Travis Moen Mark Fraser

This post was originally written on July 9th, but since fighting comes up when a player gets hurt, the day after the George Parros injury seems fitting.

***

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.

Winnipeg Jets v Buffalo SabresI think the biggest debate with scrapping amongst those who love and hate it is the idea of momentum, because, y’know, both teams have players in that fight, so what’s the difference?

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.

Comments (12)

  1. This entry being realistic and experience based make it so much better than the last thing I read on this blog regarding fighting, in my opinion.

    • Yes. Imagine that; journalism that’s informative and interesting, instead of polemical and pushy.

    • Agree entirely, Howard. This article is another reason why I’d generally recommend this blog to anyone that wants to learn about the game (and I include myself in that category).

  2. A thousand “thank you”s for this piece, Bourne. “It doesn’t make it right, but it is a reason” is an important consideration, because I’m pretty sure hockey fights don’t even approach relevance on the universal “right” vs. “wrong” scale. They’re just a part of a sport that some people play, and it’s nice to have the topic presented in a way that adds more understanding instead of more invective. Bloggers, fans, etc., don’t need to have control over hockey fighting, but it is nice to have an intelligent discussion about the topic that doesn’t involve saying what “has to change.” Again, thanks.

  3. I don’t think fighting should be taken out of the game, but I don’t think saving a roster spot for a “super goon” is effective roster management. I think the best fights are the ones that happen organically, whether that’s because of one player playing hard all game long and pissing the other team off or as a reaction to a big hit.

  4. I grew up on Joey Kocur and Bob Probert beating the crap out of people as a Wings fan. It used to mean as much to me as the game if anyone challenged Probie for his “heavyweight belt” and I stood and yelled at the TV as loud as I could when he kicked the crap out of Domi in their first rematch. It was a big reason why I loved the game when I was young. Now I just don’t care. When a fight starts pretty much tune out. I would rather watch hockey than watch “hockey players” fight. I will be happy as hell when it is gone from the game. If teams can ice another talented player instead of a meathead supergoon, so much the better. I for one am over it.

  5. I’ve played, coached and reffed this game forever. I’ve seen a few instances where sticking up for and defending a team mate is essential. I’ve seen where a good battle between two heavy weights that know what they’re doing has lifted a team. For the life of me though, in the 30 years I’ve been around the game, I still think fighting is slightly archaic. In all these years I’ve only been in one fight. A fight I tried to get away from.
    http://worstrefeverstuff.blogspot.com/2012/04/my-only-real-hockey-fight.html

  6. The “it’s a part of the game” argument doesn’t hold any water at all. It’s part of the game until the NHL decides it’s not. Cruising around without a helmet on was part of the game until it wasn’t, because player safety became too big an issue to ignore such an obvious solution. Same thing with the new visor rule. I don’t like the NHL’s constant need to tinker with the rules of the game, but at least the changes have some sort of rationale to them (except the puck-over-glass penalty, but you see my point).

    Players are getting hurt – to an increasing degree, maybe? – and the case could be, and has been, made that the brain damage sustained by blows to the head was a contributing factor to the deaths of guys like Belak, Boogaard, and Rypien.

    Let me put it this way: How much would the game suffer if fighting was taken out? A few players would get slightly less hyped up to play in a game they’re paid millions to compete in? A few bloodthirsty fans would have to turn to one of a thousand bona fide combat sports out there? And how much would the game improve? Fewer slugs taking up roster spots and ice space; a wider appeal to new fans who are presently turned off by the violence and the downright weirdness of its tolerance; faster play without momentum-killing breaks to watch aforementioned slugs slug it out. Oh, and players wouldn’t get seriously hurt or killed by taking part in an unnescessary “part of the game”.

    Personally, I’d like to see the NHL adopt the junior practice of a maximum number of fights per player per season. If after, say, 5 fights you got a 10-gamer or more, you’d still preserve the passionate, heat-of-the-moment scrap while limiting the role of the “I gotta fight tonight or I haven’t done my job” goon, and we’d probably see GMs phase out that role entirely.

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