Toronto Maple Leafs v Florida Panthers
On June 4th, in what has to be one of the most safety-conscious competition committee meetings in its history, the NHL decided to begin experimenting with hybrid icing. The move was long overdue. Touch icing is probably one of the most broadly unpopular features of the NHL brand of hockey. Nobody likes it. I’m pretty sure there are more supporters of the instigator and the puck-over-glass penalty than there are of touch icing. Unlike most safety issues, it wasn’t only tender-hearted New-Age fans who hated watching players race at full speed into the back boards just to end the play. One of the greatest opponents of the practice was Don Cherry, representing a whole faction of old-school, traditionalist, good hard hockey fans who were similarly appalled by this dangerous practice.

This is odd, because Cherry and his ilk are definitely not against hockey players getting hurt. We are speaking of a man who opposed visors for years and holds up Scott Stevens as a model body-checker. He’s all for hockey players getting hurt in all kinds of ways, including many that normal human beings would consider stupid and unnecessary. He’ll advocate for guys getting punched in the face for saying something mean, yet when it comes to touching the puck for an icing call, that’s too much. That’s the one thing in hockey that’s not worth the injuries it causes.

Why? What makes touch icing an unacceptable cause of harm, in a game with thousands of acceptable and even beloved causes of harm? It’s not how bad or frequent the injuries are. Although the potential is certainly there, there’s never been an epidemic of careers ended by touch icing. If the concern was purely player safety, we’d be revamping bodychecking standards rather than experimenting with hybrid icing.

This is another place where we see aesthetics at work in hockey’s attitude towards violence. The difference between touch icing injuries and other sorts isn’t the harm itself, it’s the storyline that goes with them. The Don Cherrys of the world don’t just want pain, they want aesthetically satisfying pain. They want pain that means something. Touch icing is an overwhelmingly anticlimactic phenomenon. It’s players running a great risk in pursuit of a completely deflating whistle, and even on the rare occasions it’s beaten, there’s seldom much dramatic payoff. Icings are boring, period, and adding a footrace element doesn’t make them any less so. It’s not the danger itself that turns people off. It’s the dullness.

Contrast attitudes towards touch icing with those concerning shot-blocking. Shot-blocking is a very, very dangerous practice. Players put their bodies in front of pucks moving at astounding speeds, often coming in high, likely to be deflected by all kinds of things. Even if you follow the common advice- keep your padded parts towards the shot, try to get a glove over your jaw and and your junk- there’s still a great chance of getting hurt. Guys who block shots put every part of their body at tremendous risk, and that risk is often realized. If you want to talk hockey phenomena that do real, consistent damage to players, shot-blocking would have to be at the top of the list.

But we seldom, if ever, see safety presented as a reason to ban or limit shot blocking. Fans who are anti-shot-blocking oppose it on the grounds of entertainment- a bunch of bodies falling down in a lane isn’t exactly great television. But no one ever says, we need to end the scourge of shot-blocking in the NHL, too many players are getting hurt, we can’t justify all this pain.

In fact, the pain that comes from shot blocking is some of our favorite pain in the whole game. When Gregory Campbell broke his leg blocking a shot and stayed out to kill a penalty on it, he became a folk hero. Fans chanted his name and cheered his courage. He was held up as a paragon of the very best of hockey. When Ryan Lambert suggested that his gesture was stupid, people were so appalled you’d think he was calling for a kitten genocide. That pain wasn’t just tolerated by hockey fans; it was embraced. If Gregory Campbell had broken his leg trying to touch up a puck, it would have been a senseless tragedy. Because he did it blocking a shot, it was an act of heroic courage.

When hockey unites suffering with strategic purpose, it creates deeply moving stories about bravery, selflessness, and passion that imbue life both on and off the ice with added depth. There are fans who will remember that PK for decades as an example of how a human being can tough out a seemingly impossible situation with a debilitated body. Campbell himself will probably remember it as one of the greatest moments of his career. The time he triumphed over pain. The one shift where he was more admired than the greatest player in the game.

As a rule, then, we might say that hockey players and fans will support harm that they find aesthetically or narratively satisfying and reject that which they find boring. The question is never simply: is this gesture dangerous? It’s: is this gesture more dangerous than the amount of satisfaction we get out of it? These questions have some troubling implications for the sport’s oldest and most consistently controversial form of violence: fighting.

