The Eternal Fighting Debate

First of all, I’d like to start by saying that – at least at this point – no one knows whether or not anything hockey-related was in any way to blame for the death of Wade Belak. In fact, it hasn’t been proven that the deaths of Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien had anything to do with hockey either. That will likely never be proven. Each man seemingly had his own personal demons and each man died far too young. Whether or not the fact that these men were all hockey players had any relation to their deaths is unknown. However, all three men were hockey players and because of that their deaths have rightly brought up some important issues recently.

Modern knowledge of concussions and the long term impact on those who’ve suffered them has been brought up. Depression and substance abuse have also been discussed.

All of those problems lead us to several important questions and discussions about player welfare, health, safety and the role of counselling in the NHL. One important question that has come up is the question of whether we are past the point where we should allow fighting in the NHL?

The league has always walked a fine line in regards to fighting. On one hand, a fight results in a major penalty. That’s a relatively serious penalty within the NHL rulebook and that means that the league considers a fight worse than a slash, a hook or a trip. Those are minor penalties and fighting is a major. According to NHL rules fighting is apparently a serious breach.

However, a fight is still only penalized by a five minute penalty. If you punch someone else in the head in baseball, basketball or a variety of other sports, you receive a much stiffer punishment.

Of course, while fighting remains “illegal” in the NHL, that doesn’t stop the league from promoting it. Fights appear in highlight packages, promotional videos and anywhere else the league tries to market itself. And why? Because people like it. It’s exciting.

I’ve jumped out of my seat during a fight. I’ve cheered as one player knocked another player out. I’ve wanted to see more. We all have. Almost every single hockey fan gets excited when a fight breaks out during a game.

But does that mean it should be allowed?

I can’t think of another professional sport that allows one competitor to punch another competitor in the face with his or her bare hand. Combat sports like boxing and mixed martial arts generally require fighters to wear gloves. In hockey, you’re expected to take your gloves off before you fight. Hockey allows one player to punch another player in the face with absolutely zero protection involved in the equation. Should it?

There are a few aspects of fighting that most hockey fans can agree that they dislike: Staged fights and “goons.” Whenever the fighting debate comes up, most hockey fans will agree that players who are employed only to fight may have probably seen the end of their usefulness. If a hockey player can’t take a regular shift and his only purpose on the ice is to fight someone, he probably shouldn’t be in the game.

The same goes for staged fights. A lot of us agree that a fight that erupts in the heat of battle is much different from one that was set up beforehand. It’s often boring to watch two heavyweights drop the gloves immediately following a faceoff because “they’re supposed to fight now.” It feels cheap, fake and exploitative.

But where can you draw the line? If Eric Godard plays five minutes of hockey and then starts a fight is that enough time spent playing hockey to separate him from “a goon who can’t take a regular shift?” How about if he plays 10 minutes? When has a player been in the game long enough that he’s allowed to fight? Do you need to average a certain amount of ice time before you can drop the gloves? And how long do two players need to argue with one another before the fight is no longer considered “staged?”

It seems almost impossible to eliminate goons and staged fighting while still keeping fighting itself in the game, at least not by using the rulebook. The culture of fighting as it currently takes place  is ingrained in the NHL. That’s why we’re all so resistant to removing it.

Unfortunately, as long as fighting is allowed in the NHL there will be players whose main purpose is to fight and those players will seek out other fighters to do battle with. You can’t ban fighting in some occasions and allow it at other times. It doesn’t make sense. You also can’t dictate who can fight and who cannot. If a coach wants to give a certain player limited ice time, no one can stop him even if that limited ice time is spent fighting. If a player wants to drop the gloves to defend an opponent or make himself look valuable to his team, he’ll do so if the rules allow it.

So what does the league do? Honestly, I don’t know. Like many hockey fans, I feel a little uncomfortable saying that all fights should be banned across the board. However, I feel even more uncomfortable watching players risk brain injuries on a nightly basis because they want to remain in the NHL. If you’ve ever seen a preseason game you know that a good way to get the coach’s attention and to stand out from the crowd is to fight.

Matt Hendricks of the Washington Capitals said so himself on HBO’s 24/7:

It comes down to having a job and making a career. I think it all started last year when I went into training camp. The season before, I had a really good camp, had some goals and was still sent down to the minors….I needed a way to make the opening night roster. Talking to a good friend, he said ‘You gotta fight. If you don’t, someone else will.’ I kind of stick by that motto now.

Something seems sad about that. We all know that hockey is a tough sport and that’s a big part of why we love it. Hockey players put their bodies through hell during the course of an NHL season and they risk injury every night. They don’t back down from anything and they don’t quit. They’re tough and we like them that way. However, there’s a difference between taking and delivering hard checks and feeling like you need to be willing to be punched in the face on a regular basis just so you can stay in the league.

Yes, fighters choose to fight. In most cases you don’t need to drop the gloves during a game. However, there is pressure to stand up for yourself and your teammates when you are challenged. No one likes the player who skates away from a willing combatant. The fans don’t like it and, most importantly, the coaches don’t like it. You’re supposed to stand up for yourself and drop the gloves when needed. That’s how hockey works. Sure, that pressure isn’t there for goal scorers and other finesse players, but a tough guy who backs down from a fight suddenly doesn’t look so tough anymore. And if he’s not tough, why is he playing? He’s certainly not scoring goals and there’s definitely someone else out there who would be willing to fight in that same situation.

However, and it absolutely sucks to say this, fighting could be responsible for serious brain injuries and even death. It hurts to think that I’ve cheered during a fight knowing that someone could be badly hurt. We’re not talking about a small chance of injury here either; hitting someone in the face with your bare fist hurts. It hurts both the person taking the punch and the person throwing it. Repeated blows to the head are not a joke and concussions are serious business. We know that now. Sure, we’ll never be able to eliminate injuries from hockey, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reduce the ones that we can prevent.

No one wants to take toughness out of the game. No one wants to take hitting out of the game (unless you’re taking about hits to the head.) No one wants to eliminate the heart and strength and desire and passion that it takes to win in the NHL. But it seems a little strange to talk about removing headshots to protect players from concussions while we’re simultaneously allowing them to punch each other on a nightly basis.

Yes, fighting is a part of the game and its been that way for a very long time. It’s entertaining and it makes us stand up and cheer. However, huge hits to the head once made us stand up and cheer as well. Now they make us sit in silence, worried about the health of the player who was just hit. Maybe we should feel the same way about fighting.

It’s a fine line and it’s hard to say it, but the NHL needs to seriously consider at least punishing fighters more severely. I’m not sure if I can cheer any longer when someone is punched in the face knowing why he did it and how it could impact his life.