How The First Fight In Hockey History Spawned One Of The Sport’s Most Controversial Elements

AJ Greer and Joel Armia fight during an NHL game

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The nature of professional sports means tensions regularly boil over in the heat of the moment, and it’s not exactly rare to see athletes in a number of different leagues start throwing fists when they feel someone has crossed the line.

In the vast majority of cases, those players will end up getting ejected from the game and may end up facing a fine or suspension for handing out the athletic equivalent of vigilante justice.

However, that’s not the case in the NHL, as anyone who decides to fight another guy will simply get five minutes to cool off in the penalty box before heading back onto the ice thanks to the league’s comparatively lax approach to fisticuff-related discipline.

The vast majority of hockey fans appreciate fighting’s role in the game, and while there is evidence that suggests those donnybrooks don’t actually do that much to cut down on dirty and dangerous behavior, the dozens of players who drop the mitts every season seem to think it still serves a valuable purpose.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman doesn’t seem to lend much credence to the critics who’ve argued fighting should be eliminated from hockey based on what he’s had to say about that particular form of extrajudicial punishment, although it has been a bit hard to ignore anecdotal evidence shared by enforcers who’ve felt the lingering effects of fighting after retiring and at least one study that suggests it could be linked to CTE.

If you’re a fan of hockey, you’ve likely come to accept fighting is simply a part of the game and an aspect that probably won’t be going anywhere at any point in the near future.

However, you may not know why it’s such an integral part of the sport in the first place thanks to a history that stretches all the way back to the 19th century.

What was the first fight in hockey history? Here’s how it became a  central part of the sport

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The general concept of hockey (using a stick to put an object in a goal) can be traced back to ancient times, but the ice hockey we know and love today can be linked to the soldiers who brought it from England to Canada in the early 1800s.

The game evolved over the decades while increasing in popularity, and on March 13, 1875, the city of Montreal hosted the first organized hockey game in history when McGill University student James Creighton recruited some other players to participate in a contest at Victoria Skating Rink.

That showdown (which was held two years before Creighton brought some more order to the sport by compiling the list of regulations known as the “Montreal Rules”) technically featured a fight in the form of the postgame altercation between the players and recreational skaters who were angry the teams hadn’t vacated the rink when their allotted time expired.

Hockey historians assert the first documented fight between opposing players unfolded when the Rideau Hall Rebels and Granite Hockey Club faced off in Toronto on February 8, 1890 before engaging in a massive melee that fans today would refer to as a “line brawl.”

That fracas actually had a fairly profound impact on the sport as a whole, as it was supposedly the impetus for the meeting that led to the creation of the Ontario Hockey Association, which set out to formalize the rules players were expected to abide by and eventually transformed into one of Canada’s most prominent leagues.

The OHA frowned upon fighting, but competing organizations took a different approach after realizing it served a fairly valuable role in attracting somewhat bloodthirsty spectators to a still-growing sport.

Multiple hockey players were actually killed in fights in the early 1900s, but that didn’t stop the vast majority of referees and leagues from continuing to take a fairly hands-off approach to cracking down on them.

The NHL declined to adopt any rules related to fighting when it was officially formed in 1917, although it did introduce the five-minute major in 1922.

It quickly became clear that could only do so much to dissuade players from settling their differences in a physical manner, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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Connor Toole avatar and headshot for BroBible
Connor Toole is the Deputy Editor at BroBible. He is a New England native who went to Boston College and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. Frequently described as "freakishly tall," he once used his 6'10" frame to sneak in the NBA Draft and convince people he was a member of the Utah Jazz.