Does the Momentum Boost From Fighting Help Teams Win Games?

It’s a scene anyone who watches NHL hockey has seen: two players squaring off, dropping the gloves, and going at it. One player might dominate the other, the two players might draw more or less even, but after the fight the teams will generally get back to playing 5-on-5 hockey (barring an instigator penalty to one player.)

Usually, one team will come out playing better after the fight. And usually, the commentator that evening will make a point of mentioning that Player X’s big fight win and/or willingness to go toe-to-toe with a beast like Player Y has given his team momentum.

Is there any truth to that story?

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According to Terry Appleby of Power Scout Hockey, fights do swing momentum. Appleby measures ‘momentum’ by recording how often NHL teams take shots – if a lot of time passes between shots, they have less momentum; if they get a lot of shots off in a short time period, they have more momentum.

Appleby’s full piece on fighting is here. It has two key problems, both of which he recognizes – and since he recognizes them, I’ll use his own quotes to highlight them.

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If a team’s fights occur without any regard to team or opponent momentum, then the team will score at an average gain of about a 0.1 of a goal. If so, this would require about 60 fights to score a win. But good coaches don’t do things randomly – preferring to pick the opportune time to change team momentum. In such cases scoring will double to about 0.2 of a goal and the team will require only about 30 fights to get a win.

(bolding mine)

Appleby notes that a team will pick up an extra win, on average, for every 60 fights on their team. This number drops to every 30 fights if a coach is judicious about when he uses his fighters. This, however, is contingent on ignoring the impact on the opposing team – because Appleby finds the momentum swings both ways; in other words, both teams shoot more after a fight. The extra 0.1 goals the team might get after a fight, in other words, are generally cancelled out by the 0.1 goals the other team will get after a fight.

Here’s the second problem identified by Appleby:

For interest sake, further study into the impacts of fighting on team momentum could add more context to these results. Other factors that could influence the fight/momentum analysis include 3 minutes after the fight versus other time ranges, who won the fight, the score, period, shots by line, powerplay opportunity, time in period, time of year, and quality of opposition. These will be explored with future research depending on availability of the data required.

There’s lots of other things that happen at the same time as fights. Most fighters are fourth line guys – and most fourth lines don’t generate a lot of shots. How much of the shot increase is generated by the fact that the fourth-liners are off the ice and a team’s skilled players are on it? Some fights come with other penalties – Appleby’s piece seems to indicate that they haven’t allowed for the impact of penalties on shot volume.

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Let’s look at the example Appleby used – a December 7, 2011 fight between Buffalo’s Matt Ellis and Philadelphia’s Marc-Andre Bourdon. According to Appleby, “a fight between Ellis and Bourdon at the beginning of the second period sparked an immediate increase in momentum for Philadelphia and a subsequent goal by Matt Read.” Looking back at the game log for that night, we see that Ellis was assessed an instigator penalty for picking the fight with Bourdon after Bourdon took a boarding penalty. Yet, Philadelphia walked away with the ‘momentum’ while Buffalo remained flat-lined – despite the fact that Ellis did what is typically considered to be the right thing in standing up for a teammate after an illegal hit.

(Also interesting in that same game is the fact that another fight – between Corey Tropp and Zac Rinaldo – at the end of the first period seems to have had a negative impact. Both teams were pressing heavily in the first, but after the fight both teams came out flat in the second period.)

Fortunately, there are other studies into the impact of fighting. Statistical wizard Gabriel Desjardins tried a different approach, looking at only fights with a clear winner and then checking to see how scoring changed for the team that won the fight. The full piece is here, the conclusion is quoted below:

Now before you get excited about your favorite team signing a new goon, remember that an NHL team needs to improve its goal differential by approximately six goals to win one additional game. So winning a fight is worth a little more than 1/80th of a win in the standings; given that the best fighters might win at most ten fights in a season, the direct benefit is probably on the order of having the equipment guys make sure nobody’s playing with an illegal stick.

