After totaling 372 fights last season, the N.H.L. is on pace for 275 this year.
Consequently, most teams have decided they no longer have room on their rosters for an enforcer, a player whose sole purpose is to drop gloves and swap punches in the kind of staged fights that once policed accepted rules of on-ice behavior and violence. But there are still spots for players with pugilistic ability and skill.
At 5 feet 11 inches and 205 pounds, Haley is hardly a behemoth, but he leads the N.H.L. this season with seven fighting majors — a statistic he says he is aware of. He was in 16 fights last season as a member of the San Jose Sharks, and three more in this year’s preseason.
“We know when he’s on the ice, we feel a couple of inches taller,” said Keith Yandle, the Panthers’ veteran defenseman. “He’s going to have your back, and he’s a great teammate. Any time anybody has gotten hit, or it’s something you don’t want, he’s right there. I think it just keeps guys honest.”
When Bob Boughner, a former N.H.L. defenseman, was named the Panthers’ coach last June, he knew he wanted to toughen up his team. He had coached Haley the last two seasons as an assistant in San Jose, and moved swiftly to bring him to Florida.
“He’s a great guy in the dressing room and off the ice,” Boughner said of Haley, who is with his fourth N.H.L. team. “And when he’s on the ice, he’s a guy who can play both ways. He’s a guy you’re not afraid to put on the ice, but, at the same time, he makes our skill guys feel a little more comfortable. I think most teams know they can’t take advantage of us physically when he’s in the lineup.”
Boughner said Haley knew when to fight and, perhaps more important, when he should keep his gloves on.
“He’s not just running around and looking for it,” Boughner said. “He plays the game the right way, and he makes sure no one’s taking liberties on his teammates.”
Haley conceded that his job can be hazardous, but said: “When a fireman goes to work, or a policeman, or a plumber, or whatever, there are always things that happen in your job. There are always risks. I chose to be a hockey player, and that’s something I’m good at.”
Haley, who is married with two sons, said he had not had any problems with concussions — yet.
“Maybe when I’m older,” he added. “It doesn’t bother me.”
Haley, who grew up in Guelph, Ontario, did not start out as a fighter. In the last of his six seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, Haley, then 20, amassed 171 penalty minutes with the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors — but also scored 30 goals in 68 games.
The Islanders signed him as a free agent in 2008, and he spent most of five seasons with their American Hockey League affiliate in Bridgeport, Conn. He played his first two N.H.L. games late in the 2009-10 season, and got into his first N.H.L. fight, with Devils forward Rod Pelley.
“To say I just started fighting, no,” Haley said. “I kind of always just got in there. I’m not very big, so it’s always been kind of my persona, I guess. I wasn’t quite skilled enough to be a skill player and wasn’t big enough to be a tough guy.”
He played two years in the Rangers organization, spending all but nine games with their A.H.L. team in Hartford, and then most of the next two seasons in the minors after signing with San Jose in 2014. But he stuck around for a full season in 2016-17, rolling up 128 penalty minutes in 58 games.
Haley signed with the Panthers on the first day of free agency, and he has been with the team all season.
“He’s a little bit different,” Florida forward Vincent Trocheck said. “He’s not just going out there — can’t skate, can’t do anything but fight. He obviously has a side where you know he can do that, but he’ll block shots, play the right way, can score.”
Haley said he thought — and hoped — fighting would always be a part of the N.H.L., even if its role has diminished. Major junior hockey and minor league hockey have implemented rules in recent years to curb fighting.
In the A.H.L., the top minor league, players who fight before, during or immediately after the drop of the puck for a face-off are ejected. A player is suspended for one game after his 10th fighting penalty, with one-game suspensions for each fighting major up to 13 and two-game suspensions after 14.
The A.H.L.’s president, David Andrews, said that the goal was to reduce the overall incidents of fighting and that “the legislation has had the desired effect.” Fights dropped to 0.45 per A.H.L. game in 2016-17, down from 0.62 in 2015-16 and 0.80 in 2014-15.
“This is their way of weeding it out without actually cutting it off,” Haley said. “Hopefully, I’ll be long gone by the time fighting is completely out of it. But I can only speak from personal preference, and I prefer to watch a game that has the ability to have a fight in it.”