Fighting in the NHL has long been a polarizing issue among fans of the world's coolest game. For those readers less familiar with ice hockey, fighting has been a permitted component of the game in North America since the very earliest period in the game's development in Canada, where the prevalence of physical play and techniques of intimidation quickly escalated into outright fist-fights, which have since become one of the most popular elements of Ice Hockey as we know it in North America today.
In European and International leagues, as well as the collegiate level of play here in North America (and in minor leagues, it should go without saying) fighting is not permitted, with ejections and often multi-game bans resulting from the choice to drop the gloves during a game. Critics cite the steady increase in head injuries due to fighting, which has resulted in a steady onslaught of rule-changes aimed at curbing fighting, or at least its dangerous results, with mixed results.
Despite the ever increasing condemnation of fighting in hockey, it seems the majority of players and coaches within the game feel it is a valued and necessary part of the game – suggesting that in a game played at speeds higher than any other professional sport, with sticks and skates and no end to the opportunities to punish one another physically, the 'enforcer culture' of hockey is one of the only methods of protecting skilled star players and keeping everyone honest.
Does an honourable motive make a fight worthwhile, with armoured gladiators coming to the aid of a friend and teammate who has suffered at the hands of a cheap-shot? Or is the best fight one which comes right off the opening face-off, to establish the mentality of a game and go from 0-60 right out of the gate?
The following list will include a little bit of everything, and more, as we highlight the best fights of the 2013/2014 season in celebration of an electrifying part of the game that is, at least for now, here to stay.
10 #10: Montreal's Douglas Murray vs Buffalo's John Scott
At 6'3” and 240 lbs, Douglas Murray has always been a physical presence, even now that his slow foot speed has rendered him useless for much else, but with his Canadiens up 2-1 shortly into the third period, he put his muscle to the test against the Sabres' towering John Scott, who is a whopping 6'8” and 255lbs.
After a run at the net by Sabres forward Nick Foligno, which resulted in the net coming off its moorings, a scrum ensued behind the net of Canadiens goaltender Carey Price. While it's not an uncommon sight to see a fight break out following action at the net (every team's priority is to protect their goalie, after all) it's not every day that these fisticuffs involve a collective 13'1” and almost 500lbs of fury between these divisional rivals.
9 #9: Colorado's Patrick Bordeleau vs Edmonton's Luke Gazdic
This one is for the fans who hunger for justice in their Hockey fisticuffs, when, during the December 5th matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and the Edmonton Oilers, gritty Oilers Forward Ryan Jones was charged by Bordeleau. Perhaps he would have reconsidered the check had he known that, in the blink of an eye, 6'3” 210lb enforcer Luke Gazdic would make a b-line for the guilty party (but, as they say – hindsight is 20/20.)
Though, at 6'6” and 225lbs Bordeleau would seem to have Gazdic outmatched, size isn't always everything in the NHL, and the tough-as-nails Toronto native showed why when his third right-hand haymaker connected with Bordeleau's chin and knocked him to his knees. While the hulking winger quickly got back to his feet, he was hanging on for dear life through a barrage of swings until he lost balance again and the linesmen came in to end the carnage.
Just goes to show – the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
8 #8: San Jose's Matt Irwin vs Dallas' Antoine Roussel
Fans of fighting in the NHL will be no stranger to the Dallas Stars' Antoine Roussel, whose 2013/14 Fight card totalled no less than 11 fights, the finest of which occurred in their October 17th matchup against the San Jose Sharks. Another piece of evidence in support of fighting's place in hockey to defend against dirty hit, Roussel dropped the gloves after his opponent, Matt Irwin, was called for boarding on a hit-from-behind against a teammate in the dying seconds of the second period, while San Jose was on the power play.
Hopefully Irwin learned, at the flying fists of Antoine Roussel, that if you want to avoid the rough stuff, you've gotta keep your checks clean in today's NHL.
7 #7: Montreal's Brandon Prust vs Edmonton's Luke Gazdic
Okay, so I couldn't help but place this bout between two of my favourite fighters in the NHL among the top ten – but I promise it's well deserved. This fight is the perfect example of two different approaches to fighting on ice, and the resulting bout is one of the most engaging I've seen. At 6' and 195lbs, the Montreal Canadiens' Brandon Prust isn't the biggest enforcer out there, but he has made a career of playing on the edge and using strategy and style to win fights against bigger opponents.
Although the 2013/14 season was Luke Gazdic's first in the NHL, it was already clear by the October 10th matchup between the Oilers and the Canadiens (only ten games into the regular season) that he was emerging as one of the top fighters in the league, so Prust would need all the strategy he could muster to come out with the win.
After a bruising check by Gazdic against teammate Josh Gorges along the corner in the Montreal end, Prust squared off with the ferocious winger to let he and the rest of the Oilers know that the Habs could not be intimidated. Gazdic was more than happy to oblige, and before we knew it they had one another by the collar, circling one-another in the oh-so-familiar dance of the Hockey Fight.
6 #6: San Jose's Mike Brown vs Washington's Aaron Volpatti
During the January 14th meeting between the Sharks and Capitals, the game of hockey briefly turned into an exhibition of Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots when Aaron Volpatti and Mike Brown decided to up the intensity by dropping the gloves off a face-off in the neutral zone halfway through the scoreless first period.
