Bill Maher – yes, I’m opening a piece about why fighting does not need to exist in hockey by referencing something Bill Maher said, but bear with me – once was discussing what it would take to get equal rights in America for the gay community. He quoted a statistic that showed how people who are against gay marriage are very old while people who are for it are very young.
His hypothesis was that eventually gay marriage would be legal in all 50 states, but we would have to wait for all of the old voters and their long-held ignorant beliefs to die first. Once you get past the harshness of the idea, it makes sense. For change to occur, people in power need must be replaced by people who aren’t burdened by the notions of “that’s how it’s always been” in the world.
Before we get to hockey, let’s talk about the NFL. I know, but I assure you this all builds to a point.
On Sunday, the New York Giants were playing a football game against the Carolina Panthers. The Giants were thoroughly dismantled, 38-0, in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. The contest ceased to be in doubt by, at the latest if you’re an optimist, the middle of the third quarter. It was a woodshed beating in which Giants quarterback Eli Manning was sacked seven times.
There was a play that occurred earlier in the game before it got out of hand. Giants defensive back Ryan Mundy delivered a devastating – and legal, although a flag was thrown at first – hit to Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell that jarred the ball loose, resulting in an incomplete pass. LaFell was about as defenseless as it gets. It was an extremely violent collision in an extremely violent sport.
At the conclusion of the third-down play, no one on the Panthers ran over to Mundy to challenge him to a fight. Heck, no one on the Panthers had anything to say Mundy in the aftermath of the hit. No one on the Panthers felt the need to “stick up for a teammate” because of the hit. In a game that was over with about 20 minutes left, Panthers coach Ron Rivera did not send out his toughest player to fight Mundy or exact revenge by having a linebacker engage in a fight with a Giants wide receiver.
Suffering one of the more embarrassing losses in team history, no one on the Giants felt the need to “set the tone” for the following week’s game by fighting someone on the Panthers. No one on the Giants felt the need to “fire up the boys” while down 10-0 by starting a fight.
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 are many reasons why in 2013 hockey is the only sport that tacitly condones fighting, but the biggest reason is the fact that it’s institutional; it’s something that has always been there since skate blade first touched ice. Changing any long-held standard or practice in any institution is always extremely difficult, as it is all anyone around that institution has ever known. It’s been taught and passed down from generation to generation. It’s a systemic problem.
It seems every argument for fighting being necessary in hockey has been gutted like a deer that has been shot with an arrow by David Booth, but we have to go over some of them again for educational purposes.
The argument that always seems the most convincing when it hits your ears is fighting is OK when a player on the other team is playing recklessly and taking liberties with players on your team. By having an enforcer on your team, that reckless, liberty-taking player will be taught a lesson about how to play the game properly and with honor, and that lesson will be taught with fists.
People accept this rationale despite the fact that fighting and reckless, liberty-taking players have co-existed since the beginning of hockey time. Having a fighter to defend a teammate does absolutely nothing to deter that type of thing, as nearly 100 years of hockey has proven.
That bleeds into the deterrent theory, that having a well-known fighter who enjoys bashing faces will prevent players on the other team from throwing hits, dirty or clean, on your star players. This is apparently a belief of the front-office of the Edmonton Oilers, which is lined with men who suited up in the NHL about 30 years ago. They signed Steve MacIntyre, who serves no other purpose than to break faces in battles of fisticuffs, this week in the wake of Sam Gagner having his face broken by the carelessly wielded stick of Canucks forward Zack Kassian.
After Gagner’s injury, a million voices cried out that if the Oilers had a true enforcer, a defender of hockey liberties, Gagner’s face wouldn’t look like one of those walkers in Return of the Jedi that gets crushed by the two Ewok logs. That’s what known, scary enforcers do – they deter violence against others, especially those that can’t defend themselves.
Yet 24 hours later, the brawl between the Leafs and Sabres blew that theory to bits.
The Leafs’ Jamie Devane, a large man, kicked the hell out of the Sabres’ Corey Tropp, a man who is not anywhere nearly as large as Devane. This upset the Sabres because it broke the code, a nebulous idea about fighting that can be used to create an excuse for any fight that occurs later in the game or until the end of time, really. Pick on someone your own size and all that. Devane took a liberty with a smaller player, and he had to pay.
Here’s the problem – the Sabres have John Scott, who is basically a bear on skates. He is not only a bear, but he is a bear who knows how to throw a punch. And skate. There might not be a more intimidating fighter in the NHL than Scott. If you play in the NHL, you are aware of his existence and you know what he will do to you if you step out of line.
Yet Devane took his liberties on Tropp — although Tropp was clearly a willing participant — anyway. Devane didn’t care. Why? Because the idea of fighting as a deterrent is about as silly as the idea of a bear on skates throwing punches.
Consider the death penalty. It’s existence is designed to deter murder. But the problem with murder is that most of them occur in the heat of passion. You’re not thinking straight, which clearly is the case because you are in the process of murdering someone. Your adrenalin is pumping and your emotions are raging and oh look this person is dead and now you’re thinking about the consequences.
