ST. PAUL, Minn. -- There's no use fighting facts. Bare knuckles are back in the NHL.
Hockey fights, thought to be heading toward extinction three seasons ago, have returned to the league with all the force of a Rob Ray right hook. Buffalo Sabres fans certainly should have noticed. The Sabres are among the most active pugilists, according to hockeyfights.com. Entering Thursday night's game with the Minnesota Wild, the Sabres had six fighting majors, tied for eighth most in the NHL.
The Sabres averaged a fight per game through their first six contests, helping contribute to a leaguewide spike. Through the first 91 games of the season, there were 0.71 fights per game, according to hockeyfights.com. It's a huge jump.
In 2005-06, the first year following the lockout, there were only 0.38 fights per game, according to the Web site. In 2006-07, it was nearly the same at 0.40.
"The game changed so much [coming out of the lockout]," Sabres enforcer Andrew Peters said Thursday. "I was the guy here, and I played only 28 games. At the start, the role was kind of being, not weeded out, but the future of that role was uncertain."
Fortune soon smiled on fighters and fans of old-school hockey at the end of the '06-07 season. The hard-hitting Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup with a team that was just as eager to fight as score.
"Anaheim goes and wins the Stanley Cup with a tough, grinding, fighting, physical team, and I think everyone kind of took a step back and said, 'Whoa, there still is a place in this game for that,' " Peters said.
The average number of fights jumped to 0.54 last year, and it's leaping higher still as enforcers get job security back. There's were 0.64 fights in 2003-04.
"I think every team's got to have a guy," Peters said. "It's not like they're taking up a lot of cap space. It's a role that I think every team has to have."
As Peters said, enforcers don't break the bank. He makes $525,000, while Minnesota's Derek Boogaard earns $875,000. Teams have salary cap room to keep a tough guy. But unlike the old days, there's not room to keep three or four, so it's unlikely hockey will return to the Wild West days.
"Buffalo used to have Ray, [Brad] May, [Matthew] Barnaby, [Gord] Donnelly, [Bob] Boughner," Peters said. "We used to have me, [Eric Boulton] and [Adam] Mair on a line. I don't know too many teams that have more than one."
Considering fighters were edging toward extinction, one is a good number for those who believe fisticuffs have their place.
"If you don't dress fighters, you don't see fights," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "If you dress fighters, you see fights."
The Sabres' three injured centers -- Paul Gaustad, Tim Connolly and Jochen Hecht -- skated Thursday. Gaustad and Hecht are still about two weeks away, while Connolly isn't expected to return until at least next week. . . . Thomas Vanek, the Twin Cities resident, needed to acquire 25 tickets for friends and family members for Thursday's game.