Famed hockey writer Dickey Dunn once said he “tried to capture the spirit of the thing,” when chronicling the Charlestown Chiefs of the Federal League in the late 1970’s. The Chiefs turned fights into an event and used the pugilistic style to capture a Federal League title after the “heroics” of Ned Braden in the championship game.
Ok, maybe that didn’t happen. Maybe that was the plot of Slap Shot, the 1977 cult classic starring Paul Newman, and it was a fictional story.
While Slap Shot already blended fact and fiction about minor league hockey, capturing the “spirit of the thing” in minor league hockey in 2016 is much different than the 1970’s.
Admitted or not, American Hockey League teams relied on hand-to-hand combat in the past. It was an accepted part of the game and a common occurrence, as minor leaguers would do almost anything to earn an NHL opportunity.
Today, though, the top prospects are keeping their gloves on. While fighting is still part of the league’s DNA, it’s slowly being pushed out. AHL president and CEO Dave Andrews said teams aren’t marketing fighting in today’s day and age.
“There isn’t any correlation between fighting and selling tickets,” Andrews said in a phone interview. “As a league, we don’t market fighting and we don’t need that to sell the game. It’s a high level of hockey and I think that profile has only risen in recent years.”
In fact, the AHL started taking measures to limit fighting after the 2013-14 season when it introduced a rule handing out a game misconduct to any player with two major penalties in a single game. The prior rule would eject any player that fought three times in a game.
Two years into the change Andrews said the rule is working. The number of players fighting twice in a game is down, while the number of fights in general has dropped.
In the past 10 seasons 15 AHL clubs have finished with 100 fighting majors or more in a season. This season, the pugilistic Binghamton Senators lead the league 67 bouts, but with nine games remaining on the schedule it’s unlikely that Ottawa’s farm club will hit the century mark.
It would just the second time since 2000 that the AHL didn’t have a team cross the 100-fight barrier and first since the 2009-10 campaign when the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins led the AHL with 99 fighting majors.
While the two-fights-and-you’re-out rule has had an impact, fighting had been declining in the AHL before the legislation was signed into AHL law.
A more universal approach between the NHL and top development league helped push that trend. Today, more than 50 percent of AHL teams are owned and operated by their NHL parent club and minor league rosters tend to more closely mimic the NHL styles and tendencies.
“NHL clubs want their AHL teams to reflect their NHL style,” Lake Erie Monsters coach Jared Bednar said earlier this season. “Teams are now faster and more skilled throughout the lineup. With how minutes are managed in today’s game, you have to be able to put four lines out there who can play.”
And that has limited the number of jobs available for traditional enforcers, who was more of a bouncer on skates than a hockey player, as the game has gotten faster and it’s harder to hide talent deficiencies in a lineup.
“The age of two donkeys going out there and just swinging is over,” Texas Stars defenseman Brennan Evans said. “You have to be able to play or else you’ll be packing your bags.”
Those who couldn’t adapt have been forced out of AHL lineups and into the ECHL, similar to the career path that has taken former New York Islanders enforcer Trevor Gillies from the NHL to the South Carolina Stingrays — where he’s been limited to one goal in 40 ECHL games.
While the staged fights and overall bouts have dropped, multiple players and coaches agreed fighting still has a role, even if limited, in the AHL.
The self-policing, somewhat vigilante, justice limits potential powder kegs before they explode.
“Stuff happens in the game, that’s why I think fighting is still good in hockey,” Texas Stars forward and Dallas prospect Curtis McKenzie said. “It holds people accountable. And guys know they have consequences for their actions. It puts an end to things, if a guy is willing to square up (after a bad hit) it puts an end to grudges and more dirty plays.”
McKenzie would be considered a lightweight by past standards with 21 career fights in four professional seasons. But two of the bouts in his career have helped limit potential future damage.
Last season, while with Dallas, he fought Dmitri Kulikov after the Florida Panthers defenseman injured Tyler Seguin with a low hit. Earlier this week, McKenzie fought Bakersfield Condors forward Jujhar Khaira in the first meeting after the Edmonton Oilers prospect had injured his teammate Justin Dowling back on Jan. 15.
“He stood up for it and knew it would happen, then it closes everything and we can go from there,” McKenzie said. “It really stops other stuff from happening. Really, fighting can be used that way and you don’t really have the staged ones anymore.”
And maybe that’s the new spirit of the thing.