Tyler Boucher would love to tell you how his first fight was some noble enterprise, that he was defending a fallen teammate and dispatching a hated nemesis, about how his willingness to put his own safety on the line awakened a crowd and inspired his team to a crucial victory.
It wasn’t. And it didn’t.
“We were getting pumped by the Hamilton Bulldogs, and I just had enough,” he said.
It came late in Boucher’s first season with the Ottawa 67s of the Ontario Hockey League. Hamilton was up 6-0 early in the third period, there was a goalmouth scrum, and Boucher peeled Giordano Biondi off the pile and started pounding him into the ice — nine overhand rights wrapped around one uppercut. It was a thorough thrashing. It accomplished nothing, of course, but it was cathartic all the same. And hey, he was trying to impress his dad.
Former NHL goalie Brian Boucher doesn’t get to nearly as many of his son’s games as he’d like, but every now and then, a gap in his television duties lines up with one of Tyler’s games, and he can sneak away to Ottawa for a night or two. That game in April 2022 was one of those games, and earlier in the day, Brian had teased Tyler about when he was going to finally drop his gloves for the first time after a year at Boston University (fighting is banned in the NCAA).
“I made sure I was fighting that night,” Tyler said with a smile. “That’s hockey, man. That’s why it’s such a special sport. It’s so fun to watch. I enjoy that part of the game. I know some people don’t, but it’s a big part of the game.”
It has been since the game’s inception in the 1800s.
But for how much longer?
It’s no shocking development that fighting in hockey has been on the decline for years. NHL teams have shifted the focus from toughness to talent, from strength to speed, and few teams, if any, are willing to waste a roster spot on a guy whose only skill is face-punching. And with all we know — and all we have yet to learn — about brain injuries, it’s awfully hard to justify having players worth millions of dollars risk their careers in bare-knuckle brawls. Yet fighting persists, largely because the punishment — a five-minute major, possibly a two-minute instigator minor and a 10-minute misconduct — is so light.
But two of the three biggest junior leagues are doing their best to change that. In 2012, the OHL started handing out two-game suspensions when a player reached 10 fights in one season. In 2016, the threshold was dropped to three fights. The OHL also created an “aggressor” penalty, which calls for a player’s ejection if he continues to beat on a defenseless or unwilling opponent. Two fighting majors in one game also earns a game misconduct. The new rules immediately cut fighting in roughly half.
Now the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is taking things even further. Starting this season, which begins Friday, fighting is essentially banned from the QMJHL. Any fight will result in an automatic ejection, and any instigators will get an automatic one-game suspension. Aggressors get a two-game ban.
The Western Hockey League remains the wild west, the last bastion of unfettered fighting in the CHL.
With fighting now banned in youth hockey, college hockey and one-third of the CHL, the practice’s eventual demise feels more inevitable than ever. New-school fans might like that. Neurologists and athletic trainers have to like it. But you can guess who doesn’t like it: some of the people the new rules are meant to protect — the players.
“Fighting’s part of the game,” said Buffalo Sabres prospect Matthew Savoie, who played three years for Winnipeg in the WHL. “You need it to be able to police guys out there a little bit. It happens quite a bit in the Western League and guys love it, honestly. Fans love it. Keep it in.”
Most players will tell you the same thing. If you take fighting out of the game, it’s only going to make things worse. Goons and cheap-shot artists will run around with impunity, free to take runs at the other team’s best players without ever having to “answer the bell.” And without fighting to formally quash a beef — it’s part of the unofficial hockey player code — bad blood will linger longer, and players will resort to dirty plays and injurious tactics to retaliate for hits they didn’t like, legal or otherwise.
“If there’s no fighting, there’s going to be more cheap shots,” said Edmonton Oilers prospect Xavier Bourgault, who played four seasons in the Q. “Some guys that don’t like to fight, or don’t want to defend themselves, they’re going to try to be dirty, try to hit late.”
“There’s always going to have to be fighting,” said St. Louis Blues prospect Zach Dean, another four-year veteran of the Q. “If there’s no fighting, the stars of the game are going to get taken advantage of, and guys are going to be able to do (bad) stuff and get away with it.”
Will they, though? Is fighting truly a deterrent? The game’s forever been full of big hits, dirty hits, high hits and cheap hits, despite the ever-looming threat of a fight. And is the QMJHL this season truly going to devolve into Thunderdome on ice, with players targeting knees and Achilles’ tendons just because they won’t be forced to drop the gloves and answer for their actions with what frequently amounts to little more than an extended hug, or maybe a nice little waltz?
After all, the NCAA — with its automatic ejection for fighting, and unpunchable full-cage helmets — isn’t some chaotic free-for-all.
“No, nothing like that in college,” said Montreal Canadiens winger Sean Farrell, who played the past two seasons at Harvard. “I haven’t really seen anything crazy. It’s fine without fighting in college, so I’m sure the other leagues will be fine, too.”
Not everyone agrees, though.
“There’s a difference, for sure,” Boucher said. “When I was playing in college, you could kind of run around out there, and there’s no consequence, really. Obviously, in the NHL, there is fighting, and I think it’s a big part of the game, to be honest. The game should referee itself most of the time. For me, being a power forward, I like to play a physical game. When I made the transition to the OHL, it was important for me to get a couple fights under my belt and get that experience before making the jump (to pro hockey). I think it’s really important before you hop up there, so you’re not shook because you don’t know what to do. It prepares you a little bit better to have fighting (in junior).”
