What are the rules for fighting in the NHL?

Fighting has always been one of the most talked about aspects of hockey. Other team sports do not tolerate it, but it has found a place within NHL hockey. So what is allowed to do and not do with fighting in the NHL? 

What are the rules for fighting in the NHL? First of all, fighting in hockey is illegal, and it will be penalized. The difference is that you are not automatically, unlike other team sports, expelled from the game, but there are rules that govern different aspects of fighting that results in penalty minutes.

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There are actually a lot of different rules that pertain to fighting in the NHL.  If you look into the NHL rule book there is a large section – Rule 56 – which talks about the different penalties and lengths of penalties a player gets for fighting. 

What I love is that Rule 56 is titled: fisticuffs. When was the last time someone called it fisticuffs??? 

Let’s break down the key rules of fighting (or, fisticuffs) in the NHL to see why a player gets penalized what they get penalized. 


Fighting with your gloves on: 2 minutes – roughing

This is the only part that I am going to talk about that does not fit under Rule 56. 

This is fighting with your gloves on. Although it is not defined under the fisticuffs part of the rule you will be watching a game and see two guys give each other a lot of punches in the face while they still have their gloves on.

To you and me and practically everyone else in the world this looks like fighting, but not in the NHL. This would not make it into the normal definition of fisticuffs where the player would need to drop their gloves and use their bare fist.

So if you see two guys punching each other with gloves on they will sometimes get a 2 minute penalty for roughing. I said sometimes, because you will often see players give each other a few punches with their gloves on and get no penalty. It seems like it should be penalized but the refs have some leeway as to when they will call a penalty, and all things being equal they want to keep penalties to a minimum. 

The most common fighting: 5 minute major for fighting

This is the most common fighting penalty you will see – a 5 minute major for fighting. 

This happens when two players both willingly enter into a fight where they drop their gloves at the same time and start swinging haymakers at each other.  This is what is determined as a straightforward hockey fight. 

The rules are simple for this type of fight: a 5 minute major penalty for each player.

Instigator and Aggressor of a fight

The big wrinkle in this is when one of the players of the fight is determined to be the instigator or aggressor, which they will be given extra penalty minutes for. 

The instigator is, basically, when one of the players was determined to start the fight, whereas the other player was not necessarily a willing participant but only fighting to protect themselves.

The aggressor is a player throwing punches at a player who does not want to fight, or is not in a position to fight. 

Let’s look at the instigator first.  

If a player is determined to have instigated a fight they will receive a 2 minute minor penalty, a 5 minute major penalty, and a 10 minutes misconduct. That is 17 minutes in penalties. 

What determines if a player is an instigator? 

Here is a list of what the NHL defines an instigator of a fight:

  • Distance Travelled – they skated a distance to engage a player who has not at the same time approached them
  • Gloves off first – clearly dropped their gloves to fight without waiting to see if their opponent is willing to fight
  • First punch thrown – throws a punch before the other player has had a chance to prepare
  • Menacing attitude or posture
  • Verbal instigation or threats
  • Conduct in retaliation to a prior game (or season incident) – the NHL will do anything to stop an intentional planning of an attack prior to a game
  • Obvious retribution for a previous incident in the game or season 

If a player is determined to be an instigator of a second fight within the same game they will be given a 2 minute penalty, a 5 minute major penalty, and a 10 minute game misconduct. This 10 minute game misconduct means that they are kicked out for the rest of the game. 

Now, let’s look at the aggressor. 

Again, the aggressor is someone who is fighting someone who does not want to fight or is not in a position to be able to fight. This can happen after a fight is deemed to be over and one player keeps throwing punches at another player who is unable to defend himself anymore (ie. the one who has lost the fight).

The aggressor penalty is less common than the instigator penalty, but you will see it most often when an NHL heavyweight tries to fight a smaller guy. Just like in boxing or MMA you do not want to fight someone who is a couple of weight classes above because you will get creamed. 

Someone who is deemed to be an aggressor of a fight gets a 5 minute major penalty plus a game misconduct – this means they get kicked out of the game. 


What happens when a second fight starts after the first?


This is something that the NHL really, really tries to discourage. Gone are the days when all ten players can be fighting on the ice at the same time. 

Any player that  fights after another fight has already happened between two other players will be game an automatic game misconduct – you will get kicked out for the rest of the game. 

The only way this is waived is if the player that you are fighting gets an instigator penalty. Therefore you are allowed to fight to defend yourself, but you are not allowed to willingly engage in a second fight. 

The NHL really will only tolerate one fight at a time – no multiple fights on the ice at the same time, no bench clearing brawls. There is only room in their eyes for one fight at one time and then things need to move back to the play of hockey. 

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What fighting will get you a suspensions?


There are a few different suspensions around the instigator penalty. 

  • If you get an instigator in the last 5 minutes of the game or overtime. This is to discourage someone trying to get a fight going when their team is losing and has no chance to win. Nobody is going to try to instigate a fight when their team is down by only a goal and they are trying to tie it up. But if you are losing by four goals, then a player might want to send a message for next time. This is what the NHL wants to discourage. 
  • Also, noteworthy is that a coach will be fined $10,000 if one of his players gets an instigator during this time. 

A player will also get a suspension if they get multiple instigator penalties in one hockey season. 

Here is the breakdown: 

  • 3rd – two games
  • 4th – four games
  • 5th – five games
  • 6th – six games and so on
  • If a player instigates a fight before or after a game it is an automatic 10 game suspension


Related Questions to Fighting


What happens if a player’s sweater is removed while fighting?

It depends.

If they remove their own sweater it is a game misconduct – not having the impediment of a sweater allows you to fight better.

If your sweater is removed, and it is not ‘tied down’ properly, then it is also a game misconduct. There are loops under the sweaters that fasten to the hockey pants – these must be tied down properly. 

If your opponent removes your sweater during the fight, but it has been tied down properly then no penalty will be assessed. 


What happens if a third player joins a fight that is already in progress?

The player joining the fight will receive a game misconduct, except if a match penalty is being assessed. This means do not join in a fight in progress, unless one player is deliberately trying to injure the other. 


What happens if there is tape on the fighter’s hands?

This is a big no, no. A player may have tape on their hands to deal with an injury, but they cannot fight if they do. 

The NHL will give a match penalty for deliberately trying to injury an opponent if someone fights with tape on their hands. Tape is dangerous on someone’s hands and can cause significant cutting to the opponent. 

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