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Fighting Your Way To The Stanley Cup – Literally

Last week, we heard the ever colorful Don Cherry remark that the Detroit Red Wings don’t fight enough and aren’t tough enough to compete with the bigger, badder Canucks, Bruins, and Rangers. Cherry went on to point out that the Rangers and Bruins are 1 and 2 respectively in the NHL in fighting majors, with the Vancouver Canucks trailing not too far behind in 6th place. The Red Wings meanwhile are currently tied for last with just 14 fighting majors on the year. Now, Cherry hasn’t gone as far as to say that the Red Wings won’t enjoy any playoff success. Cherry said that the Wings-Canucks and Bruins-Rangers will be our two conference finals, but that the Red Wings are simply boxing outside of their weight class with the bigger and badder Canucks. Well, does Don Cherry have a valid point here? Just looking at this year’s fighting majors, we see that Rangers, Bruins, Flyers, Canucks, Blackhawks, Blues, and Sharks all rank in the top half of the NHL in fighting majors. But historically, have fighting majors been a strong indicator of Stanley Cup success? I went back to the 1967-1968 season (first season with more than the Original Six) and looked year by year to see where the Stanley Cup Champion ranked in terms of fighting majors for that season. I’ll then organize it by decade and provide some factual statements that I’ve pulled out from the data.

First we’ll break down the 43 seasons into 6 separate time periods. Our 5 time periods will be:

1. 1967-1970

2. 1970-1980

3. 1980-1990

4. 1990-2000

5. 2000-2010

Let’s start with 1967-1970. This time period will look at 3 seasons, the 1967-1968 season, 1968-1969 season, and 1969-1970 season. During this time period, the NHL had 12 teams in the league and our Stanley Cup Champions finished 3rd, 7th, and 2nd respectively. That gives us an average position of 4th out of 12 teams which seems to fit Don Cherry’s point initially. However, one thing to keep in mind is that fighting was not very prominent at the time. In 1967-1968, Boston led the league with 29 fights in 74 games. By comparison, St. Louis led the NHL last year with 78 fights in 82 games and we think of that as a down year. The high point during the three seasons examined here came in 1968-1969 when Boston had a high of 44 fights in 76 games. Again, in comparison,  the Rangers, Bruins, Flyers, and Blue Jackets have all already exceeded that mark this season. Another thing to consider about this particular time period is that it is a small sample size so we’ll see if fighting continues to be a strong predictor in the later decades.

1970-1980 brought us the Broad Street Bullies and the time period when fighting really found its place in the game. From 1970-71 to 1979-1980, the Stanley Cup Champion on average, ranked 10th in fighting majors for that season. This decade is a tricky one to evaluate because the decade started with 14 teams, before pushing its way to 16, then 18, then dropping to 17, before climbing up to 21 teams in the 1979-1980 season. To help illustrate that average fighting position, I’ll show where each team finished in respect to the number of teams in the league that season.

1970-1971 – Montreal Canadiens (4th out of 14) – top 30%

1971-1972 – Boston Bruins (7th out of 14) – top 50%

1972-1973 – Montreal Canadiens (16th out of 16) – Last

1973-1974 – Philadelphia Flyers (2nd out of 16) – Top 13%

1974-1975 – Philadelphia Flyers (1st our of 18) – First

1975-1976 – Montreal Canadiens(11th out of 18) – Bottom 50%

1976-1977 – Montreal Canadiens (15th out of 18) – Bottom 20%

1977-1978 – Montreal Canadiens (18th out of 18) – Last

1978-1979 – Montreal Canadiens(17th out of 17) – Last

1979-1980 – New York Islanders (5th out of 21) – Top 25%

So, even though we know that the Stanley Cup Champion finished on average 10th in fighting majors during their championship series, that’s not exactly a strong correlation. 5 of the 10 teams finished in the top 50% which looks pretty good, but we should really look at the fact that the most dominant team of the decade, the Montreal Canadiens, finished last in the league in 3 of their 6 championship years. Even though fighting was on the rise as fighting majors hit a decade high of 92 in 1979-1980 via the Vancouver Canucks, the teams that were winning the championship were not fighting to a significant degree outside of the Broad Street Bullies.

The 1980’s saw fighting majors continue to increase and this became the most pugilistic era of hockey. The NHL hit a ridiculous high in fights in 1985-1986, with the Detroit Red Wings (cue the irony) dropping the gloves an incredible 154 times, or just under 2 fights a game. However, did any of this translate into Stanley Cup Success?

1980-1981 – New York Islanders (14th out of 21) – Bottom 33%

1981-1982 – New York Islanders (15th out of 21) – Bottom 30%

1982-1983 – New York Islanders (18th out of 21) – Bottom 15%

1983-1984 – Edmonton Oilers (20th out of 21) – Bottom 5%

1984-1985 – Edmonton Oilers (18th out of 21) – Bottom 15%

1985-1986 – Montreal Canadiens (13th out of 21) – Bottom 40%

1986-1987 – Edmonton Oilers (19th out of 21) – Bottom 10%

1987-1988 – Edmonton Oilers (9th out of 21) – Top 50%

1988-1989 – Calgary Flames (10th out of 21) – Top 50%

1989-1990 – Edmonton Oilers (13th out of 21) – Bottom 40%

What can we see from this? Even though fighting numbers were at an all time high, once again, our Champions were not a part of it. Only 2 of the 10 Champions were in the top 50% in fighting majors for that season, and 6 of the 10 teams were in the bottom 1/3rd. So from the data listed here, it’s obvious that the Stanley Cup Champions were much more reluctant to drop their gloves. But what about the teams that did drop their gloves? Did they at least have any playoff success? I’ll look at the top 5 teams from each season for this decade because it is the decade with the heaviest amount of fighting and see if it led to any playoff success.