Then there’s Phil Birnbaum’s post at Sabremetric Research. Inspired by Appleby’s piece, Birnbaum runs through a long list of simulations and reviews truckloads of game data (the full post is well worth reading if you have any tolerance for math), and then comes to the following one-line conclusion:

At best, there might be a small effect in certain specific circumstances … but much, much less than sportscasters make it out to be.

My personal take on all of this is primarily based on the evidence presented in the three posts above, watching a bunch of hockey, and some basic knowledge of how confirmation bias works. It can be boiled down to a few key points:

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1. In some cases, it’s all but impossible for a coach to know if a fight will benefit his team or the other team more on the scoreboard – it’s always a double-edged sword.

2. The impact of a fight on the scoreboard is generally pretty small – we all remember fights that were quickly followed by a goal, but tend to forget the ones that weren’t.

3. Given the relatively low impact and the chance of a negative impact, a coach with a fighter at his disposal would be well-advised to use him if a) his team is already trailing in the game and b) he’s reasonably confident that his fighter will win the bout. A coach with the lead or a fighter outmatched by the other guy is probably better off leaving him on the bench.

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    • ubermiguel

      Willis, “fighting in hockey” is a Canadian Pandora’s Box. The numbers correctly have limited application, but you’ll never be able to limit the discussion of said topic.

      Looking at those numbers I conclude that having a one-dimensional fighter on your bench is a waste of a roster spot…from a scoreboard perspective.

      Quantifying fighting’s value (e.g.: beat ’em in the alley, confidence, defend your star players) would be a challenge, but I’m glad to eliminate the fiction of “momentum”.

  • a lg dubl dubl

    I finally figured it out!~ The Oilers need Semin…that dude will b!tch slap the momentum back in our favor~

    Seriously though there’s been a few games where I thought Renney should have sent Hordichuck out right after a bad goal to try and get the momentum back, even just to take a run or two at the other teams better players, to often hordichuck gets staples to the bench in a time of need.

  • Gretzkin

    @Jonathan Willis

    With all due respect, fighting doesn’t win hockey games.
    Shooting the puck in the net more than the other team does.
    Putting direct statistics towards whether a fight builds enough momentum to win a game and saying “60 fights = a win” is a little bit odd.
    I’m sure some teams get more pumped up than other teams after a specific fight (say Team X player absolutely dummies Team Y player) and that energy can carry on for a few minutes, but often times, as somebody pointed out, there are crappy teams out there that use the odd fight to let the superior team know that they can’t have the win as easy as they may have thought, or any team sending a message to another team to let them know that they can’t take liberties on their star players. Sometimes that lands a team that instigated in the box for a PK, but players would agree that it was a penalty worth taking, so sometimes that momentum is used up killing the penalty.
    That’s where trying to add statistics to fighting for momentum and their effects specifically on winning falls off the wagon for me.
    Fighting is a tool used in many different circumstances based on how the game is being played, and who the players are.
    It’s not black and white and shouldn’t be dissected as such.

    That’s just my .02

  • It is pointless to look at one fight and its aftermath and predict on that basis the effect of all fights over the course of many games.

    The question is really what effects do fights have on the players, their teams, their fans, and the owners of the team over the course of a season or many seasons. The only people who benefit from fights are the owners of teams whose fans come to games for the violence (increased revenue from attendance), rather than for the hockey. There are lots of studies showing that violence in hockey (usually fights are used as the marker for violence) does not lead to increased team success. And we just have to look at the deaths this past summer to see what effect it can have on the players.


    Variations in NHL attendance: the impact of violence, scoring, and regional rivalries – Discrimination and The NHL

    “Fighting was used as a proxy for violence. The empirical results revealed that teams that fight more often tend to draw more fans. This was consistent across countries in terms of a positive influence, although the size of the coefficients reveals that this effect is magnified in the United States.”

