I know, I know, the fighting “debate” sucks, so I’m sparing you that. Instead of engaging in that cesspool I just want to lay out a reality so you have more information: fighters often fight for selfish reasons, not for the good of the team. GASP. It may sound like common sense to those from within the game, but I don’t think your average fan believes that’s true. I think the majority believe the Selfless Warrior stuff – to serve, protect and defend and all that.
The common conception seems to be that heavies do it because it sparks a team, that it keeps stars safe, that the adrenaline overtook them, or that they do it to defend teammates. In many cases, those are legitimate reasons for fighting, and I’ve got no issue with them. In fact, I took them up whole-heartedly as a player (who was sh**ty at fighting).
One of my two fights that was on YouTube (apparently stricken to save people from losing their lunch while watching me dish out such savage beatings) shows one of our best defenseman getting kneed while cutting across the blueline, and I come from out of the shot with gloves already off, because damned if we were going to be a team that let people take liberties on us. That was our “identity” of sorts. You hope that by establishing the clear message that this group sticks together - mess with him and mess with us - that people are less inclined to take a passing shot at someone because they know it won’t end there. There’s something to this, no doubt about it, but even if the message isn’t sent to other teams it’s sent within your own locker room that I got your back, and your team gets (and stays) close and gets better together. Success comes easier when everyone is out for the team, like at any workplace. (By the way, slow motion replay revealed that, nope, guy didn’t even come close to kneeing our guy. My b.)
And so, cut back to the “glory days” of fighting. I think a lot of the love for tough guys came from the era when players like Clark Gillies scored a crapload of points, but was also so feared that opposing players genuinely gave more room to his linemates, Bossy and Trottier. It’s such a clean, easy to understand picture. And around that time, the Boston Bruins were tough…but they could play too. Dave Semenko played with Wayne freaking’ Gretzky, which sent a pretty clear “Don’t f***ing touch that guy” message, but also meant he played a regular shift.
From those heroes of yore, things started to drift.
Junior hockey coaches watched that “protect the stars” model work, and started grooming tough guys in their teen years. Goals became secondary to punches. To go back to Clark Gillies, the dude had 112 points one year with the Regina Pats. He was hockey first. The guys who admired him and his ilk from their living rooms growing up didn’t have the same focus, nor were the coaches who were so enamored with the punchy-punchy part. Somewhere we came to believe that teams need an assigned protector, so some teams began wasting roster spots on them, and so the arms race began.