Despite having tremendous respect for the players who do it and having seen the consequences up close, over the last 24 years of covering the Fort Wayne Komets I've never been much of a fighting fan.
I'm apathetic about it because it never resolves anything, be it in retaliation for a cheap shot, a comeback after a previous fight or just because two guys want to see who is tougher. Does that one fight mean all the talk between fans is over and the players won't fight again? Doesn't it mean the other team should now think it now has something to get even for?
Not at all, and that part of it bores me. Unlike a game, it's never finished. I also never want to have to cover the event when something critical eventually happens because of a fight.
I've covered everything from disciplined warriors such as Steve Fletcher, Shawn Cronin, Kevin Bertram and Brad MacMillan to line brawls to altercations with players who you'd never guess would drop their gloves. I've seen best friends fight many times and players who sat next to each other in the locker room for many years go at it once one had been traded.
There have been players who have fought during a game and then gone out together for dinner like nothing happened. I've seen players talking to opposing players by cellphone before an exhibition game to set up tilts so players can prove what they can do.
More than anything, it's theater. Most fans love it, and it makes their blood roar. It's one reason why hockey is unique.
What many fans don't understand is that the majority of players don't hate each other even during a fight. It's just part of the job to them. There's actually very little emotion involved on the ice where fighting is more technical than furious. Fans hold grudges longer than players.
But there have been fewer fights and less physical play every year, which is very disturbing for minor league hockey owners who need every potential fan.
Why is fighting declining? That's part of why I sat down with Komets captain and tough guy Kaleigh Schrock last week, and here are some things we came up with:
* No player starts out in hockey thinking he wants to be a fighter. Each thinks he can play a regular shift and move up that way, and in the ECHL the players' primary focus is moving up to the AHL. Because of that, there are fewer players to fight on each team.
* Players used to gain respect from each other by fighting, but there's been a major decline in that area over the years. Now, players don't have to fight to earn that respect, so they don't. The skaters figure it's not part of their job, so most ignore it. Now there are players who can go an entire career without once fighting.
* There are only 10 forwards in a lineup. The American Hockey League and National Hockey League have bigger game-day lineups, which the lower minors will never pay for as an expense issue. There used to be one player designated as a team's fighter, and if he wasn't mixing it up, he wasn't playing, so they fought all the time. As soon as the playoffs or an important game came around, they were sitting in the stands.
* Every player has to be able to skate, and not every fighter can skate. Frankly, because of increased athleticism, intimidation is less a part of the game. Many teams love to see the other squad's tough guy on the ice because they can usually easily skate around them. They don't fear the fighters because they know the rules are the intimidating things now, and leagues are quick to hand down suspensions.
* Some coaches simply don't believe in fighting and discourage their players from it. One opposing ECHL coach told me recently, "Why should we get the home team's fans fired up?''
* The younger levels of hockey are getting away from teaching the physical game. As Schrock said, ``I think the way USA Hockey brings up kids, it's so much more focused on skill development and offensive-minded players than physical play. You're going to run out of the grinding type of players.''
* The game itself is less physical because of rules changes. It's likely none of today's players have ever seen a line brawl or would know what to do during one other than just pair up with an opponent and hang on. That's a forgotten era.
* If the game is less physical, that means there are fewer incidents and altercations that can lead to fights.
* Changes to the rules such as instigation, aggressor, third man in, and leaving the bench or penalty box have virtually eliminated the big brawls. There used to be about one per season, and now they happen about once every five years and everyone says how embarrassed they are by it. There have been 20 years of increasing penalties as hockey tries to reach out to a broader audience.
* The inclusion of mandatory visors and penalties for players removing their helmets before fighting has also had a chilling effect. Those are because of increasing insurance costs.
* If a player actually has size, skating ability, can contribute offensively and fight, he is quickly moved up the minor league ladder leaving a hole in the lineup. Sure, anybody can find a goon, but most coaches won't do that. Their first priority is finding a player who will not hurt the team defensively.
* The games are also closer as overall team defense has improved. There's no way a player today would get the go-ahead from his coach to start a fight in a tie or one-goal game because points are so precious. If he fought anyway, he'd likely be benched the next game.
* Linesmen are much more likely to jump in and break up a fight before it starts or referees even give more preventative penalties.
Will fighting ever be eliminated from hockey? That's doubtful, but some big names such as Steve Yzerman, Scotty Bowman and Ray Shero say they want it eliminated.
Fifteen years ago, it's a discussion that never would have been started.