Rewarding Violence

How many injuries must occur to NHL players before the league steps in and alters the game? A sport that is famous for its brutality is seen as a game where only the toughest survive. Many stories of NHL players playing through injuries are widely shared. All other sports fail to rival the fortitude NHL players possess when it comes to pain management. With the improvements in technology and training players are getting bigger, faster, and stronger. These new attributes have made the game as fast and physical as it has ever been. Star players are becoming more and more injury prone due to speed of collisions on the ice. The solution to keep star players on the ice is to encourage fighting.  

Sirianni writes in The Specialization of Informal Social Control: Fighting in the National Hockey League, “fighting in hockey has been commonplace for generations, and is part of an alleged “code” that is adhered to by all players.” Now, one would think an aspect of brutality that is only allowed in one non-combat sport would be detrimental to player safety. This is a logical assumption as fighting anywhere else in society is a crime punishable by law. However, the code and the law act in the same manner. Both are a set of rules that guide a person on a way to act and more importantly protect individuals from bad actors. Off the rink police enforce these laws. When a player steps on the ice you may think the officials’ police the game, but it is actually done by the players themselves.

Hockey is a sport that sees plenty of injuries. Broken bones, torn ligaments, and concussions are common among players at all levels. McKay writes in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, “Injury rates in collegiate and professional men’s leagues have reportedly ranged from 2.3 to 79.2 injuries/1000 player hours.” This is quite the range and a little odd to think about. How does one have 2.3 injuries? To elaborate further on this idea, it essentially means that per 1000 hours of on ice time a player should expect to at least 2 injuries with varying severity. It is safe to assume a game with a six-ounce puck would have injuries regardless of the officiating.

Safety on the ice is the leagues upmost priority. Sirianni in mentions, “my overwhelming impression from reading the literature, from hearing the testimony of players from the early to mid-1900’s and from poring over the news clippings, is that early hockey was very much like war, the blood flowed freely.” Instances of people swinging sticks on the ice have led to death and criminal charges. Although this is not common it still appears in the game today. Players always have sticks and blades on their feet. Both of these items are considered weapons. Seeing a person with either item on the street may be freighting, but much like hockey, we have protection provided by police.

Safety can be provided in many ways. Across America people carry firearms for protection. Most of the time they are concealed and are only noticeable to the trained eye. When a scenario arises where self defense is imminent a firearm can be used as a deterrent. A single shot does not need to be fired for the gun to deter a criminal. The mere sight of a gun can halt a criminal dead in their tracks.

The idea safety can be granted without any physical action being taken is also illustrated by placing a home defense sign in your front yard. Kuhns writes in Understanding Decisions to Burglarize from the Offender’s Perspective, “About 60% of the burglars indicated that the presence of an alarm would cause them to seek an alternative target altogether.” The very idea of a security system is powerful enough to dismay over half burglars from invading a home. In this scenario safety was provided by an idea, a mere thought of a consequence.

In both of these cases, firearms and security systems, the idea of a consequence prevented crime. There were no police involved or actions from authorities needed. In the NHL protection can be gained by the same means. The code enforces these unspoken rules of engagement on the ice. Thelen states in her master’s thesis Fighting In Ice Hockey: There is More Behind a Clenched Fist than Pain,

 “as for the code, to me it was what we, as hockey players, lived by. The code was a living, breathing thing among us. It changed and evolved as the rules changed and evolved, and it took a life of its own. The basic premise of the code is that you have to answer for your actions on the ice. You learn it pretty early on in your hockey career, and it doesn’t take very long to figure out just how important it is. The code says that you play hard and physically in order to get yourself more space out on the ice, but you don’t take advantage of guys who aren’t in a position to defend themselves along the way.”

This notion does not appear on any page in the NHL rule book nor does any official partake in the code. A mutual understanding between all participants provides a consequence for an action.

Doroshenko states in Fighting in Hockey – Player Perceptions, “the game is extremely fast-paced with players skating up to 30 miles per hour and pucks flying at up to 90 miles per hour. Physical consequences of an action are the guiding factors that determine right and wrong. Penalties for fighting and violence in hockey are punishments, but rewards and reinforcement for aggressive behavior send a mixed signal to the players for their actions.” In a game with such extreme speed and power injury is guarantee. The choice the NHL officials have made to prevent these injuries and keep star players on the ice is to increase penalties and discourage violence within the game. However, efforts like these have not lead to a significant decrease in injury and the true protection of star players comes down to their own teammates.


Doroshenko, Jordan, “Fighting in Hockey — Player Perceptions” (2013). Sport Management Undergraduate. Paper 61.

Kuhns, Joseph. (2012). Understanding Decisions to Burglarize from the Offender’s Perspective. 10.13140/2.1.2664.4168.

McKay CD, Tufts RJ, Shaffer B.The epidemiology of professional ice hockey injuries: a prospective report of six NHL seasons British Journal of Sports Medicine 2014;48:57-62.

Sirianni, A. (2019, February 22). The Specialization of Informal Social Control: Fighting in the National Hockey League from 1947-2019.

Thelen, D. G. B. (2022). Fighting In Ice Hockey: There is More Behind a Clenched Fist than Pain (Master’s thesis).

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