As the two charged together at the blue line the crowd would need a keen eye and a high-speed camera to have a hope in counting exactly how many jabs to the face were landed over the course of what amounted to only a ten-second fight, but what the contest lacked in longevity it made up for in bloodshed, with each fighter having sprung a leak about the face by the end of the bout.
5 #5: Toronto's Colton Orr vs Washington's John Erskine
Two heavyweights in the world of hockey enforcers came together during the January 10th meeting between the Maple Leafs and the Capitals when Colton Orr and John Erskine provided the main course a mere five seconds after the conclusion of an appetizer between the Leaf's Carter Ashton and Capitals Tom Wilson. Just as first pair were getting comfy in the penalty box, Orr and Erskine decided to show the Verizon center crowd how it was done, throwing down their sticks and skating a few threatening circles before grabbing a hold of each other's sweaters and coming out swinging, just after the face-off.
Erskine quickly got the upper hand, landing some solid right hands while keeping Orr right where he wanted him with the left. Despite some left-handed rabbit punches from the Maple Leaf, Erskine held his ground, alternating swinging right hooks and thundering uppercuts until one such rocket liberated his elbow pad from its sleeve, as well as sending Orr's helmet flying. After a couple more well-placed 'jackhammers' in the words of CSN commentators, the Leafs winger fell to the ice and Erskine made his triumphant way to the dressing room in front of a cheering home crowd whose taste for toughness had finally been satisfied.
4 #4: Calgary's Kevin Westgarth vs Edmonton's Luke Gazdic
Few rivalries in the NHL reach the level of intensity inherent in the battle of Alberta, as was certainly the case when the two provincial rivals squared off on March 1st. With Calgary leading 1-0 midway through the first, Gazdic, by now a superstar of NHL pugilism, decided to take matters into his own hands, and took on tough Calgary enforcer Kevin Westgarth.
After a couple of glancing shots off the helmet of the young Oiler, Gazdic took control of the bout with a few resounding shots off the chin of his rival, which left Westgarth battling just to stay on his feet in the face of the onslaught of punishment. While the Flames Forward withstood phenomenal punishment, eventually the barrage of fists proved too much to handle and he came out on the losing end of his battle with gravity, dropping like a bag of dirt after a final resounding right hook. Without delay Gazdic skated off to the box while linesmen beckoned Calgary's trainers to Westgarth's side, and he was dazed as teammates helped him off to the dressing room.
3 #3: Washington vs Philadelphia Brawl, November 1st
There was no shortage of bad blood during a 7-0 shellacking by the Washington Capitals over divisional rivals the Philadelphia Flyers. With a long history as the NHL's 'Broad Street Bullies,' the Flyers weren't about to take this embarrassment lying down, and five minutes into the third period a battle along the boards disintegrated into a volley of fists between Wayne Simmonds and Tom Wilson.
Volatile Flyers Goalie Ray Emery took this as the perfect cue to speed down the length of the ice to challenge mild-mannered Caps netminder Brayden Holtby, who politely declined the invitation. Emery, nut-case that he is, wasn't inclined to take no as an answer, and leaped upon Holtby while three other fights began simultaneously. Seemingly unable to break apart the pair, a referee looked on as Holtby struggled to escape the onslaught, and even waved off teammates coming to his aid nearing the end of the massacre.
2 #2: New Jersey's Krys Barch vs New York Islanders' Brett Gallant, 3-Fight Night
Not many hockey fights go a full three rounds, but the pre-season battle between the New Jersey Devils' Krys Barch and New York Islanders' Brett Gallant did just that, as well as providing a creative test for some of the NHL's new rule-changes regarding fights.
The 2013/2014 season was the inaugural year for a few new rule-changes in the NHL, including adding a new minor penalty for fighters who decide to remove their helmets in advance of a fight. Not to be outdone, during their second of three bouts throughout the course of their pre-season game on September 19th, Barch and Gallant cleverly circumvented the league's new policy by doing one another the kind service of removing each other's helmets and thus dodging the added penalty, as well as some bruised knuckles.
1 #1 - Vancouver vs Calgary Opening Faceoff Brawl
Among the most memorable events of the past NHL season was the January 18th opening faceoff brawl between the Vancouver Canucks and divisional rivals Calgary Flames. Upon learning that Bob Hartley's Flames would be starting their fourth line 'goon-squad', John Tortorella's Canucks opted to fight fire with fire, playing their tough guys to start the already heated matchup.
Well, when one throws fuel on a fire we can't be surprised when it combusts, and the spark came only 2 seconds into play, after the tense puck drop was completely ignored in favour of more extracurricular activity. 3 pairs of opponents paired off immediately, with the remaining skaters finding their dance partners amongst the chaos of discarded gloves and sticks which littered the neutral zone. As the benches screamed back and forth in a veritable orgy of sportsmanship, a month's worth of fights unfolded simultaneously across 200 feet of ice.
The storylines didn't wrap themselves up on the ice though, and during the first intermission, Canucks head coach Tortorella felt compelled to find his Calgarian counterpart at his team's dressing room, resulting in a scrambled conflict which resulted in a six game suspension for Tortorella. In addition to the four game misconducts doled out throughout the course of the opening brawl, Hartley was also fined $25,000 for the pre-meditated fight by Kevin Westgarth which prompted the entire mess.