That’s actually one of the better arguments in favor of fighting at the lower levels. The NHL has shown zero appetite to ban fighting, content to allow it to fade on its own, and fights are common in the American Hockey League, as well. Unless fighting is banned at every level shy of the NHL, it’s unlikely to trickle up to the world’s top league. And as long as that’s the case, prospects turning pro from college and the Q might be dangerously unprepared for what awaits them.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea at all,” said Blackhawks prospect Samuel Savoie, a scrappy winger who has played the last three seasons in the Q. “Guys are going to come into the AHL or NHL, and the other guys are going to be able to fight. They’ll have more experience, they’ll know you don’t know how to fight, so they’ll have an advantage on you. It’s not the best of ideas.”
Anders Sorensen, who coaches the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate in Rockford, brushed off that concern.
“Long term, I think it’s good,” Sorensen said of the new rules. “We want some team toughness, we want guys to play honest and play the right way. (But) long term, with what we know about concussions that we maybe had not known 10, 15, even eight years ago, I think it’s a good step. Honestly, it seems like it’s becoming less and less, even in the American League. We don’t see it as much, even when I came in eight or nine years ago. It seemed almost every game, and every team you played, you knew who their (fighters) were. There doesn’t seem to be much of that anymore.”
That said, there were 781 fighting majors handed out in the AHL last season, according to HockeyFights, a website that tracks such things. That’s quite a lot, even if it is dramatically down from 10 years earlier, when there were a whopping 1,924 fighting majors across the league. It might be a dying art, but it’s a long way from dead.
(Data from HockeyFights.com. 2020-21 season not included, as the OHL season was canceled and the QMJHL and WHL seasons were shortened.)
That obsolescent-but-not-obsolete trend is consistent across the hockey world. Looking at the number of fighting majors across the junior leagues over the last decade, it’s clear that fighting is on the decline. It’s also clear that rules designed to curtail fighting work. In 1987, the NHL instituted a rule against leaving the bench to join a fight, and the penalties were severe. The first player to hop the boards earned a 10-game suspension, and his coach got five games. Bench-clearing brawls, once a staple of NHL games, disappeared almost instantly.
The OHL saw a precipitous decline in fights once it started suspending players after three fights instead of 10, starting in 2016-17. In the 2015-16 season, there were 632 fighting majors in the OHL. In the 2016-17 season, there were just 335.
The QMJHL was a logical place to start with a full ban because fighting was fading faster in the QMJHL than in the other two leagues. In 2013-14, there were 891 fighting majors in the Q. Last season, there were just 157. That averages out to one fight every 7.8 games. Hardly an epidemic.
“It’s a bit more soft now,” Samuel Savoie said. “That’s why with the Q, I don’t know why they got fighting out of the league. Because last year, there were maybe 10 fights in the whole league. Nobody really fights. Sometimes you have to defend teammates, for sure, but the league is fast and defensive, so there are not many big hits and all that. But guys need to know they can’t do that stuff, so if they’re banning fighting, they need to give more penalties for hits that are not as cheap, not as big. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s going to be a weird year.”
The idea that every fight is valiant and chivalrous is, of course, folly. Few fans of any stripe begrudge a player going after a guy who just delivered a vicious elbow to one of his teammates. That heat-of-the-moment stuff is unlikely to ever leave the game fully. But it’s the staged fights, the “message-sending” at the end of a blowout, the fights designed to wake up a sleepy crowd — that’s what’s fading.
But here’s the thing: Players love those, too. As do plenty of fans.
“Fighting fires up the boys and the crowd every time,” said Anaheim Ducks prospect Pavel Mintyukov, who’s spent the past couple of years in the OHL after being a top-10 pick out of Russia. “Everyone loves fights. It just brings energy into the game.”
William Dufour, an Islanders prospect, fondly recalled a battle during the Memorial Cup in 2022, when his Saint John Sea Dogs went up against the Edmonton Oil Kings in the round-robin.
“I remember (teammate) Riley Bezeau fought against (Edmonton’s Jaxsen) Wiebe, and I think it just changed the makeup of the game,” Dufour said. “It helped us a lot, to have more momentum and everything. Sometimes, it can just switch like that. So I think it’s not the best decision (to ban fighting).”
Memory is a funny thing, though. That fight came just 3 minutes, 50 seconds into the first period — shortly after Wiebe opened the scoring for Edmonton. Thirty-seven seconds after the fight, Edmonton made it 2-0. The Sea Dogs did score three goals in four minutes after that — capped by Dufour’s tally to take a 3-2 lead — but Edmonton won the game in overtime, 4-3. And Wiebe was the No. 1 star of the game. So did that fight, memorable as it was, really change anything at all?
That’s the thing about fighting, though. It’s not about what it actually does — very little, typically — it’s about what it makes everybody feel. It’s emotional, equal parts therapeutic and barbaric. The combatant can feel useful, helpful, a good teammate. A teammate can feel protected, loved, cared for. A fan can feel energized, a demand for vengeance satisfied in the most primal of ways. Silly? Maybe. Primitive? Sure. From afar, it can all seem a little cringe-worthy, an embarrassment for those hockey fans weary of tired “I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out” jokes. But to those on the ice, it matters. It means something to throw a punch, to take a punch, in your teammates’ honor.
No, the QMJHL isn’t likely to become a bloodbath this season because of its ban on fighting. Nor is it going to become Disney on Ice. In fact, it’ll probably look a lot like it did last season. Just a little different. A little less dangerous. A little more modern. The only real question is, who’s next?
“I don’t know what it’ll look like,” Bourgault said. “Pretty curious to see.”
(Photo: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)