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Friday night, as you may have heard, a series of fights broke out at a hockey game, and people are upset about it. Why are people upset? Fights break out at a hockey game all the time. Even line brawls are hardly unheard of. The only really unusual thing about this fight is that two of the combatants were goalies, but goalie fights are typically a source of great amusement even among people who usually oppose fighting. Heck, the goalie in question – Ray Emery of the Philadelphia Flyers – was even named the third star of the game by Philadelphia Daily News beat writer Frank Seravalli.
On Monday, Seravalli went on the Marek vs Wyshynski podcast. Jeff Marek and Greg Wyshynski are two of the most outspoken, intelligent and entertaining advocates of fighting in the media today. But here is the twist: they excoriated Seravalli. They seemed disgusted by Emery’s actions. Someone who opposes fighting like me should have loved it. Nonetheless, I found myself thinking Seravalli advanced the more logically consistent position.
I have not changed my mind about fighting. I still think it is a mostly pointless exercise that detracts from the skill, beauty, and yes even the spontaneous brutality of hockey. However, if you are going to defend fighting’s place in hockey, as Marek and Wyshynski do, I find it hard to criticize Seravalli or his honouring Emery with the game’s third star. The arguments Seravalli made are the same ones that fighting advocates, like Marek and Wyshynski, have trotted out for decades.
“It’s Part of Hockey”
This argument boils down to what former Flyer defenceman and current Flyers radio broadcaster Chris Therien said the night of the brawl: it’s a part of hockey and “if you don’t get it, then go watch Ice Capades”.
Seravalli wasn’t quite so blunt, but he did note that what Emery did isn’t against the rules. Seravalli is not entirely correct, but the truth supports his argument even stronger. What Emery did is prohibited NHL Rule 46.1:
46.2 Aggressor – The aggressor in an altercation shall be the player who continues to throw punches in an attempt to inflict punishment on his opponent who is in a defenseless position or who is an unwilling combatant.
By Emery’s own admission Holtby said he didn’t want to fight and Emery gave him no choice, warning “protect yourself”. Moreover, at various points during the fight he was in a defenseless position, on his knees with his back to Emery. So Emery broke the rules. But what is the punishment? That’s covered by Rule 46.17:
46.17 Fines and Suspensions – Aggressor – A player who is deemed to be the aggressor for the third time in one Regular season shall be suspended for the next two regular season games of his team.
Many people have called on Bettman to use the broad discretionary powers under the CBA and the NHL Rules to suspend Emery. However, the specific trumps the general. There is a rule for precisely this situation and it says that nothing happens to Emery until he gets three aggressor penalties in one season. Seravelli was absolutely correct on the spirit if not the details of this issue: NHL rules implicitly condone what Emery did.
“Policing the Game”
What seemed to particularly disturb Marek and Wyshynski, and many other people on Twitter, was that Holtby was an unwilling combatant. And indeed, it first glance it would seem to offend hockey’s unwritten “Code” to pound someone who had done nothing other than be part of a team that was blowing out the Philadelphia Flyers.
However, one of the most common arguments in favour of fighting is that it is necessary to “police the game”. Brian Burke made just this argument recently in USA Today:
Reduced to its simplest truth, fighting is one of the mechanisms that regulates the level of violence in our game. Players who break the rules are held accountable by other players. The instigator rule has reduced accountability. Eliminating fighting would render it extinct.
But wait a minute: if you aren’t allowed to fight someone against their will, how can players be “held accountable by other players”? The so-called “rats” like Patrick Kaleta could simply refuse to fight. No doubt fighting advocates would say that they only want fights against unwilling combatants where that unwilling combatant had done something to warrant a fight. But how can that be determined? By whether a penalty is called on the play? There are countless examples of dirty hits that for whatever reason – speed of the game, the referee wasn’t looking, human error – are not called. If you want fighting to police the game, you have to live with what Emery did because by its very nature policing only works if you can do it to people against their will. If someone doesn’t mind fighting, it’s no deterrent. If they do mind fighting, you need to be able to do it to them against their will. Even if that means Ray Emery pounding Braden Holtby, or John Scott trying to tenderize Phil Kessel for that matter.
Seravalli did not make this precise point, but he did make a related point—that the players on the Flyers themselves had no issue with Emery’s actions.
“The Players Want it”
Fight advocates frequently point out that 98% of players want fighting in the game (in fact, 98% said they opposed the complete abolition of fighting, which is very different from an endorsement of the status quo, but that’s an argument for another day). Seravalli similarly pointed out that no one in the Flyers’ locker room had a problem with what Emery did. Indeed, the brawl followed a fiery locker room speech by General Manager Paul Holmgren during the second intermission. No one is willing to repeat what Holmgren said, but if you don’t think he explicitly or implicitly told the team to go out there and start a fight, you might also believe in the Tooth Fairy.
Marek and Wyshynski were surprised that the Flyers’ defended this conduct, and even doubted the sincerity of their views, noting that they could hardly expect players to criticize their teammate Emery in public. It was jarring to hear them make these arguments, given that for years it has been people like me making that very same argument to fight proponents like Marek and Wyshynski. Why do they only doubt the sincerity of player support for fighting now? Because the Emery-Holtby fight offended their sensibilities? I thought it was the players’ views that mattered, and they voted 98% against abolishing fighting. Seravalli, at least, is consistent. By implicitly elevating their own sensibilities over what the players want, Marek and Wyshynski have abandoned a key tenet of the pro-fighting position.
“Are You Not Entertained?”
The last point really gets to the heart of the matter. Marek and Wyshynski were appalled by Emery’s actions. Seravalli said quite bluntly that he found it entertaining—and correctly noted most of the fans in Philadelphia seemed to feel the same way. I have long said that the only honest reason to support fighting is because fans like it. There is no NHL without fans. If most fans would prefer fighting, why should the NHL deny them their fun?
While I think this argument is the only logical and consistent one in favour of fighting, I for one do not accept it. I don’t think it is right to send out modern day gladiators to beat each other senseless for our amusement. If you enjoy the combat arts, watch boxing or MMA, where (unlike the NHL) there are strict regulations designed to protect fighters.
However, if you reject my position – as Marek and Wyshynski do – I don’t see how they can fault Seravalli here just because they have a lower tolerance for unwilling fisticuffs than he does. As Maximus asked after dishonouring the gladiator’s code much as Emery supposedly dishonoured the fighter’s code, “Are you not entertained? Is this not why you’re here?” The bottom line is you can’t have just “good fights” any more than you can just have “responsible gun owners”. If you want to have liberal rules on fighting, you have to accept that there are going to be some that turn your stomach. Good on Frank Seravalli for facing up to that reality.