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The Science of the Skirmish: the Mechanics of a NHL Fight

Nashville Predators v San Jose Sharks

If hockey and fighting had a relationship status on Facebook it would definitely be “it’s complicated.”

While hockey fights have long been considered a sporting event within a sporting event, there has been a gradual trend in the NHL away from the frenzy of the fight. In the 2008-2009 season 41.38% of NHL games had a fight, and 355 NHL players were involved over the course of the season, but just a decade later the percentage of games with fights has dropped to 16.74% of games with only 140 total participants.

While the number of fights is decreasing, the crowd response to gloves dropping is still enthusiastic across the league. Many hockey fans still like to see a good scuffle. As a first degree black belt in MMA, I appreciate a good technical fight. I decided to break down some NHL fights on film and see what I could learn about the unique nature of the hockey brawl.

To delve into a discussion of hockey fighting, I spent time with a martial arts mentor and fellow hockey fan, Eli Collier. Eli took me to my first hockey game and has been my hockey wingperson for most Predators games since. She is also well qualified in the field of fighting as a third degree black belt in MMA and in Isshinryu. She was ranked in the top five in the world in both forms of fighting in 2001 and 2002. She is (literally) a Hall of Fame martial artist. When I want to talk hockey or fighting, Eli is my go-to.

Hockey players and martial artists actually share some necessary skill sets—anticipation, hand/eye coordination, quick feet, and stamina. Yet after examining hours of hockey fight clips, I came to the conclusion that hockey fights diverge from traditional stand-up fighting because much of the science of a fight is cancelled out by one simple factor: ice.

“The biggest challenge to fighting on ice is that it’s very hard to plant your feet,” Eli explains. “You lose a lot of the force of the strike if you don’t have a solid base that won’t move.”

The force generated by a good punch always starts in the hips. That is where the power is. A solid sparring stance is one with knees slightly bent, one foot ahead of the other and shoulder width apart, and hips angled slightly. To get the most power in a punch, the back foot pushes into a jab or pivots while throwing a cross.

Hockey fighters have to compensate for the lack of a solid base. Sometimes they grab the uniform of their opponent to use for both stability and leverage. The uniform grab often leads to a “jerk and jab” move—pulling the opponent into the hand holding the jersey. This sloppy move won’t land with much force but will cause instability for the other player. To better generate power, players need a surface to push into and against, which is why fights often quickly migrate to the boards. This fight on October 25 between Casey Cizikas and Brady Tkachuk shows a brief “jerk and jab” move by Tkachuk at the very beginning of the engagement. Notice how punches were not really landing until the fight moved against the boards.

A natural instinct that fighters have to break is the urge to protect your face by looking away from your opponent. I can’t tell you the number of times I was corrected in a sparring class for taking my eyes off my target. This bad habit is something you often see in hockey fights. “I see a lot of blind punches thrown because players are attempting to protect their head at the same time by looking away,” Eli says. “I get it. I don’t want to get socked in the mouth either, but you can’t really hit a target without looking at it.”

A trained fighter would more likely face their opponent and slip punches rather than look away. Here again, being on ice makes it much more difficult to shift one’s weight quickly enough to slip a punch. Hockey players tend to defend themselves by looking down and away. Once a player is ready to throw a punch, though, he needs to first get eyes on his target. In his skirmish against Brayden Point on October 12, Jean-Gabriel Pageau does a great job of looking back up at Point before throwing and landing a punch. Eyes on target will always increase the number of landed shots.

Another challenge hockey players face during an altercation is the difficulty of changing up punches. Physics works against throwing a variety of punches in succession on ice because players can’t shift their weight and pivot in quick succession without solid footing.

The easiest and most common punch in a hockey fight is a swinging haymaker. In the fighting world, this is the most ineffective punch—it is wide and slow, giving plenty of time for an opponent to block and counter before it stands a chance of landing. Combinations of different punches—jabs, crosses, uppercuts—are essential to a good fight. That’s not to say that throwing a variety of shots doesn’t happen in the NHL. This fight between Brenden Dillion and Nicolas Deslauriers shows both the difficulty of landing a variety of punches in close succession (Dillion) and the repeatedly thrown haymaker (Deslauriers). Eventually Deslauriers gets a quick cross in before a change in position allows him to land more effective uppercuts:

It was surprising to me as I analyzed hours of hockey fighting videos how few punches are thrown that would meet a boxing judge’s standard for a landed punch.

If hockey fights aren’t really about landing many shots, why do they evoke such a passionate response? It comes down to the purpose of the hockey fight. Hockey fights are just as often about changing the tempo and energy of a game than landing solid punches against an opponent. They are about emotion, not strategy.

Crowd response is often the most accurate assessment of what makes a successful hockey fight. Smashville is certainly not immune to the fervor of a fight.

“As a martial artist and hockey lover, I have to admit I enjoy seeing the fights. They are exciting, and I am sure that is why the NHL has allowed them to continue,” Eli says.

But Eli and I both feel a twinge of discomfort when it comes to fighting in hockey as well.

“Part of me says there are adult men making adult choices, and they don’t have to participate in anything they don’t want to,” Eli remarks. “But the other part of me says they should also be able to play professional hockey without putting their bodies at even more risk.”

Fighting, like hockey, is a sport of nuance, and expecting hockey players to excel at both is asking a lot—even for professional athletes. Banning all hockey fighting would probably not decrease NHL injuries significantly; intentional player contact injuries account for the fewest number of contact injuries in hockey. Also, studies of junior hockey players show concussions occurring and signs of brain trauma beginning at levels where fighting is already entirely banned.

Yet the question remains: If fighting in hockey is one option players have to respond or reenergize, should it be removed entirely to prevent a small number of injuries? It is a question I continue to wrestle with as a fighter and a fan.