Vulgar and Violent: The NHL's Brashest Teams and Fans
Hockey ain't for the faint of heart. Sure, plenty of other sports involve physical contact, making pain a crucial part of play. But hockey is uniquely attuned to aggression: Brawling is built into the sport, even at its highest levels. Fighting is an expected part of any NHL contest, with referees employing flexible rules to break them up before serious injuries are incurred.
In the stands and online, hockey fans can match players' ferocity – often with ugly and dangerous results. From racial slurs directed at players to fisticuffs between fans of the same team, the NHL has seen its followers do the inexplicable and unforgivable.
In this project, we set out to study the brash attitudes and actions of fans and players alike, uncovering the harshest aspects of professional hockey. We analyzed profane language on each NHL team's subreddit and then asked 441 fans which franchise had the most obnoxious fan base. We then crunched numbers from hockeyfights.com, determining which teams and players have the most extensive fighting records.
Ready to see which teams fight most and which fans are the toughest customers? Keep reading to find out.
Reddit can be a rowdy place, and each NHL team's subreddit exhibits plenty of raw passion. But which franchises have the most explicit fans based on the rate of profane words per 100 subscribers?
In terms of profanity, the followers of two Canadian teams far exceeded other fan bases. To be fair, Canadians have a particular passion for the game, with devotion rarely equaled by Americans. It's possible they're profanity simply indicates extreme enthusiasm rather than anger.
For Calgary Flames fans, however, the picture is probably more complicated. The league's most profane fan base had a rollercoaster 2019-2020 season, dealing with injury, inconsistent play, and the resignation of coach Bill Peters after a scandal involving his use of racist slurs. For second-ranked Canucks fans, the profanity may be more positive: Some recent additions to the team have emerged as legitimate stars, surpassing the most optimistic expectations.
On the other hand, perhaps on-ice performance doesn't dictate fan profanity at all. Followers of the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings used the fewest explicit words per 100 subscribers, despite the fact that these teams had two of the league's worst records when the 2019-2020 season halted due to COVID-19 concerns. Conversely, fans of Tampa Bay, one of the league's most successful squads, had the third-lowest rate of profanity.
Competition can produce hard feelings – between teams and fan bases alike. But some franchises' fans have particularly vulgar reputations, provoking plenty of criticism from the over 400 people we surveyed.
Roughly 37% of respondents identified Boston Bruins fans as among the most vulgar, despite the fact that Bruins subreddit activity suggests otherwise. These opinions might reflect a broader sense of resentment about Boston's sports fans, who are widely seen as obnoxious about their teams' recent run of successes.
On the other hand, many respondents also deemed Flyers fans to be particularly vulgar, a view that matches up with their use of profanity on Reddit. Philadelphia has a deep and nasty history of physical play, earning them the dubious distinction of "most hated team in the NHL." Perhaps this reputation has influenced the perception of the team's fans as well.
Relatively few respondents viewed Calgary or Vancouver fans as vulgar, though their subreddits were littered with explicit language. Perhaps this dynamic has something to do with Canadians' widely admired manners. The nation does have a reputation for making nice, and some data suggests Canadians are particularly cordial on other social media platforms.
The Fall of Fighting?
Clearly, hockey fans are not above harsh feelings. But do players still possess the fierce willingness to fight on ice? We tallied the number of fights per team over the last 20 years, tracking the frequency of fisticuffs over time.
Our findings are undeniable: In the last two decades, the league's appetite for physical altercations has sharply declined. In fact, the average number of fights per team fell 69% over the time period we studied.
This plunge in fighting didn't occur overnight: The 2000s saw three seasons with an average of at least 50 fights per team. But more recent figures make those totals seem like a distant memory. Between the 2000s and 2010s, fights decreased by 42%. What could explain this significant shift?
Experts cite a number of factors, including an evolution of teams' priorities. As recent rule changes have ushered in an era of speed and scoring, coaches are less inclined to put hulking brawlers on the ice. Additionally, many of the NHL's feeder leagues have instituted new rules to discourage fighting, all against a backdrop of alarming new science about the dangers of concussions. However these elements interact, they're having a profound effect on the ice, making fighting far less common.
Though fighting has decreased in recent decades, some players and teams have kept the tradition alive. We studied the NHL's top pugilists and most fight-friendly franchises from the last 20 seasons to see who remains ready to toss off their helmets.
Our most incorrigible fighter of all was Garret Burnett, a 6-foot-3-inch, 245-pound bruiser whose single NHL season included 22 fights. Peter Worrell, who stands at an imposing 6 feet, 7 inches averaged more than 20 fights per year during his seven seasons in the league. (Recently, Worrell made headlines discussing his experiences of racism across his hockey career.) Krzysztof Oliwa averaged the same number of fights across an even lengthier tenure, playing for six different teams over his decade in the NHL.
Interestingly, though the Anaheim ducks had the least profane fan subreddit, their team averaged the most fights per season with over 46. However, Calgary, the team with the most explicit fans overall, averaged the second-most fights. Clearly, fans' profane language does not correlate consistently with fighting, at least in terms of recent Reddit activity.
Certain historically tough franchises neared the top of the list, such as the Philadelphia Flyers. But even this squad has seen its reputation called into question: In 2018, fans bemoaned the team's seeming indifference to trading blows with opponents. Similarly, Bruins devotees have criticized the team's lack of physicality in recent seasons, though Boston averaged the fourth-most fights of any franchise.
The Future of Fisticuffs
As our findings clearly indicate, hockey passion isn't always expressed politely. Fan bases can make their feelings known in vulgar terms – whether or not they're perceived as obnoxious by followers of other teams.
While much of this language may be harmless, it's worth considering whether it may be alienating potential fans. For hockey's appeal to grow in the years ahead, will it need to reform the gruff attitudes that currently define its fandom?
On the other hand, in an era of fewer fights and greater concerns about injury, can the game continue to satisfy long-time devotees who enjoy the game's sense of danger? As the game evolves, we'll discover what actually fuels NHL fandom: Hockey's unmatched brashness or the beauty of athletic excellence.
Methodology and Limitations
For this analysis, we scraped 323,791 comments from all 30 NHL team-specific subreddits containing any of the following profanity: "f-ck," "sh-t," "damn," "hell," "d-ck," "b-tch," "crap," "a-shole," "bastard," and "douche" from October 2, 2019, through April 11, 2020. Historical NHL fight data was pulled from hockeyfights.com. We also conducted a survey of 441 NHL fans about their perceptions of the most vulgar fan bases. Of the 441 respondents surveyed, 32.7% were female, 67.1% were male, and less than 1% were nonbinary. The average age of respondents was 35 with a standard deviation of 11 years. The main limitation of the survey was the reliance on self-reported responses which are subject to issues such as attribution, exaggeration, telescoping, and recency bias.
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