July 3, 2020

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Mythical boost from brawling is bullshinny, study suggests

Opinion

It's a staple of NHL-themed video games. Need an instant energy surge? Invite your opponent to drop the gloves, beat them senseless and receive an automatic power boost for the rest of your lineup.

This widely held theory also applies to the real-life version of the sport, too, especially, as of late, here in Winnipeg, where the Jets are literally applying their "stay in the fight" slogan.

Turns out it's all a bunch of hockey hooey.

"There is no evidence that winning a fight leads to better results in the immediate aftermath of the fight. In fact, it appears that the team winning the fight will score slightly less goals in the game than they did previously," a study by sports analytics students at Georgetown University concluded.

The group conducted a detailed review of all NHL fights in a given year to see whether they legitimately provided a momentum swing one way or the other. They used voting data from the hockeyfights.com website, which tracks every tilt, to determine who got the better of the duel and what the score was both before, and after.

St. Louis Blues' Robert Bortuzzo (right) gets a shot in against Nashville's Jarred Tinordi on Saturday. (Billy Hurst / The Associated Press files)</p>

St. Louis Blues' Robert Bortuzzo (right) gets a shot in against Nashville's Jarred Tinordi on Saturday. (Billy Hurst / The Associated Press files)

And all that blood, sweat and risk of brain damage is pretty meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

"There was no tangible evidence that winning fights affected the outcome of hockey games, and the idea that losing teams put more goons onto the ice in order to claim momentum needs to be questioned," they wrote.

You'll have a hard time convincing Blake Wheeler and his teammates.

Just look at this past Tuesday in Washington, where the Jets were off to another sluggish start, down 3-0 and getting swirlied and wedgied on every shift by the bigger, better, tougher Capitals. Defenceman Anthony Bitetto had seen enough. He invited Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway to dance, admitting later that he was trying to spark his mates while also getting out some personal frustration after Hathaway schooled him on the third goal.

Bitetto got the better of the brief brouhaha. And the Jets scored the next three goals of the game, eventually falling 4-3 in a shootout in what they touted as a moral victory against a quality opponent.

Coincidence? Not according to the captain.

Boston's Zdeno Chara punches Vancouver's Tyler Myers on Saturday. Chara won the fight, but Vancouver won the game 9-3. (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press files)</p>

Boston's Zdeno Chara punches Vancouver's Tyler Myers on Saturday. Chara won the fight, but Vancouver won the game 9-3. (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press files)

"Tony Bitetto finally had enough getting (expletive) pushed around for a period-and-a-half, you know, dug his heels in the mud and gave a little life to our group. That was the turning point in the hockey game," Wheeler said.

We all have different ways of trying to perk ourselves up. Some splash cold water on their faces or jump in the shower. Others head straight for the coffee maker. Perhaps a brisk morning walk or treadmill session is more your style.

The sleepy Jets? They like to come out swinging, apparently. They've cited similar wake-up calls in recent victories over Ottawa and Chicago, where Nathan Beaulieu literally took matters into his own hands and fared well.

Of course, the Capitals had a different take on things, believing they took the foot off the gas a bit while also being the victim of some bad puck luck. It's not like Hathaway and his teammates were suddenly cowering in fear or quit playing because Bitetto won the scrap on points.

"When we get that kind of lead, we have to manage the puck right, you know, and we should easily win the game," Alex Ovechkin said.

Still, those who believe there's still a time and place for fighting would use this as Exhibit A to make their argument, which falls apart when you look at what happened that same night, a couple of hundred kilometres away, in Hershey, Penn.

Toronto Maple Leafs right winger Kasperi Kapanen dukes it out with Pittsburgh Penguins centre Jared McCann en route to a 4-0 Toronto victory on Feb. 20. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press files)</p>

Toronto Maple Leafs right winger Kasperi Kapanen dukes it out with Pittsburgh Penguins centre Jared McCann en route to a 4-0 Toronto victory on Feb. 20. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press files)

The Charlotte Checkers were down 4-1 in American Hockey League action. Defenceman Derek Sheppard had seen enough. He dropped the gloves with Bears forward Kale Kessy, hoping to ignite a comeback.

Sheppard quickly landed a devastating right. Kessy was out on his feet, crashing face-first to the ice. The one-time Manitoba Moose player was stretchered off the ice and taken to hospital, where he remains in stable condition. Following a 45-minute delay, the Checkers gave up two more goals, losing 6-1.

There was no inspirational rally, no turning point to be found in this one, and those who would like fighting wiped out of the game would use this ugly incident as their own Exhibit A to make their argument.

The near-tragedy aside, it appears this kind of negligible impact on the final result of a hockey game is the more common one, and teams appear to be getting the message. The NHL is on track for 222 fights this season, which would be the lowest number since 2008-09, when there were 734. Overall, fights-per-game are down more than 70 per cent in that span.

That's a good thing as we continue to learn more about the devastating, long-term impact of brain trauma and CTE. Neanderthals out there who still believe there's no future cost to bare-fisted violence need to give their own heads a shake.

Developmental leagues are jumping on board as well, recognizing the risks of allowing players between the ages of 16 and 20 who are in various stages of physical development to hit each other in the head without significant consequences.

Calgary's Milan Lucic and Los Angeles's Kurtis MacDermid take part in one of the 
projected 222 fights that will occur this season. (Mark J. Terrill / The Associated Press files)

Calgary's Milan Lucic and Los Angeles's Kurtis MacDermid take part in one of the projected 222 fights that will occur this season. (Mark J. Terrill / The Associated Press files)

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is set to vote in August on harsh new rule proposals — including lengthy suspensions — in an attempt to wipe fighting from the game.

The Ontario Hockey League introduced a three-fight maximum per year for players in time for the 2016-17 season, with increasingly longer suspensions for violators. Fights dropped by nearly 50 per cent in the first season. The Western Hockey League has no such limit in place, although the rate of fighting continues to decline on its own.

There's no question hockey is an emotional, physical sport. For that reason alone, fighting will likely always remain part of it, and the belief of getting some kind of boost from what is becoming an increasingly rare event may have some merit, in certain cases.

However, the real key to victory is actually beating your opponent on the scoreboard, not in the alley. Outskate them. Outwork them. Minimize your mistakes and take advantage of theirs. Start on time.

The Jets did all of that Thursday night in a rematch with the Capitals, scoring the opening goal for the first time in 10 games and claiming an impressive 3-0 victory.

That's a much better game plan — not to mention a lot easier on the body, and the brain — than trying to scrap their way out of their slumber.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

Read full biography

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