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Explaining the unwritten rules and etiquette of a hockey fight

Explaining the unwritten rules and etiquette of a hockey fight

Lars Eller saw his target. He quickly skated over to Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand at the blue line and the two exchanged a shove. Eller immediately dropped a glove and grabbed Marchand’s collar. Marchand tried to skate away, but Eller held tight, dropped his other glove and continued tugging at Marchand’s collar even as a linesman stepped in between the two players.

Clearly Eller wanted to fight, but Marchand wanted no part it and the fight was broken up by a linesman. The entire incident left the Washington Capitals upset as they expressed after the game.

“I would rather fight him, but can't fight a guy that doesn't want to fight,” Eller said. “Everybody saw what he is. … I don’t think there’s a lot of integrity in his game.”

But why? Marchand did what most parents tell their children to do when presented with a fight. He walked away.  In so doing, he drew a minor penalty from Eller and gave his team a power play.

According to the fighting etiquette, however, Marchand was in the wrong.

Marchand forced a fight the last time these two players met on the Caps’ Opening Night and Eller felt jumped. Rather than stepping up to fight Eller and allowing them to settle their differences, Marchand refused thus breaking one of the many unwritten rules of fighting in hockey.

Hockey is the only professional sport in which fighting is allowed. Though technically against the rules, two players fighting on the ice will only net those players five minutes in the penalty box rather than a lengthy suspension.

But if fighting were just about raw emotion and trying to inflict physical damage on an opponent, it would quickly become distasteful. Hockey fighting is much more nuanced with a number of unwritten rules that govern the players’ actions. Those rules are constantly evolving over time.

“There's a million different ways that it can happen,” Tom Wilson said. “It's the No. 1 question that everyone always asks. How does a fight start? Why does a fight start? You just kind of have to be out there, feel it out and make a decision.”

Fighting used to be much more prevalent in the sport. It was valued to such a degree that players who could barely produce offensively and got very little playing time were felt to be a necessity in the lineup.

The days of the traditional enforcer, however, are over.

“The staged fights between guys that play under five minutes, that’s gone obviously,” Wilson said. “Probably a decade ago you would know before the game started that the two guys were going to fight. That's just the way it was, their tough guy vs. the other team's tough guy. That's gone now.”

In today’s NHL, the most common reason for fighting is to stand up for a teammate. Hockey is a contact sport so it is impossible to react after every hit, but if it is believed a player has crossed the line between physical and dirty, then he will have to answer for it.

“Probably all my fights are with a hit that I don't agree with at the time,” Devante Smith-Pelly said.

A very recent example came on Jan. 8 when Smith-Pelly dropped the gloves with Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas. Gudas delivered a shoulder check right to the chest of Nic Dowd that knocked Dowd to the ice.

Smith-Pelly’s reaction to the hit was immediate. If you see a teammate take a dirty play, then you are expected to respond.

“If you're right there and you're the first guy and you feel like that's what you should do, then you've got to do it,” Smith-Pelly said.

From the other end, if you deliver a big hit, you are not going to be caught off guard when the other team comes after you. It is expected and often respected even if it doesn’t happen right away.

“Sometimes you're almost doing the guy a favor,” Wilson said. “He asks [to fight] and you'd expect the same in return.”

As seen from Elle some grudges can carry over from a prior game. Wilson was suspended in the preseason for a hit he delivered to St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist. When the Capitals played St. Louis in January for the first time since that hit, Wilson dropped the gloves with Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo in a fight that felt a lot more motivated by the Sundqvist hit than anything that was happening during the game. Wilson was engaged with another Blues player when Bortuzzo injected himself into the conversation and sparked a fight.

“In the St. Louis case, [Bortuzzo] wants to defend his teammate and you give him the opportunity to do so and if your teammate was ever hit, you'd expect him to be willing,” Wilson said.

While most fights may start with players standing up for teammates, hockey has not completely lost the old enforcer mentality. It has simply evolved.

That’s where players like Wilson come in.

The typical fourth line enforces of the past are gone as everyone is expected to produce in the current era of the sport, but teams also cannot be without someone willing to drop the gloves to defend his teammates.

And those players know who each other are.

“Before the game, you can look at a lineup and I know who on the other team would probably be willing to fight, who if something happened they would be ready,” Wilson said. “And then there's probably 11 other forwards that wouldn't. So when something happens, you go into Ottawa, you look at their lineup, it's a guy like [Mark Borowiecki], he's probably the guy that would fight if something happened. There's that understanding. I'm not going to go grab someone else on their team like the young [Brady Tkachuk] kid. There's just that understanding.”

But even if you know someone would be willing to fight, it doesn’t always mean that you should.

