I love baseball. The way that talent mixes with randomness to consistently deliver exciting outcomes is almost perfect to me. It’s a social sport, with a slow pace that lends itself to conversation. It’s my favorite by a good measure.
I really like soccer, too. There are few vicarious moments that allow me to lose myself as completely as the build up to a potential goal in soccer. Football is fun to watch on Sundays, but if I’m honest with myself I’m just as likely to use it as an excuse for afternoon beers and unhealthy food as I am to thoroughly enjoy a contest. Basketball is like a people aquarium to me. It’s something I’ll keep on in the background and check into from time to time, but it doesn’t grab me the way that other sports do.
I’m too old to argue that my order of preference to sports is better than anyone else’s, and I only bring this bit of self-indulgence up as a means of comparing my relationship with other sports to hockey. I’m a casual fan. I’ll follow from the periphery during the regular season, spending the odd Saturday night – when there’s nothing better to do – in front of the television to watch a game. During the playoffs, I’m a bit more active. I’ll follow along with late night highlight packages in the early rounds, watch elimination games and pay close attention during the Stanley Cup Finals.
On Tuesday night, the 2013/2014 NHL season opened, and in the marquee matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, a fight – the second of the night between Colton Orr and George Parros – broke out.
This is nothing new. These two players are employed by their respective teams in the unofficial role of enforcer. They’re both in the business of ice hockey fighting. What is new, or at least rare (a similar incident happened last year to Orr, who at the time, was once again performing a duet with Parros), is that the fight concluded with Parros missing a punch, falling, and landing chin first on the ice.
The Canadiens tough guy was eventually stretchered off the ice and taken to hospital, where he was unsurprisingly diagnosed with a concussion. There are few ways of better understanding the term blood curdling than to see a grown man attempt to pick himself up and fail after suffering a significant blow. Reduced to a fumbling fawn by violence, Parros was without pride, recumbent on the ice.
This was the lasting image for many who shared their outrage the next day. The first wave of which questioned the role of fighting in hockey, the second questioned those questioning it. Claims that hockey fighting was absurd were countered with arguments ranging from exaggerations on the importance of momentum to claims that the removal of fighting would lessen the entertainment of the game. And on and on it went throughout the week, and it continues even now.
The arguments are largely futile, only serving to further entrench two sides in a fruitless debate. I’m typically hesitant to express much when it comes to hockey, specifically because I don’t know it as well as most. I’m a casual fan of the game. I understand its virtues and I comprehend its challenges, but I’m not too interested in investigating either. I’m a Canadian who prefers the pastime of my Southern neighbor, not a general columnist attempting to feign expertise on a subject about which he knows little.
I’m even less eager to enter a fray in which both sides have reduced opposing viewpoints to the most base stereotypes. Anyone in favor of hockey fighting is an underdeveloped Australopithecus. Those who despise punch-fights on ice are presumed to house a collection of Baby Butterscotch Magical Show Ponies in a prominent position at their abode – they’re only taken out of the case above the mantle to be brushed, and then they’re returned.
I’m not trying to convince anyone or make someone see things my way. I have no scorer in this shootout. I merely want to share my thought process in coming to the conclusion that I have in the hopes that it provides something of value to the discussion. I don’t like fighting in hockey, but the last thing I want is for someone else who doesn’t like it to point to this, and use it against someone who does. That’s not the purpose of this. I’m not a hockey expert by any means. I’m a casual fan of the sport, and this is how I feel.
When pressed, proponents of fighting in hockey have several different arguments as to why it’s necessary. The first is that it’s a part of the tradition of the game. This is false.
Fighting in hockey peaked in the late eighties. A decade before that, there werefar fewer fights per game in the NHL than there are now, and the number continues to drop the further back you go. It’s important to remember that this was before rules were put in place to dissuade a third man from entering a fight, players from leaving the bench to join a fisticuffs session, or a pugilist from instigating a fight.
Players Know Best
The next thing you’ll hear from supporters of fighting in hockey is that players want to keep it in the game, and those leading the charge to see it banned are members of the elite class of self-interest purveyors known as the media, who know nothing of how the sport is played.