Of the 50 teams (top 5 fighting teams from each of the 10 seasons), 28% did not even qualify for the playoffs. Including the teams that did not qualify for the playoffs, 62% of the teams did not get past the first round. Just 8% of the teams actually made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, and as we already know, none of them won the Stanley Cup. So not only did fighting not lead teams to the Stanley Cup; it couldn’t even get a majority of teams out of the first round.

The 1990’s saw fighting numbers take a hit as fighting numbers dropped, with the leader in 1990-1991 having 92, but the leader in 1999-2000 having just 74. Let’s take a look to see if recently fighting has led to Stanley Cup success.

1990-1991 – Pittsburgh Penguins (21st out of 21) – Last

1991-1992 – Pittsburgh Penguins (22nd out of 22) – Last

1992-1993 – Montreal Canadiens (14th out of 24) – Bottom 50%

1993-1994 – New York Rangers (23rd out of 26) – Bottom 15%

1994-1995 – New Jersey Devils (7th out of 26) – Top 30%

1995-1996 – Colorado Avalanche (24th out of 26) – Bottom 10%

1996-1997 – Detroit Red Wings (23rd out of 26) – Bottom 15%

1997-1998 – Detroit Red Wings (25th out of 26) – Bottom 5%

1998-1999 – Dallas Stars (21st out of 27) – Bottom 25%

1999-2000 – New Jersey Devils (10th out of 28) – Top 40%

Once again, we see the importance of fighting diminish. From having 6 teams in the bottom 1/3rd in the 80’s to having 6 teams finish in the bottom 15%, with two teams actually finishing last overall, we can clearly see that fighting majors have no relevance to Stanley Cup success. Take 1999-2000 for example. The top 4 teams in fights for that year did not qualify for the playoffs. If I look at the top 5 teams from each season in fights, we see a stronger contrast than what we saw in the 80’s. Of the 50 teams, an incredible 50% – I’ll say that again for dramatic effect – 50% did not even qualify for the playoffs. If we include the DNQ’s, a whopping 80% of our top fighters did not make it past the first round. Just 10% made it to the Conference Finals, and we already know that none of them won the Cup. Can it get any worse for the “sharply” dressed Don Cherry? Let’s take a look at our last decade, the 2000’s.

2000-2001 – Colorado Avalanche (14th out of 30) – Top 50%

2001-2002 – Detroit Red Wings (30th out of 30) – Last

2002-2003 – New Jersey Devils (18th out of 30) – Bottom 40%

2003-2004 – Tampa Bay Lightning (24th out of 30) – Bottom 20%

2005-2006 – Carolina Hurricanes (28th out of 30) – Bottom 10%

2006-2007 – Anaheim Ducks (1st out of 30) – First

2007-2008 – Detroit Red Wings (30th out of 30) – Last

2008-2009 – Pittsburgh Penguins (23rd out of 30) – Bottom 25%

2009-2010 – Chicago Blackhawks (21st out of 30) – Bottom 30%

Don Cherry will like this past decade a little more than the 80’s and 90’s as we actually had a team that finished first in fighting win the Stanley Cup, only the 2nd time since NHL expansion that it has happened (1974-1975 Philadelphia Flyers). However, there still was no significance in terms of fighting leading to a Stanley Cup. 5 of the 9 teams were in the bottom 25% in fighting majors and only two finished in the top half of the NHL. Let’s take a look and see how our top fighting teams did. Of the 45 teams looked at, 58% of the teams did not qualify for the playoffs. That’s absolutely unbelievable to think about. If we include the DNQ’s, 80% of the teams did not get past the first round. It’s absolutely unbelievable how much fighting seems like an indicator against Stanley Cup success. To be totally objective, it should be noted that in the last 5 seasons, we’ve had a team finish 1st in fights and win (Anaheim 2006-2007), a team finish 2nd and win (Boston 2010-2011), and a team finish 2nd and be a Stanley Cup Finalist (Philadelphia 2009-2010).  Don Cherry can at least hang his floral patterned suit jacket on that coat rack.

Given the historical and recent trends that indicate a diminished importance, what can we expect to happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs? 3 of the top 6 fighting teams this year are also the 3 of the top 4 teams in the NHL. We know they are all making the playoffs. The other teams in the top 5 after New York and Boston are Philadelphia, Columbus, and Ottawa. It seems likely that both Philadelphia and Ottawa will make the playoffs and that Columbus will make a deep playoff run (just kidding). But in all seriousness, it looks like 5 of the top 6 fighting teams will make the playoffs, and that 4 of those top 6 teams have to be considered legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Could this be an outlier year? Could this be a year like 2006-2007 and 1974-1975 when the #1 fighting team also won the Stanley Cup? Who knows, all we can do is wait and see. But at this point in time, it’s safe to say that history indicates that you definitely don’t have to fight to win and as time has progressed, the more you fight, the less likely you are to have playoff success. Sorry Don Cherry, but you ain’t in Kansas no more – teams no longer have to fight to win. As always, if anyone wishes to see the data I used or wants to just converse/debate the article, please feel free to contact me at my email address listed or message me on Facebook.


Prashanth Iyer

Prashanth Iyer

Prashanth is a third year doctor of pharmacy student at the University of North Carolina Eshelman School of Pharmacy in Chapel Hill, NC. Prashanth is studying to be an infectious disease pharmacist, but in his spare time, he watches any hockey game he can catch. He was born and raised just outside Detroit, Michigan and hence is a big Red Wings fan. He is always willing to hear any and all debates pertaining to his articles, so feel free to contact him.
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