    “It appears that fans prefer teams that win and have tendencies toward fighting and violence, as opposed to high-scoring, low-violence teams.”

    Tex Med. 1999 Apr;95(4):66-9.
    Winning the Stanley Cup Final Series is related to incurring fewer penalties for violent behavior.
    McCaw ST, Walker JD.
    SourceDepartment of Health, Physical Education & Recreation, Illinois State University, USA.
    Catastrophic and disabling injuries are being reported more frequently in ice hockey. Within the science of injury prevention, all possible avenues are being explored to address this devastating problem, especially in the areas of protective equipment playing rules, teaching techniques, and awareness programs. Ice hockey injuries are in many cases caused by violent player behavior, which may be supported by coaches who believe that such behavior contributes to winning. To determine whether a relationship existed between violent player behavior and game outcome, 1462 recorded penalties from all 18 Stanley Cup Final Series from 1980 through 1997 were analyzed with a 2 x 2 chi-square analysis. A statistically significant association (chi-square = 7.111, P = .008) was found between violent player behavior and series outcome, with the team drawing fewer violent penalty minutes being the winner of 13 of the 18 series. A period-by-period analysis of violent penalties incurred by the losing teams revealed a statistically significant difference between the first and third periods, with losing teams demonstrating more violent player behavior in the first period than in the third period. The results suggest that violent player behavior may be counterproductive to a favorable game outcome. Coaches at the highest level of competition may wish to adjust their team policies and recruiting practices to benefit from the plausible strategic advantage of reducing violent player behavior. This research was presented at the 1998 Ice Hockey World Championship International Symposium on Medicine and Science in Ice Hockey in Zurich, Switzerland, on Saturday, May 9, 1998, and published in the symposium’s supplement, “Safety in Ice Hockey IIHF 1998.”

  • Wax Man Riley

    Ya, whatever, Willis. We all know statistics are dumb,and this is just another way for you annoying “numbers guys” to take fighting out of the …. wait…what?

    Fighting might be statistically significant?

    Oh, ummm, *ahem* …. well then … buy you a beer?

  • Sailboat165

    In response to commenter #1 and #2: You do realize that he came to the conclusion that, while yes it does have an impact, but it is very insignificant and has an equal chance of backfiring, right? Not exactly a positive thing.

  • Sailboat165

    I actually could care less if there is momentum gain in fighting.What I do care about though is seeing liberties being taken by opposing players towards the young guns as well as other smaller players. I think that some of these injuries may well not happen if players know they will likely pay a painful price for taking cheap shots on our young guns as well as our smaller players.

  • O.C.

    They actually found that fighting increases response on both sides? Imagine that. Who would have thought an increase in adrenalin on young athletes already packing tons of testosterone would increase their performance?

    The question should be…

    Does fighting create publicity? (exposure)


    Does a team that has no chance to stand up for themselves because they are wimps, have any self esteem or ability to withstand being bowled over like a bunch of (sissies)?

    • What you said in your last sentence.

      I don’t know if you can attach numbers to it, but there is no downside when an opposing team is accutely aware that you’re not only good enough to handle them on the scoreboard, you’re tough enough to beat the hell out of them, if need be.

      • An opportune time to query… what was Vancouvers captain doing this weekend when he was engaged in THE skirmish, then… oddly excused himself to go sit on the bench thus leaving “his” team outmanned.

        I understand he isnt much good on the power play sitting in the penalty box and clearly isnt much of a fighter, but even a wee bit of posturing would have gained him some credibility.


        Odd ducks them Sedins… and that was odd even by their standards.