First of all, that’s not entirely true. Several former players have spoken out against fighting, or called for increased punishments as a consequence of taking part. Most recently, Steve Yzerman, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, expressed the need for progress following the Parros incident.
I believe a player should get a game misconduct for fighting. We penalize and suspend players for making contact with the head while checking in an effort to reduce head injuries yet we still allow fighting. We’re stuck in the middle and need to decide what kind of sport do we want to be. Either anything goes and we accept the consequences or take the next step and eliminate fighting.
However, informal polls of current players almost always show an overwhelming majority in favor of keeping it. This can’t be denied.
Unfortunately, taking the players at their word in this instance fails to account for the NHL’s present culture in which toughness is celebrated, and the largest manifestation of that toughness happens to occur when two players drop their gloves. To speak out against fighting is to risk damage to your reputation, the entire reason why a large number of fights occur in the NHL. As long as fighting in hockey remains associated with a player’s honor, it’s unlikely to be publicly vilified by participants.
While we might assume that current culture is the motivation for a lack of opposition to fighting among players, the reason given for that aversion champions flying fists as a deterrent for worse. Hockey, they quite rightly claim, is a more dangerous sport than most.
Players carry clubs in their hands and move around with razors on their feet. The threat of a fight not only polices dirty play, but also acts as an outlet for aggression that avoids the potential use of the more dangerous tools of a player’s trade.
There’s some anecdotal evidence to back this theory up. At least, there’s a history of sports leagues developing unintended consequences from enacting new legislation.
For instance, when baseball moved to develop safer precautions and stiffer punishments to guard against damage-inducing beanballs, the result was fewer batters being thrown at by pitchers. However, the code that kept recently bruised batters from charging the mound was altered to allow it. Suddenly, fans witnessed an increase in the number of bench clearing brawl dances.
Even in hockey, we’ve seen these unintended consequences before, like when the introduction of better equipment leads to rougher play. My favorite anecdote involves Guy Lafleur, who played the majority of his career without a helmet. This wasn’t because of vanity. He claimed that during a trial run with a helmet, he had never been hit harder by the opposition. He was treated differently on the ice without a helmet.
This invokes the idea of risk competition, or moral hazard, which refers to the tendency of humans to adjust behavior based on the perceived level of risk. We’re less cautious when we feel most protected, and more cautious when we feel we’re at risk.
The idea is that without the threat of a hockey fight, players will feel protected from punches and perhaps more importantly, the embarrassment that’s associated with eating knuckle sandwiches. This protection will lead to being less cautious with more dangerous things like sticks and skates.
However, the protection that fighting allows can work in more than one way. It’s a lot easier to be a dirty player when you’re playing on a line with John Scott. While fighting can be seen to protect against dirty play, it can also protect the use of a player’s equipment in a manner for which they weren’t intended.
This line of thinking also fails to recognize that while hockey is a dangerous sport, it’s not the only dangerous sport. Fights are rare in the NFL, and yet violent infractions of the rules don’t occur at any greater frequency than they do at the NHL level.
Dave Lozo compared the two leagues in his excellent piece for Backhand Shelf, pointing once again to the NHL’s culture and predicting no great impact from a ban on fighting.
What’s the difference between the NFL and NHL, two extremely violent sports whose players pride themselves on toughness? Quite simply, fighting has always been part of the NHL culture while the NFL does not tolerate it. Fighting in hockey gets you five minutes in the penalty box and the admiration of your teammates and coach. Fighting in the NFL gets you a minimum fine of $26,250 for a first offense and is doubled for a second offense. If the NHL adopted that policy, Brandon Prust would be filing for bankruptcy by January. Or, more likely, fighting in the NHL would eventually disappear and, after a while, no one would miss it.
There’s another level of absurdity attached to the idea of fighting as a deterrent. The basis of the idea suggests that self-policing dependent on honor, which fighting supposedly does, is a more effective means than league-policing dependent on legislation. I think that this is what Hockey Hall of Famer Bob Gainey was scratching the surface of with this quote from 1999.
