Columbus Blue Jackets winger Josh Anderson fought Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night in the CBJ’s 2-1 road win. It was a big deal! We used a photo of the fight for our recap. It was our lede. The team tweeted out the coach’s visible approval. By most accounts, the fight kicked the Blue Jackets into a higher gear that helped them pull out a huge two points.
Since the franchise’s inception, fighting has been a big part of the CBJ’s identity. Fans of a team that couldn’t score on the ice or climb up the standings could always count on their favorite players to at least try and make hamburger meat out of opponent’s faces. Until recently, that is. To wit:
CBJ Fighting History
Columbus ranked in the top half of the league in fights every single year until two years ago, and most of the time they were in the top eight. This has been a team—perhaps due in part to their inability to play winning hockey—that lived to scrap. A team that cut its NHL teeth playing in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference with perpetual pugilists like Anaheim, Calgary and St. Louis.
But not anymore. Those days are gone. Anderson’s bout against Benn was only the third this season after Riley Nash fought the New York Rangers’ Anthony DeAngelo last week and captain Nick Foligno fought Dion Phaneuf two weeks ago. It took Columbus nearly a full calendar month to fight for the first time, and one could argue these fights were a span of a frustrated team looking to turn the corner.
Sure, fighting is down across the league. A much-ballyhooed stat floating around hockey Twitter earlier this week pointed out how the famously tough Philadelphia Flyers had yet to register a fight this year. Greg Wyshynski had a great piece looking at exactly why nobody fights anymore last year. Take another look at that chart above. Columbus fought 75 times to lead the league in 2002-03. They led the league again in 2014-15 with only 44 fights, which would’ve put them firmly in 17th place 12 years earlier.
But I’m not talking about the number of overall fights so much as Columbus relative to the rest of the league—even when overall fights declined through the years, the CBJ still ranked in the top half. The speed with which the Jackets moved away from throwing hands is the staggering factor here. Not only has fighting dropped dramatically in a 10-year period in a league that’s notoriously change-averse, Columbus went from one of the league’s top fighters to a team that hardly ever drops the gloves in the span of only three seasons. In that time, the CBJ has also made a concerted effort to get younger and faster, traits that typically don’t match up with the “enforcer” role of the past.
Josh Anderson’s the perfect representation of this trend. The Blue Jackets tabbed Jody Shelley as the team’s resident enforcer practically from the franchise’s inception. Jared Boll was Shelley 2.0 seven years later, a player who had a touch more scoring and skating ability but still existed to fight. (Quick pause for Boll breaking Paul Bissonnette’s nose.)
Seven years after Boll made his debut, Anderson broke into the league with Columbus. Obviously, the team pays Anderson to score (and he’s pretty good at it), but he’s never been hesitant to throw his body—or his fists—around. He’s the next step in the evolution of the CBJ fighter. He’s the pelican at the end of Jurassic Park, gliding smoothly after years of rumbling dinosaurs.
This is all a good thing, by the way. As fun as fights can be to watch, you can’t overlook the long-term dangers. Though the NHL just settled its head injury lawsuit and admitted no liability, the evidence linking serious ongoing health risks to head trauma that comes from big hits and hockey fights has long been too clear to ignore. The removal of fighting means a safer product that keeps its players on the ice in front of fans. That said, fighting isn’t gone, and it won’t be for awhile—especially in lower leagues, but that’s a topic for a different post.
Columbus, a franchise that has always prided itself on a physical, tough brand of hockey, is no longer your older brother’s Blue Jackets. Heck, it’s not even your old ketchup bottle that’s been in the back of your fridge’s Blue Jackets. In the span of just a few seasons, the CBJ have all but abandoned fighting as they’ve transformed themselves into a club that expects to qualify for the playoffs year in and year out. They’ve forged a new identity, but one that may leave longtime fans wondering where all the scraps have gone.