Wilson, for example, is typically on Washington’s top line and plays a major role on the team. Because of his growing role, Wilson cannot simply drop the gloves against anyone just because they ask.

“I try and really make sure the guys nowadays that I'm fighting have a role on the other team, that they're out there playing minutes,” Wilson said. “There's still guys like that around the league that are big parts of their teams that are willing to fight. If you get a five-minute major, you could be in the box for 10 minutes because you have to wait for a whistle. It can be a huge chunk of time so you've got to be really smart about it.”

That mentality reflects another modern change to fighting in that no one has to fight if they don’t want to.

In 1992, the NHL adjusted its rule on instigating a fight to make the punishment a game misconduct. In 1996, the league further changed the rule giving an instigator a two-minute minor, five-minute major and a 10-minute misconduct penalty.

The harsher punishment for a player deemed to be the aggressor has greatly changed the players’ mentality when it comes to fighting.

“It's just kind of the way it is now with the instigator,” Wilson said. “I can't go out and hold him accountable, he has to agree to it.”

But saying no to a fight is not without its risks. Refusing a fight when a player wants to stand up for a teammate or spark his team has its consequences.

Wilson said there have been players who told him after he refused a fight that they would continue targeting his teammates with big hits until he agreed. He then has to determine how much he will allow before he ultimately acquiesces.

“There's a line,” Wilson said. “If he's playing physical and the game's going well then [no], if he's hurting your guys then you've got to probably stand up for them. There's guys that take that approach.”

Even with the instigator penalty, you also still risk getting hit if you refuse a fight.

As much as the Caps hated how Marchand “jumped” Eller, they did acknowledge that Eller ultimately chose to drop the gloves rather than take the penalty. The problem wasn’t the fight, it was how Marchand started it.

“I chose to drop the gloves too because there sometimes comes a point where you just have to defend yourself,” Eller said. “I chose to do that in that moment.”

“For me, unless I really, really am mad, I don't think I would ever just pop a guy if he says no,” Smith-Pelly said. “At the same time, if someone's trying to fight me and I say no and he pops me, I can't really be mad.”

It can be difficult to understand at first why there are so many rules the players hold themselves to when it comes to fighting. In any other sport, there are no such understandings. Tensions rise, punches get thrown and an argument devolves into a fight and further into a brawl. When things get heated to a point in which emotions take over, things get very ugly very quickly.

But fighting in hockey is different because the underlying foundation in which all these unwritten rules are based on is respect.

In most cases when players want to fight they talk about it on the ice, drop the gloves so that no one gets the jump on the other, fight, then stop when one goes down or a referee gets in between them. There are even some instances where you see players give a sign of mutual respect after the fight.

And that’s why the Eller-Marchand situation felt so wrong.

In the home opener, Marchand was angered by Eller’s celebrating a goal in a 7-0 game and decided to fight him. Eller may not have wanted to fight, but he ultimately dropped the gloves. Having an issue with how Marchand started the fight, Eller wanted a chance to fight him in the rematch, but Marchand wouldn’t give him that opportunity. That’s the issue.

Eller didn’t want to fight, but he did. Marchand didn’t want to fight even when a player felt wronged, so he refused.

“When you get jumped like that, I was expecting [Marchand] to drop the gloves as well the next time so that was disappointing that he did not do that,” Eller said. “You would expect him to do that, that's kind of the code or the norm. The unwritten rule that he doesn't have to, but I think he should have and that would have been what most guys would have done.”

“That's usually how things are handled,” he added, “And both players acknowledge that this is how it's going to be handled and you're going to owe up to what you did. That was disappointing and not usually the way things go.”

According to the rule book, Eller was in the wrong and went to the penalty box as a result. According to the unwritten rules of the game, however, Marchand was wrong for not accepting the fight.

Fighting may not be as prevalent in hockey as it once was, but the rules that govern it are alive and well and ever-changing. Though it may not be as big a part of the game as in past years, fighting still remains deeply ingrained in the sport.

“It takes a certain breed,” Wilson said, “A certain guy to go out there on any given night and drop the gloves and fight so I think there's a respect level that, after that's done, you respect the guy.”