To say that we have to allow fighting because there would be injustices, to me, is like saying the courts didn’t give someone a big enough fine so it’s OK to go firebomb his house.
If hockey players are so dependent on honor, why do they require the threat of a fight to keep them in check from illegal behavior? Perhaps I have more faith in hockey players as professional athletes because I believe that they don’t need fighting to do that.
Part Of The Show
To me, the most valid defense of fighting in hockey is that it’s all a part of the show. Fights are an appealing aspect of what’s supposed to be an entertaining product. It’s difficult to deny that fights are attention gathering.
I’ve seen it in our newsroom at theScore. A hockey game will be going on, and the moment a fight breaks out, everyone stops to watch. Implicitly, at least, there’s a lot of approval being given.
Unfortunately, that approval doesn’t extend as far as fighting’s proponents would like to believe. On the landscape of North American professional sports, hockey is a niche sport. When compared to the leagues that are traditionally considered its competition, the NHL is last in terms of popularity, television contracts (regional and national), corporate sponsorship, merchandise sales and unsurprisingly, revenue.
Obviously, solely blaming fighting for the league’s ranking in North America would be myopic. However, as someone whose relationship to the game has waned over time, it contributes to my reasoning for spending time and money elsewhere. It reduces a fast-paced, violent (even without gloves being dropped) and exciting game to being a joke. It’s the alligator pit of the roller derby. A gimmick.
If I wanted to watch two men fighting, I’d prefer to see two trained individuals combat each other in a boxing ring or a mixed martial arts cage. Aside: If it’s such a part of the game, why don’t regional athletic commissions ever get involved in licensing potential ice hockey fighters?
You can dismiss this perspective as belonging to a single individual. I haven’t employed a market research study, and one would at least assume that the NHL has, and they remain satisfied with the status quo, unmoved to alter the present rules regarding fighting.
However, there is something that stands out in my mind to suggest that I’m not alone in my sentiment. Ask most fans about the best version of hockey they’ve ever seen, and the answer will inevitably be the Olympic ice hockey tournament. How many times did players engage in fighting at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver? Zero.
If it’s not the Olympics, they’ll refer to the thrill of NHL playoff hockey, where fighting does occur but less frequently than during the regular season, and far fewer times than in the preseason when games matter the least. In fact, even if we look at game state, as Tyler Dellow did earlier this year, we find that fights are at their fewest when the outcome of the game is least decided.
I think we can probably expand the “nobody fights in the playoffs” argument to “nobody fights in the playoffs…or basically at any other point in which the game hangs in the balance.” I’ve made this point before but, given how ancillary a fight is to a hockey game, the degree of risk that the league ought to tolerate to players before banning it has to approach zero.
The players who publicly suggest that hockey is a necessary evil – a sort of hellish guardian protecting us from more terrible demons - relegate it in practice to the least important parts of individual games, and then barely engage in the behavior at all at the most important times of the year.
To me, this suggests that it’s simply not an important aspect of the game.
Perhaps, in the past it might have all been in good fun and not present very much in the way of danger, but given the increased size and power of today’s athlete coupled with an improved ability to balance oneself for leverage when punching on ice, that’s no longer the case. Fighting is a dangerous activity, even on ice (especially on ice).
It doesn’t matter that players are aware of the potential for harm, it still presents too great of a risk for something that has proven to be a marginal part of the game whether it’s entertaining on its own or not. It’s an increased risk to the health of players. And that risk just doesn’t match the reward for such a marginal part of the game.
I’m fascinated by traditions, especially ones that seem so natural that we attach meaning to them when none exists. Whenever I want to consider if a generally accepted tradition is absurd or not, I think about the future. I think about an anthropology class generations from now examining our practices. Then, I think about how they’d react to the tradition in question.
I really don’t think we’d have to go too far into the future to find a generation appalled at the idea of fighting being allowed in a professional sport, as an unofficial intermission to the regular flow of the game. To them, I’m sure, fighting in hockey will seem as ridiculous as goaltenders without masks seems to us.
But I’m just a casual fan.