Interestingly, some individuals within the league who began their careers interested in cracking down on fighting later decided that letting the gloves drop every once in a while might be a good thing. One example of this change of heart is The Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky, who through much of his career advocated for a tougher line on fighting in the NHL.
Wayne, like many others, changed his tune after observing the effects of fighting crack downs in the NHL and the minors. What happened was this: more people got hurt.
Hunh? But there are fewer fistfights. No one in any other sport is allowed to fight. How could more people be getting hurt?
Consider this: pro athletes in all non-golf sports are bigger, stronger, and more powerful now a days than they have in any previous age. They train more, and they know more about developing strength, stamina, and power than any generation before them. They can pose a pretty serious threat to one another. And sports, being the tense, emotional big money affairs that they are, generate aggression, anger, and frustration.
In any non-hockey sport, the worst thing that you can do with your big, beefy pro-player body is smash it into some other person, either through a punch, a check, or some other contact.
But not hockey.
In hockey, you carry a big freaking stick. One could even call it a club- for what is a club but a big, wooden lever? In hockey, you have blades strapped to your feet. You have a hard rubber puck that you can wing at someone at over 100 M.P.H.
Thus, in hockey, the worst thing you can do is not hit someone with your body, but to come after somebody with a stick, a skate, or the puck. It happens sometimes—often on accident, but not always. Players loose teeth, loose vision, loose blood, and shatter bones when they get hit with equipment. It can get pretty serious; several quite good players have almost been forced into retirement after a close encounter with a puck or stick.
So what The Great One and others have noticed is that when aggressive players don't get their energy out in a fight every few games, they tend to get it out through careless stick work, dirty hits, and even nailing people with the puck. Not a good thing. Much more dangerous than a fist fight, where most injuries occur because someone fell funny, or busted up some knuckles.
And thus the dichotomy; fight in some other game, you'll probably get ejected. In hockey, you get five for fighting and a round of applause from the crowd. Some will argue that the choice between fist fights and dangerous equipment fouls is a false binary—couldn't everyone just elect to be a bit less aggressive?
But that wouldn't be the old time hockey, now would it?
So drop the gloves, pull your opponent's jersey over his head, and get ready for some quality time in the sin bin. Just remember to keep your stick down, and your head up coming across the blue line.