Over hockey’s summer months, I’ll be taking on more general topics. Today, fighting. Feel free to submit any requests to Justin.Bourne@theScore.com.
Like Jonathan Moxon of Varsity Blues, I am just one man. How I felt as a player on the bench after watching a teammate drop his mitts is going to be different from my teammates, so you’ll have to permit me some generalization here.
I liked, and found certain types of fights useful, but before we get to those, let’s be real: I also liked watching the pointless ones, so if our meathead was tapped on the shoulder to go fight a meaningless fight, I could care less because it generally didn’t affect the game, and I got to see a fight. In some mid-season game in particular, hey neat, a free UFC ticket. What, I’m going to worry about their safety like their mothers? We’ll be getting back to the actual hockey momentarily.
But there’s a reason some of those guys will dress all year and not in the playoffs, and that’s pretty simply that they don’t really affect the game anymore. Colton Orr-on-John Scott doesn’t affect much because fighters are almost viewed as sidecars to a team these days, like kickers in football. I don’t mean that to be disrespectful or anything, fighting is scary as hell and takes stones, but I think we’re at the point where that’s a reality. “Let’s go get ‘em boys! And you, guy, if you have to fight, good luck!”
Maybe – maaaybe – a hard knockout could get a team fired up. And by “a team” I mean the specific type of player who gets fired up by stuff like that. You gotta keep in mind, not all hockey players are the same. I wrote this on locker room cliques at one point – major junior guys tend to feel that fighting is a bigger part of the game because they’ve never played hockey without it (and are therefore more likely to think the results of fights matter), so it’s possible those guys could be like “Holy sh*t, great body shot by Colton Orr, let’s f***ing keep running over these guys!” or something, but I was more prone to eye-rolling like the (presumed) college nerd I was.
But before the anti-fighting crowd starts feeling too self-satisfied here, that doesn’t mean I deemed all fighting irrelevant.
I occasionally felt a visceral reaction (which can make your legs feel light with adrenaline) over the following types of fights:
* When a guy who doesn’t fight much is playing with so much passion a fight happens organically
I love that sh*t. Sometimes you get a guy on your team who wants to win so bad there’s just no stopping him, and he’s driving the net, and digging in the corners, and getting in people’s grills, so he ends up going windmill-style on an opponent who had the balls to get in his way. That always made me feel like I was playing like a pansy, because if this guy can do it, why can’t I? Ante up, Bourne. We’re after the same cause, we’re teammates, I’m gonna step up my game.
* The reactionary scrap
When you feel one of your teammates has been wronged and a guy stands up for that, I love it too.
What I think a lot of people don’t understand, is how much of fighting is big picture, whether that’s conscious from players or not (I think it usually is). There’s a desire to be a team that sticks together and doesn’t forget. It’s aggravating playing a team who constantly “sticks up for each other,” because you can’t so much as cross a single perceived line without getting hacked, whacked and challenged to fight. It makes a hesitant player – as I may or may not have been – less likely to take shots at anyone (or even drive the net hard) because they don’t want to have to deal with the reaction.
That’s reality at all levels – not all talented players want to deal with the rough stuff, so playing tough against them (fighting anyone who crosses any lines) can make a guy play a more measured, perimeter game to make sure they don’t cross any accidentally. There are big boys out there, but if you let one of those skill guys play a team where nobody says or does a thing to them, and they’ll kill you on the scoreboard.
(Frankly, the above is a reason I don’t mind when guys try to fight after big, clean hits – clean or not, you’re paying for trying to hurt us – which I know is an unpopular opinion.)
And there are other, more specific situations: I like the patient revenge scrap games later, I like a team going into a tough road building and getting into a few early to show they’re not there to be victims, and there’s always protecting your goalie. There’s a time and a place for fighting, and while I don’t think the NHL would suffer much without it, I’m still a fan. Much like actual UFC, these guys know the risks, and are consenting to taking them when they choose to fight.
If you’re pro-fighting, you should probably minimize your use of “momentum” as an excuse. I would say the only time I really ever felt anything that changed my energy level was when a guy who doesn’t fight much got into it. That’s sort of inspiring. I do think going when your team is lifeless and losing that a fight can act as a bit of a defibrillator – any pulse here? It might not work – the team may already be cold on the metal gurney – but it’s worth a shot. (Incidentally, this is why I’d rather not see my team fight unless we’re up a solid three goals or so. It is sort of a wake up call that a game is actually happening and you’re in it.)
There are a couple other things to consider for fans about why players fight, and a big one is perception with the coach. When a game is out of reach and players fight, it’s rarely about being animals free from a cage who are finally cleared to bite. It’s rarely about trying to turn the game around. It’s usually about your coach thinking your team is a bunch of no-heart half-asses, and excusing yourself from the list of players who “didn’t give a f*** last night” by putting your facial features on the line. That doesn’t make it right or anything, but it’s a reason.
I often found myself thinking a teammate’s fight was stupid, mostly because I believe a lot of guys who are paid to be tough guys just fight so they’re deemed to be doing their job. I think it’s often selfish. All this clown has to do is shed his mittens for a 20 second fight, and at the end of the day he’s done his job. I have to create offense or I haven’t. And occasionally, when deciding the lineup the next day, who did their job and who didn’t is taken into consideration.
I think fights sucked me into games more than they pulled me out of them, because they add to the storyline, and they add to the (bad) relationships between and your opponents. I’m certainly not of the mind that they helped my team win many games over my career, if any, but I do think they probably made some of the games better overall. And, if you believe your team is the better team, as so many players do, you might as well try to raise that level as high as it’ll go.
I really don’t see the need to glorify or condemn fighting in hockey. As it currently stands, it just…is.