The traditional defense of fighting is embedded in some very powerful narratives. You’ve heard them all before. It’s necessary to protect stars from abuse, or to give them the time and space they need to work their magic- a narrative of protection. It’s important for intimidating opponents and winning games- a narrative of competition. It’s the way that players regulate appropriate behavior amongst themselves, preserving a code of conduct that’s necessary to maintain respect and responsibility on the ice- a narrative of culture. It’s raw emotion that can’t be contained- a narrative of passion.

Historically and even into the present day, most hockey fans enjoy at least some of these stories. They provide the images and logics that underlie almost all defenses of the practice. Every one of those justifications- protection, competition, culture, and passion- is, for many people, enough to justify the pain that results. Like shot-blocking, they’ve long been considered “good reasons” for the suffering they cause.

However, fighting has changed over the years. As much as it provided good stories, it also provided a lot of bad ones- unprovoked assaults with horrific consequences, bench-clearing brawls that stalled games and alienated the public. And so, over the years, its been more and more regulated, until we come to the modern period where fighting has been rendered more or less ethical: most fights now consist of two players who’ve agreed to the battle, facing each other directly. They’re “fair fights”.

But this ethic of the fair fight, imposed from the top down, has merged with tactical evolutions on the ice to create a form of fighting that no longer serves most of the traditional aesthetic purposes. Most players don’t fight anymore- hell, even most “tough guys” don’t fight much. In order to protect the players who can actually contribute to winning, most teams have offloaded most of their fighting onto specialists- goons, if you will- who play very few minutes, often don’t play at all, and usually only fight each other. They’re not creating space for stars, because they don’t play with stars. They’re not intimidating opponents out of playing well, because they’re usually matched up against other crappy players who wouldn’t affect the outcome anyway. They’re not punishing pests and dirtbags, and they’re not doing it from spontaneous passion. They’re marginal players fighting each other because that’s their job.

It used to be there were two camps: pro-fighting and anti-fighting. Now, as a larger and larger proportion of fights become first-period, off-the-faceoff tilts between the same predictable combatants, we’ve seen the emergence of a third position: I like fights, but I don’t like “staged” fights. This position, which would have been unimaginable in the seventies, is rapidly becoming that of the majority. There are some- those who enjoy combat sports for their own sake, the MMA and WWE and boxing crowd- who will love fights no matter how detached they become from the fabric of the rest of the game, but it seems as though increasing numbers of fans are realizing that the customs of modern fighting just don’t satisfy their aesthetic needs anymore. The old narratives, the ones they loved, don’t apply to this brand of fisticuffs. By taking from the hockey fight everything morally unjust and everything strategically inefficient, we’ve created a form which is devoid of meaning, which has no narrative support other than its own perpetuation- guys fight so that they can have a spot on the roster which they will use to fight more. It’s becoming pointless.

If fans who once supported fighting no longer see the narratives they value reflected in the custom, they’ll slowly stop caring. Perhaps they won’t fully turn against it- they won’t become anti-fighting advocates- but they’ll cease to see it as essential to the game. They’ll become more receptive to safety concerns, and the sort of injuries that would never be cited as reasons not to block a shot or throw a hit will, in the context of fighting, be brought forth as Serious Problems. The real issue is not safety in itself, but the tradeoff: what are players sacrificing their safety for? When the answer was “to protect Wayne Gretzky” or “to avenge a wrong done to them” or “to become the first expansion team to win the Cup” or “because we were carried away by rage in a tight-fought game”, fighting seemed like a great thing. Now, more and more, it seems rote, predictable, and irrelevant. Forget the moralistic positions entirely, and ask: is modern hockey fighting creating satisfying stories? Is it contributing to the aesthetics of the game? Does it still give fans the joy that it used to? They used to say: no one ever looks away during a fight. But I do, and not because I disapprove- I’m actually pro-fighting, as a matter of rules anyway. I’m just not interested in watching two irrelevant players do irrelevant things at an irrelevant moment.

If hockey fighting dies, it won’t be because it’s become too dangerous. It’s less dangerous now than it’s ever been before. It’ll be because it’s become too boring.