Back in the 1990s, Bob Probert was one of the most-feared enforcers in the NHL. He played for both Detroit and Chicago but made his reputation playing for the Red Wings from 1985-1994. By the end of his career, he had amassed more than 3000 penalty minutes and bashed his way through 283 fights. Top players like Steve Yzerman scored goals that won games for the Red Wings in that era, but it was enforcers like Probert — along with his buddy Joey Kocur, the two better known as the “Bruise Brothers” — who did the dirty work that helped make the stars shine.
Fighting has been part of hockey from the very beginning. For some, it was expected, even encouraged. If you played hockey as a kid, you may remember coaches saying things like, “If you can’t beat them on the streets, you can’t beat them on the ice.” But the days of enforcers and freewheeling hockey brawls are slowly becoming a relic of the past. According to HockeyFights.com, fights have declining for the last 10 years. If you look even further back, there were 803 fights during the 2001-2002 season. In 2015-2016, there were only 344.
One of the main reasons for fewer fights is penalties are too costly for a team. At the 2016 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he felt the decline in fighting was part of the evolution of the game. He thinks specialty players are on the wane — teams want four healthy, solid lines that can play both ends of the ice. Penalties don’t help the cause.
Another factor is the visor rule that went into effect a few years ago. Each player must wear a visor during the game. Players who started before the 2013 season can decide they don’t want to adhere to the rule. Still, more than 70 percent of players wear visors, and few players want to gash their hand open on the side of a visor during a fight.
Another factor influencing the decline of fighting is the growing awareness of the dangers of concussions, not only during the player’s career, but for the rest of their life. In fact, after his death it was discovered Probert had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease that develops from repeated or severe impacts to the head.
All of this adds up to less fighting and a diminishing role for enforcers to exact revenge and keep opposing teams in line. In the modern game of hockey, players get even by scoring more goals and bringing home more wins.