Academic journal article International Journal of Sport Finance

Blood Money: Violence for Hire in the National Hockey League *

Academic journal article International Journal of Sport Finance

Blood Money: Violence for Hire in the National Hockey League *

Article excerpt


Fighting in hockey is often a polarizing topic. Whereas some fans clearly relish the more violent side of the National Hockey League (NHL), others condemn the sport for its unique leniency on the issue. What frequently goes overlooked, however, is the strategy behind the fighting. Managers recognize the need to protect their most skilled players from the violence so engrained in hockey culture and utilize "enforcers" to police the game and protect their star players. These enforcers use fighting to intimidate opponents and deter them from hitting the team's stars (either legally or illegally). With reference to Wayne Gretzky, generally regarded as the very best ice hockey player of all time, long-time NHL coach Glen Sonmor summed up the impact of the enforcer role as follows: "When I was coaching the North Stars I ... found it difficult to get my guys to even check Gretzky out there because they knew that as soon as they did they were going to have to turn around and face his bodyguards, McSorley or Semenko" (Bernstein, 2006, p. 11).

It is true that the reliance on enforcers has declined in the post-Gretzky era, in part because of the 1992 "instigator" rule that provides for an extra two minute penalty assessed to any player who engages in fighting without clear consent from his opponent. Whereas there was on average more than one fight per game during the 1980s, the average number of fights per game was down to 0.52 in the 2010-2011 season considered in this paper's empirical work before falling further to just 0.38 in the 20132014 season ( Nevertheless the enforcer role is far from extinct and the NHL has continued to facilitate fighting. Fighting is important not only in boosting an enforcer's own reputation within the league but also adding to overall team success and profitability insofar as owners use enforcers to ensure that their highly paid teammates suffer fewer injuries and have the time and the space to make the most of their abilities. Besides increasing revenues through ticket sales to fans looking to see violence, enforcers can therefore serve as cost-effective insurance policies for their more skilled counterparts.1 The objective of this paper is to test for differences in salary determination for enforcers vs. skilled players and to examine the extent to which the enforcer type is rewarded for physical play and penalty minutes as opposed to scoring prowess.

Enforcers, Team Strategy, and Salary Determination

NHL teams are allowed five skaters on the ice, and these are typically three forwards (right wing, center, and left wing) and two defenders. Of the 18 skaters dressed for each game, a team's defensemen form three defensive pairings, while forwards form four "lines" of three. Although line composition varies between teams, the basic structure is generally the same throughout the league. Defensive pairings tend to be simply ranked according to the skill of the players, but the forward lines often have differing roles based on strategies developed around fighting and physical play. The first and second lines typically contain the best offensive players on a team and are responsible for the majority of the team's scoring. The third line, commonly known as the checking line, is normally composed of defensive-minded forwards that aim to limit their opponents' scoring and wear them down physically. The fourth line is most likely an "energy" line composed of older players whose scoring potential has diminished but who play extremely physical and aggressive hockey. An energy line usually gets little ice time, but plays in bursts of high-octane aggression that may well culminate in fighting. Enforcers are almost always found on checking or energy lines.

Although enforcers are the primary participants in fights in the NHL, there is another player type frequently responsible for fighting: agitators. Agitators are players who antagonize opponents through physical play and verbal taunting. …

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