  • Gretzkin

    Applying mathematics to the actual affect that fighting has on hockey doesn’t really tell the tale, imo. While it’s nice to see that somebody has gone out and done the research, it doesn’t really take into account what fighting does to the mentality of the player (or fan).
    There are different kinds of fights; Staged goon fights, player protection fights, and straight up heat of the moment fights looking to add this momentum.
    Goon fights are probably less effective on the scoresheet out of those examples, but as a Coach, Player or a Fan, I would expect my players to stick up for one another and would like to see the instigator taken out of the game to help re-instill respect through fear of accountability (which doesn’t exist in today’s NHL, sadly).
    If somebody takes a run at one of the the kids (RNH, Eberle), somebody better do something, end of story, and I don’t care if it has any bearing on the score.
    Lecavalier is a good example of fighting for momentum. When he takes on the Iginla’s and Zdeno Chara’s, his team had better up their game, period. That’s leadership.
    When Wendel Clark attacked McSorely after flattening Gilmour, it was a clean hit, but hard to tell in the heat of the moment. Had to be done, no question at all, you do that kind of thing, you answer to it.
    Fighting has a place in hockey and as entertaining as a good Goon battle can be, it’s the other fights that the fans, players and coaches really love and hockey requires.
    The Lecavalier type fights are the ones that bring people out of their seats and amp up the building.
    Like when little Samwise Gagner drops em… those are the ones that take me by surprise and open two beers at once.
    Math or no Math.
    (P.S. That Ottawa/Philly battle was so good)

    • geoilersgist

      I also think that a fight has a better chance of changing the momentum in your favour when it is a guy who usually doesn’t fight but is a leader on the team. When an Iginla/Lecavlier type player goes out and fights it gets their respective teams going because not only is that guy their captain but he is generally leading the way in stats. You see your captain fighting and it (should) inspire the rest of the team to go out there and be better. I feel similarly when Gagner goes out there and drops the gloves especially when he goes toe to toe with a guy like Jokinen and holds his own. Even if they don’t come out and score it appears to be a great motivator the the players.

  • justDOit

    Nice distraction article. It keeps us from hammering on which player(s) needs to go.

    Gagner fights – TRADE GAGNER! Wait, uh Hemmer doesn’t fight – TRADE HEMMER!

  • Another thing that’s missing from the math. What if your team flat out sucks? You can have your captain go beat the crap out of the other teams captain but at the end of the day if the other team just throws out a line that dominates what line you have to put out motivation can only go so far.

    And on the flip side of that, if you’re team is really good and down by one and there is a motivating fight that probably will have a bigger impact.

    • Without offense to Strudwick, confirmation bias limits the value of any individual’s take on fighting’s impact on the scoreboard. Besides which, Appleby’s study shows that both teams generally get a positive swing out of a fight – the issue isn’t that neither team is pumped up from a fight, it’s that both teams are pumped up generally by the same amount.

      So, Player X can honestly say, ‘yeah, I was pumped up by that fight’ in a game where the other team got more benefit from it than X’s team did.

  • Ryan14

    Macintyre’s first game in Rexall is a perfect example of Swaying momentum after he fight. It’s 2-0 Calgary, He hits Boyd in the corner, Prust comes to the defense of his teammate, Edmonton scores 3 in the next 7 minutes and win 3-2.

    Game highlights:

  • Gretzkin

    Suicide due to mental illness (life-long), a drug overdose and autoerotic asphyxiation are all causes of death not related to, or caused by fighting last I checked.
    The discussions surrounding the deaths of the players in the summer were well out of hand, out of order and had little or nothing to do with their deaths, save Probert, maybe.

    People go to games to see hockey. Fighting is a part of the game, not exactly the sideshow many make it out to be. Using it as a marketing tool? Fine, no problem with that. Go to a game not knowing anything about hockey to see a fight, chances are you see a good game and no fight. Double the reason to return.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Intimidation has a much larger role in the game than fighting does. 2 Oiler players most affected by this aspect of the game are Magnus Paajarvi and Sam Gagner. Both would rather stay wide and out of danger rather than stare down and engage the belly of the beast.

    • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

      I agree, intimidation is one piece and like Robin’s blog from a few years a ago outlined, the added confidence that having a fighter gives would be my two biggest reasons to employ fighters.