It’s the middle of the second period, maybe is a ho-hum game, when suddenly behind the play you see two guys yelling back-and-forth at each other.
They hack each other with their sticks a little. You inch to the edge of your seat anticipating what might come next.
Next thing you know the sticks and gloves fly and two guys are throwing hands. You and everyone else in the rink are out of their seat to get a better view, maybe your phone is out to get video in case something REALLY crazy happens. Barring a knockout punch, the refs breakup the two players, the crowd roars, the players on the bench rattle their sticks against the boards in appreciation, and each player takes a seat for the next five minutes.
That’s a scene, that, even in minor league hockey and even in the lowest leagues, is becoming more and more rare. A fight. Two players squaring off to see who is truly the toughest guy on the ice.
But what is fighting’s role in low minor league hockey, particularly in leagues like the FHL, SPHL, and LNAH? Because even in leagues like the AHL and ECHL, fighting is dropping, because those are NHL-affiliated teams, and they want prospects who could someday help them win at the highest level, not sell a couple extra tickets in Wheeling or wherever.
I bring this up because recently the Watertown Wolves signed one of the all-time tough guys in FHL history, Nick Wright. Wright has 98 games of FHL experience to his name across parts of three seasons, in addition to 14 games in the SPHL, and in those 112 games has racked up an astounding 719 penalty minutes, 659 of those in the FHL, including 383 in 2016-17 with the Berlin River Drivers. Meaning, that every time Wright suits up for a game, you can count on him being in the box for 6.5 minutes.
I bring up Wright because the news of his signing was post in a FHL Fan Group on Facebook, where the thread started with, “Nick wright is a goon and has no hockey skill’s (sic) at all” and from there the comments turned into every gutter of the internet, and has more than 250 comments from people chiming in on the signing, and then doing every bit of name-calling and keyboard warrior-ing that you can imagine.
The discussion on Wright started innocent with a (harsh) remark that he has no skill, because to be a pro in any league you must have some skill, but, outside of that 2016-17 season where he also posted a respectable 18 points in 45 games, Wright has just SEVEN points in the other 67 games of pro hockey he’s played, so roughly one point every 10 games. He was also a -33 one season, according to HockeyDB.
It’s no secret when a team signs Wright, he isn’t there to score goals or play lock-down defense, he’s there to fight.
Which brings me back to the question at the top of this post, What is fighting’s place in low-pro hockey?
There are some people who complain that hockey stinks now because the players don’t fight anymore, and to that I say, if you really feel that way about the game, why even watch hockey when there’s MMA and Boxing? Because if you solely come into a rink for the fights, more often than not, you’ll leave disappointed.
But a signing like Wright’s is important for a team like Watertown, or really any FHL team, because you can say to fans, “You’re probably seeing a fight tonight,” and that DOES bring fans in, whether you want to admit it or not, and whether you acknowledge the dangers that fighting has or not.
Ask any minor league team’s general manager, or promotions department, and they’ll tell you that yes, they are in the business of winning games, but they’re also in the business of entertainment. And a player like Wright does bring entertainment value to the fans who do come in, even if he really doesn’t bring a lot to the team that helps them win on the ice. And no, fighting other players and spending 10 percent of the game clock, and probably 30 percent of your ice-time, in the penalty box does not help your team win.
Wright and players like him are truly a dying breed. Teams want players who a fast, can pass, shoot, and play a two-way game. Players who are fighters…typically don’t do those things. They got to where they are for one reason, because they can throw hands, and do so without thinking about the consequences.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past that a player like Wright would have made his name for himself in the FHL or UHL or whatever bygone league, and teams in the AHL or NHL would have noticed and given them a shot at the higher level because they needed “toughness” in the lineup to “protect” their stars. But even a lot of those guys, like Bob Probert or Marty McSorley, were decent players on offense. Probert had 62 points one season, while McSorley, also a defenseman like Wright, had a stretch of 5-straight seasons of 26+ points, despite never playing more than 75 games a season.
But there’s also less fighters for the reason of long-term health: Fighting is dangerous. Getting punched in the head repeatedly, and possibly hitting your head on the ice when you fall or get tangled up in a scrap could do life-long damage. And frankly, a lot of players just don’t want to risk and injury like that for $150 a game in the FHL or SPHL, especially as we just mentioned above, your chances of moving up the hockey ladder with that style of play are extremely low and getting lower.
I’m of the opinion that if fighting went away from hockey, that I wouldn’t miss it that much. But I’m also one of those fans jumping out of his seat when a fight does happen.
It’s a delicate line to balance for low-pro teams, because you do want to win and that in turn brings in fans, but you always want to give fans a reason to show up if the team isn’t winning, or if they’re competing with another team in a higher league that’s nearby, and fighting just might be the way to do that.
It’s a question that I genuinely don’t think there is a cut and dry answer to, but one that will likely be debated as long as there is fighting allowed in hockey.
What do you think fans, do you show up to games because of the fights, or if it went away would you not miss it that much?