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Fighting Didn’t Stop In The NHL Bubble

It was conspicuously quiet when Mikhail Sergachev and Brian Boyle dropped their gloves and took aim at each other’s faces. Perhaps it was because there were no fans at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. Or perhaps it was because the game was an exhibition, little more than an opportunity to work off the pandemic-induced rust accumulated over four months of down time.

So it was that hockey’s return — staged in an antiseptic bubble — involved a scrap.

In the NHL’s official restart a few days later, Justin Williams and Ryan Strome came to blows within three minutes. “That’s what a week in a hotel room will do for you,” a member of NBCSN’s broadcast team quipped as a two-person crew cleaned blood off the ice.

Tuning in for the NHL postseason has felt a lot like stumbling upon Dana White’s fight island. Like buying a ticket to the pugilism gallery.

Hockey fights are back

Fights per game in the NHL postseasons since 2011-12

Year Games played Total fights Fights per games played
2012 172 19 0.110
2013 172 15 0.087
2017 174 13 0.075
2020 184 11 0.060
2016 182 9 0.049
2014 186 9 0.048
2018 168 8 0.048
2015 178 8 0.045
2019 174 3 0.017

The 2020 postseason includes qualifying and round-robin games but excludes exhibitions.

Sources: Hockey Fights, Hockey-Reference.com

HockeyFights.com, the sport’s invaluable video depository, has catalogued 11 bouts during the 2019-20 postseason.1 Even if pacifism prevails the rest of the way, this postseason will have featured as much documented aggression as the past two playoffs combined, with the fourth-most fights per game in the past nine years.

To be sure, fracases are rare in the playoffs, where the loss of a player for extended time can swing a series. FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver noted in 2014 that fights were about one-third as common in the postseason.

But in the bubble, they have not only been remarkably commonplace but also incredibly drawn-out.

FiveThirtyEight timed each of the 44 postseason fights since 2016 listed on HockeyFights.com. We started timing at the moment when a player’s gloves fell to the ice and ended when an official stepped in to break up the skirmish.2

There have been three minutes and 10 seconds of fighting in the bubble, with the average bout lasting roughly 17.3 seconds, the longest since 2017 and nearly twice the length of last season’s tussles.

Fights are lasting longer and are happening earlier

Postseason NHL fights since 2016 by duration of fight and average period they occurred

DURATION IN SECONDS
Year No. of fights Average Period Total Average
2020 11 1.3 190.1 17.3
2019 3 1.7 31.4 10.5
2018 8 2.4 98.7 12.3
2017 13 2.2 226.0 17.4
2016 9 2.6 96.9 10.8

Fights were timed from the moment a player’s gloves fell to the ice until an official stepped in.

Source: Hockey Fights

Not only are the run-ins taking longer to play out, but they’re also materializing earlier. Of the 11 postseason scraps, eight occurred in the opening period. From 2011 to 2019, less than one-third of postseason scraps occurred in the first 15 minutes, while 56 percent happened in the final period. Thus far, there hasn’t been a fight waged in the final 15 minutes.

This comes as fight frequency leaguewide has tapered off over the years and nosedived over the past decade. Total regular-season fights plummeted from 803 over the 2001-02 campaign to 195 this season. The league’s low-water mark has been set in three consecutive seasons. Where a fan 10 years ago had a coin-flip chance of attending a fracas, the modern-day one has less than a 17 percent chance of watching athletes drop the mitts.

Fights are down overall in hockey

Regular-season fights in the NHL by season and number of players involved

Season No. of fights No. of players involved Fights Per Game
2019-20 195 224 0.18
2018-19 238 140 0.19
2017-18 280 265 0.22
2016-17 372 285 0.30
2015-16 344 269 0.28
2014-15 391 276 0.32
2013-14 469 288 0.38
2012-13 347 245 0.48
2011-12 546 321 0.44
2010-11 645 348 0.52
2009-10 714 341 0.58
2008-09 734 355 0.60
2007-08 664 324 0.54
2006-07 497 292 0.40
2005-06 466 276 0.38
2003-04 789 340 0.64
2002-03 668 321 0.54
2001-02 803 348 0.65
2000-01 684 329 0.56

Source: Hockey Fights

There’s a certain ritual to curated violence in the NHL, much of which is traced back to an amorphous code. Officials seldom step in to stop a fight unless one participant is being pounded into a vegetable or until the fighters bring the action literally down to the ice.

Some say fighting has no place in the sport, while others would counter that a certain degree of on-ice policing is required. But an influx of skill at every position in an offensive-minded league has largely rendered the prototypical enforcer a dying breed. And while there are still plenty of missing teeth in the NHL, and all-league bodyguards like Ryan Reaves of the Vegas Golden Knights and Milan Lucic of the Calgary Flames are very much willing to grant someone a one-way ticket into the boards, fisticuffs are no longer a player’s primary occupation.

With the second round underway, four of the top 11 fighters this season3 remain in the bubble. But will the sparring continue?

Like their NBA peers, NHL athletes are leaving the two bubble arenas and mostly returning to the same hotels. If players have gotten sick of one another, expect it to only get worse in the coming weeks. Any simmering testosterone from the league’s hiatus is long gone, but players will continue to search for ways to energize the team.

The lack of a crowd has created an energy void for players, but it also means that barbs are no longer muted; players can literally hear opponents chirping during games. And the emotions of postseason hockey certainly don’t diminish as teams advance into the later rounds.

Fighting has recently gone quiet, with the latest official fight coming on Aug. 14. But considering this postseason’s uptick, that’s a trend that may not continue for too much longer.

As Sergachev put it after his exhibition altercation with Boyle, “That’s playoff hockey.”

Footnotes

  1. Excluding exhibition matches but including qualifying round and round-robin games.

  2. This may be a sweet science, but it’s an inexact one!

  3. Ross Johnston of the New York Islanders, Matt Calvert of the Colorado Avalanche, Barclay Goodrow and Patrick Maroon of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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