It’s the same problem in hockey. Your heart is pumping. You are filled with a mix of fear and excitement, and that same adrenalin is rushing through your veins and oh look you’ve swung your stick violently and broken the jaw of a player who you intended to hit across the chest but you instead severely injured him. The concept of fighting as retribution to that action doesn’t enter your mind because it requires thinking clearly and no one is thinking clearly in the midst of a high-speed, violent sport.
The notion that we should let players “police themselves” is the highest of high comedy, as if Cam Janssen is a modern-day Wyatt Earp, dispensing justice on the hockey frontier when referees can’t get the job done. The people on Reno 911 are more equipped to police illegal activity than hockey players.
Blame for fighting in the NHL doesn’t fall squarely on players and coaches and GMs and front-office types who continue to promote this machismo-fueled need to show one’s toughness and willingness to do anything for a teammate – it falls just as equally on the NHL. If suspensions for dirty hits weren’t comically low and ventured into the 10- or 20- or 30-game range on the regular, there would be fewer dirty hits and fewer reasons for players to fight. If referees weren’t lax in enforcing rules, offering either a wink/nudge or turning a blind eye to vigilante justice, hockey players would feel less compelled to fill the justice void.
Of course, if the NHL moved into the 21st century and outlawed fighting, there would be no fighting at all and no debates over what the intentions of the coach were when he put three bouncers on the ice against actual hockey players. There’d be no discussions about which enforcer has hockey skills and which enforcer is most likely to hold his stick upside-down for an entire shift without realizing it.
Of course, that will never happen as long prehistoric thinkers like Randy Caryle, Brian Burke and Craig MacTavish hold places of power and influence in the NHL.
Consider the NFL again for a second. Just like the NHL, the NFL has a major problem with brain injuries. In both sports, they will always be part of the game, collateral damage and an inevitable outcome of large humans traveling at a high velocity into other large humans.
But to the NFL’s credit, they are at least trying to do something and are willing to go to drastic measures to help minimize the amount of brain injuries, flimsy financial settlements with former players not included.
Leading with the crown of the helmet outside the tackles is now a penalty and fineable offense. Destroying defenseless receivers with your helmet, even if it’s unintentional, is a no-no. If a defender even grazes the helmet of a quarterback, it’s 15 yards. Remember kickoff returns? I barely do. But the NFL recognized that an abundance of injuries were occurring via speeding kickoff coverage teams crashing into wedge blocks. So wedge blocking became a thing of the past and kickoffs were moved up 5 yards, which means just about every kickoff goes out the back of the end zone.
The NFL essentially did away with kickoff returns in an attempt to make the game safer. Kickoff returns!
What’s the NHL doing for player safety? Hey, before you two guys punch the hell out of each other for a minute, do not take your helmets off because we care about your long-term health and if your unconscious head bounced off the ice and you died that’d be bad PR for us.
Dinosaurs and Cro-Magnons that defend fighting will tell you that getting rid of it will result in the game getting soft. “If you don’t like fighting why don’t you go watch tennis with your girlfriend’s box of tampons and then watch One Tree Hill in your skirt with your mom!”
Why can’t toughness exist without fighting? Football players are some of the toughest people around, and they somehow find a way to live with not fighting that linebacker who hit their wide receiver with an illegal hit. Football players reach deep within themselves to swallow their pride and accept the 15-yard penalty and fine that linebacker will receive. Football players choose restraint over the personal satisfaction of punching someone else in order to quash the feelings of “not being man enough,” and isn’t that true toughness? The more you know.
I’m like everyone else with human DNA – I absolutely love watching two other humans beat the life out of each other. It’s in all of us to an extent. Those UFC knockout highlight shows are incredible. A roundhouse kick to the jaw of a guy who is out cold on his feet? Brilliant. Milan Lucic and Joel Rechlicz punching each other for a full 60 seconds? I’ll click that link.
But you know what I love even more? Hockey. Man do I enjoy watching talented people saucer pass a puck over and through three sticks for a back-door goal. I enjoy watching a hockey player one-time a rocket under the crossbar. I enjoy a forward undressing a defenseman in a 1-on-1 situation and stashing a backhander through a goalie’s legs. I enjoy a defenseman catching a forward with his head down and cleaning his clock with a shoulder to the chest.
Two things I don’t enjoy are 1) talentless goons stumbling around the ice for 7 minutes a night, seeking out the other goon for a cranium-destroying session, and 2) the idea that the NHL isn’t willing to ban fighting in an effort to at least minimize the opportunities for preventable head injuries.
If the NHL banned fighting and instituted monster fines and suspensions for fighting and reckless hits, the game would instantly be safer and better as players learned to adjust. Despite all the goons in the NHL, all the codes and all the players “policing themselves,” it took rule changes and threats from the league of lengthy suspensions and perhaps a lifetime ban to get Matt Cooke to change his game.
If Matt Cooke can figure it out, anyone can.
That brings us back to the Bill Maher theory on equal rights for the LGBT community. It’s going to take years for them to be welcomed into modern times and it’s going to take time in hockey too. That’s not to say we need to wait out the deaths of Brian Burke, Randy Caryle and the Oilers front office — but we do need to wait out the exit of their kind from the sport. We need more people to recognize that talent-laden clubs like the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings are winning Cups without trained face-punchers and other teams can do the same, and that will eventually happen.
Will fighting be wiped from hockey before gay marriage is legal in all 50 states?
Only time will tell.