There’s one misconception about hockey that bugs me. People think that you can drop the gloves at any time, beat the shit out of someone and not suffer any sort of recourse. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, you can fight in hockey. No, the sport is not a series of lawless beatdowns.

[media-credit id=20135 align=”alignleft” width=”250″][/media-credit]The main reason that fighting is allowed is as a means of self-policing. If a player makes questionable body contact, particularly on a more talented player, they will have to answer the bell.

Late hits, hits from behind into the boards and hits to the head or knees are just a few examples of checking that necessitate a player to fight. Hitting someone with the intent or possibility of injuring them illustrates a lack of respect and can’t go unpunished at the risk of inviting players to repeat the process without fear of retribution, regardless of whether a penalty is issued.

While any player on the ice can step up to challenge the offender, fighting requires mutual agreement. The desire to scrap is usually signified visually by a shaking of the gloves and verbally by an overt challenge, such as, “Want to go?” Once a player drops the gloves, he is considered the instigator.

The player who steps in to defend his teammate risks initiating a fight with a dance partner who isn’t willing. It’s frowned upon to throw a cheap shot and refuse to fight afterward.

To go after someone and start pounding on them can get the aggressor kicked out of the game and result in a penalty for instigating. Despite this punishment, players who stick up for their teammates are highly respected, even if the player who threw the cheap hit doesn’t consent. If that player does consent to defend himself and can hold his own, he gains a bit of respect, although it’s generally not enough to offset the cheap hit.

Most talented players don’t fight on a regular basis. Usually, when a skilled player is about to get involved in an altercation, one of the scrappier players on the roster will step in and put himself at risk. It may seem like a puss move by the more talented player, but the hierarchy demands this type of sacrifice from certain players on the roster.

There are exceptions in the hierarchy. Some skilled players are willing to take matters into their own hands. But for elite athletes who make millions of dollars expected to contribute in other areas, fighting is an unnecessary medical risk. A broken hand can sideline a player for a month, while a concussion from getting knocked out can derail an entire career.

In fact, many players are just on the roster for scrapping ability and continuously have to fight to maintain their status as valuable members of the team. Most teams have a heavyweight for this purpose. Heavyweights are categorized as such because of their size and fighting ability.

Consider Deryk Engelland, standing 6’2” and weighing 202 pounds. He’s a small side heavyweight. Consider Derek Boogaard, standing at 6’7” and about 275 pounds. He’s the biggest.

Mike Tyson in his prime clocked in at around 6’0”, 220 pounds. Having a monster like Boogaard on your team, even on the bench, discourages opposing players from taking liberties with your team for fear of retribution. It’s not necessary that they play to be effective.

In cases of retribution or personal vendettas, things can get downright nasty, with guys continuing to go at each other after the zebras try to step in, fighting strictly to injure. In a scrap between enforcers, when the refs come in to break things up, accomplished fighters will give each other a nod or a tap to signify a “good fight.” There is always a certain level of respect that must be maintained.

Fighting is a worst-case scenario, but it has a time and place in the sport. To create or swing momentum, rather than taking themselves off the ice for five minutes to serve a fighting penalty, players would do better to throw a crushing hit. But those opportunities occur infrequently, and chasing after that big hit can create scoring chances for the other team, so sometimes fighting is the only way to right the ship and get back on track. To get back at a team for a hit, it would be more effective to score a few goals and get retribution with a win, but guys don’t think logically when their teammates get hit hard, particularly when an injury occurs.

Sometimes, the gloves just have to drop.

Daily Nexus Hockey columnist Josh Deitell wishes he were 6’7”, 275. Puck dreams.