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With Kempny out indefinitely, Djoos set to play for Capitals tonight vs. Minnesota

With Kempny out indefinitely, Djoos set to play for Capitals tonight vs. Minnesota

ARLINGTON, Va. – Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny will be out “an indefinite” amount of time, according to coach Todd Reirden. 
Kempny sustained a lower-body injury in Wednesday’s 5-4 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning when he fell to the ice during a scrap with forward Cedric Paquette. He had to be helped off the ice and could not put any weight on one leg. He did not return to the game. 
“I'd say we're going to have to be without him for an indefinite amount of time right now,” Reirden said. “We're just getting some more tests before we can make an official time statement on that, but I would just say right now that indefinitely he's out of our lineup.”
Christian Djoos will take Kempny’s place on the top pairing next to John Carlson. Djoos was bumped from the lineup on Feb. 23 after Washington acquired Nick Jensen in a trade with the Detroit Red Wings. Djoos finally returned to the lineup on Tuesday in a 4-1 win against the New Jersey Devils when the team rested 38-year-old veteran Brooks Orpik. 
Djoos and Carlson played together last season when Matt Niskanen missed 13 games with a left thumb injury. They have some history, which should help with on-ice communication. The duo have played together 600 minutes, 15 seconds since last season. Their Corsi-for percentage (53.45) is above water. That’s lots of shots directed at their own net, though that sample size is reasonably small over the course of a full season. With Kempny, Carlson has played 1150:19 and they are at 51.11 percent in 92 games.  
"I don't know about communication. I think just not having to communicate is the big thing, and fortunately for me I think Djoos, he could be the smartest hockey player in this room altogether,” Carlson said. “That's everyone. We've had stints. When [Niskanen] went down beginning, middle of last year, we played a lot together. Always kind of sneak in shifts here and there with him this year. I feel comfortable with him. That's not an issue for me.”
Losing Kempny is a blow, however.

The Feb. 19, 2018 trade for Kempny helped stabilize a blue line that was constantly in flux and relying on rookies in key spots last season. His addition helped balance Washington’s pairs, gave them another strong skater and was a big part of their 15-7-0 finish in the regular season and their Stanley Cup title run. 
Djoos is also a fine skater and makes for an interesting match with Carlson. But he’s also undersized at 6-foot, 169 pounds. He did play the final 22 playoff games last season on the right side next to Orpik on the third pair. Djoos is more comfortable on the left side, where he will be with Carlson. For now. 
“That opportunity for Christian is first and foremost tonight for him,” Reirden said. “It's a great opportunity, I've seen those two play together before and I thought he had a strong game the other day against New Jersey. This is why we have the depth we do. We'll put him in that situation tonight, but it's going to be probably a little bit of a committee as you move forward depending on the game.”
Reirden was not ready to say Kempny will miss the rest of the season. It’s too soon for that. 
“Obviously we'll miss Michal, he's been a really good player for us in the playoffs last year,” Reirden said. “He's had a strong regular season push his numbers to career highs and stuff. Hopefully we can get some better news on that, but for now Christian will be starting there and expect to see some movement in those spots as well.”
Added Carlson: “I think I'm a little bit more aggressive at the line and keeping guys out of the zone, and in-zone [Kempny is] a little more aggressive in terms of down below the goal line. We obviously know each other's games and work off each other pretty well. He's a big piece of this team and we're gonna have to all step up."



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Braden Holtby says he will ‘respectfully decline’ invitation to the White House

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Braden Holtby says he will ‘respectfully decline’ invitation to the White House

ARLINGTON, Va. – When the Capitals visit the White House on Monday to celebrate winning the 2018 Stanley Cup, Braden Holtby will not be among them. Citing his values, the Canadian netminder said Friday that he would “respectfully decline” the invitation.

“It’s one of those things that we have to think about, but with me, I’ve got to stay true to my values, and I’m going respectfully decline the offer,” Holtby said.

“In saying that, it’s a tough situation for everyone to be in, to be forced to make a decision of that standing. You’re a team and you want to stick together no matter what, so I hope everyone kind of blows it away and that we don’t worry about who goes and who doesn’t. For me, it’s just a personal thing. I believe in what I believe in, and in order to stick to those values, I think I have to do what I feel is right, but that doesn’t make a difference on everyone else’s decision. We stick by every single teammate we have and their decision.”

The news that the Caps would be making the traditional White House visit broke on Tuesday. As one of the team’s most outspoken political activists, it was not known whether Holtby would accept the invitation or not.

Citing his support of the LGBTQ community as “one of the factors” in his decision, Holtby said it ultimately was not difficult to reach the conclusion to decline the invitation.

“Obviously, I’ve been a little more out-spoken on my views than everyone else so I feel like it’s important for me to stand by that.”

“In the end, I never really came up with a situation where I’d feel comfortable going,” he added. “But the toughest part is I’ve always tried to live my life and my career that the team sticks together. So, that’s probably the toughest part, but that’s just the way the world is. Sometimes you’re forced into situations where you have to stick by what you believe. But in the end, I think there’s more important things I can do in the future. Trying to make a stand this way, I don’t think it does the most in terms of creating change. In the future, I just want to stick by what I believe in and trying to push towards a world where people are created equal.”

 Holtby now joins teammates Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly who had previously declared they would not accept a White House invitation.