. Already we are beginning to see change in lower levels, which will eventually change culture. In 2012, the OHL introduced a system of suspensions and fines for players who exceed 10 fights a season.

Entertainment factor

There is also the entertainment factor, an indirect impact to players. There are those that have argued a certain level of fighting is a necessary way to encourage ticket sales.

Much like the argument for protecting players, the entertainment argument mistakenly misses opportunity costs. (Keep in mind that we are not discussing abolishing fighting altogether but reducing the incentives to fighting and thus reducing the desire for employing low-minute goons.) In theory, the minutes gained with effective and skilled hockey minutes (more on this next time) may fully replace or at least diminish entertainment value loss with less goon fights.

A recent online study of over 1500 individuals found only 7 percent of adult Canadians believed fighting to be an essential component of the game. Again keeping in mind we are discussing incentivizing reduction and not abolishment, it is a very small number of the potential market being affected. Most of this group would likely remain followers due to the other parts that make hockey what it is. Whether the percentage changes in non-traditional hockey markets would be an interesting study.

The Canadian Hockey League president and commissioner was once asked about fighting being necessary in the more fragile junior hockey environment. David Branch responded:

First of all, it’s a very interesting question. I do not believe we need fighting as a mechanism to sell our game. I believe that we’ve evolved away from that as being one of the entertainment factors of our game.

I believe with the evolution of our league, better coaching, better training, better athletes, the pure skill and competitive nature of our game and the excitement our players bring, stands alone as an ability to sell our game.

There always has been and always will be an element that likes fighting but it’s not what we feel is a necessary force to keep fighting in our game.

Fighting as a strategy

Of course, the final disincentive is the theoretical aspects of fighting as a strategical tool, which was the focus of the three previous articles in the series.

Summary

There are three main resistors to the reduction in fighting to hockey. There is the strategical aspect to fighting, which has been illogically overvalued and has more efficient alternatives. There is the entertainment factor, which impacts many although is only necessary for a small contingent. Finally there is the natural human tendency to resist change, which will take a long period of time and education.

A reduction in the incentives fighting appeals to most parties. Fighting reduction forces teams and players to employ the tactic only when they deem it most necessary. A reduction also causes a decrease in relevance for fighting-specialists, also known as goons and enforcers.

Understanding the incentives to both the act of fighting and fear of change helps shape decision making in order to optimally shape the game's evolution.

All this from a guy who enjoys watching the occasional scrap and had his own share when he played hockey.