by Dan Adkisson
Let’s face it—as hockey fans, we love the sport’s sidebars and quirks just as much as the game minutes.
Who can resist watching the Zamboni driver between periods or cheering when an emergency goalie gets called in for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to save the game?
And then there are the fights. Ever go to an NHL game only to see a boxing match break out on the ice?
Sticks down, gloves up, let’s rumble! Every true blue hockey fan loves when the play stops, the teams circle around, and two or more players go to blows.
The fans who don’t admit feeling a rush when a good fight breaks out are bluffing. It’s pure spectacle. No other sport encourages, let alone features, such sidebars.
As technology enhances the NHL fan experience, some analysts and fans are digging into how fights impact the outcome of games.
Why Shifting Outcomes Matter
You probably aren’t thinking about how the swing of the game as your favorite player is cheered en route to the penalty box.
The topic deserves consideration now that millions of fans are personally invested in the outcome of games. Fantasy hockey managers and NHL sports bettors are always looking for factors that could change in-game momentum.
The fantasy hockey market in the US and Canada has nearly doubled since 2010. Today, there are an estimated 11 million people in North America participating in fantasy NHL.
Hockey, like all major sports, is entrenched in the big data era. If there’s a commonality among fans across sports, it’s that many like to geek out over the numbers.
Still, others may see subjecting hockey fights to math class as wrong. Hockey fights have a certain mystique, an almost magical quality. Fans love scrappy players who dole out a beat down from time to time. These guys are big personalities, often outspoken, and make the sport fun to watch.
Do fights affect the outcome of the game?
It’s difficult to correlate a fight’s winner influencing positive performance by his team. Professional hockey leagues don’t have an official procedure for determining who wins and loses a fight.
Enter a few hockey-minded big brains to quantify the fights.
Leading the field of fisticuff studies is Marc Appleby, an entrepreneur and the tech guru behind the PowerScout Hockey data project. His research is widely regarded around the web as the most definitive hockey fight number crunching.
Appleby uses ‘momentum’ to gauge his findings. Momentum is measured by how often a team takes a shot. The team has greater momentum when taking shots in quick succession. The more time that passes between shots, the less momentum the team has.
Within the game, both teams pick up momentum following a fight, regardless of the perceived winner. The increased momentum translates on average to an additional 0.1 goals per side. Because this scoring uptick is equally distributed, the expected net effect on the game’s outcome is nil.
Appleby’s calculations show a team, on average, will win an extra game for every 60 fights. The figure drops to a win every 30 fights if the coach is strategic about when he uses his fighters.
Is this an interesting factoid? Yes. A game-changer over the long run? Not really.
It takes a hockey team a long time to rack up 60 fights. In general, fights are trending down across the NHL. Teams averaged 0.18 fights per game in 2018-19, the first time that number dipped below 0.20 fights per game for a season. Of the 1,271 NHL games played that season, only 24 featured multiple fights.
Given the research, a fight may not statistically alter the outcome of the game. This can be viewed as good news in the betting and fantasy communities–they have more than enough data to weigh when selecting picks.
It’s also difficult to predict during which games a fight will occur. The on-ice action stops for a boxing match less than 20 percent of the time.
But the case isn’t closed. Data analytics are here to stay in the NHL, and the quantifying of fights will continue.