Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Fighting Is Still The Rage

Why do they fight?

Who, you ask? The Palestinians and the Israelis? The Islamic Extremists and the Western World?
No, combatants much more relevant to everyday American life: hockey goons, of course.
It's once again the time to ask why hockey permits, or even encourages, fighting when all other major sports (with the exception of boxing and its ilk) have effectively outlawed fisticuffs. The latest questioning was precipitated by the recent tragic death of a 21 year old minor league player who lost his helmet and cracked his head on the ice during a fight.
When I played eons ago at the lowest amateur levels, occasionally even players of my class would lose their cool in the midst of a skirmish and start throwing punches. But that was not premeditated. It was just the result of the fast play and hard hitting. At the NHL level, fights were common but usually not premeditated.
Fighting has now become a ritual in which the designated goon for each team squares off against his counterpart. Usually, they have not had any meaningful interaction with each other apart from exchanging words like "let's go". The fight itself often is preceded by each combatant removing his helmet before the fists fly so they don't break their hands on the other guy's hat. Happily for fight advocates, it's still kosher to break your hands on your opponent's skull.
Ostensibly, the fighting is a self-policing action by the players to eliminate the borderline to flagrant stunts that the referees have missed or simply ignored. But that seems hard to believe. If the players see what's happening, it's pretty likely the refs see it too. Also, a fight between the goons is hard to connect logically to actions taken by other players.
The only reason why fighting still is a part of the game is because some fans like it. Without this fan support, the ritual would be gone in a flash of a league-mandated game penalty and fine. And that's just what the league should do. No one complains about the lack of fighting during the playoffs when the stakes are too high to give up a roster spot or take any penalties. Fans who are excited about the fights should go to a boxing bout. The rest of us can enjoy the skill and passion of the athletes.
Hockey is a religion in Canada and the northern part of the U.S (also known as Baja Canada). It has struggled to become relevant in the rest of America (sometimes referred to as Alta Mexico). Catering to the World Wrestling Federation crowd's sensibilities is not the way to success. The best hope for the NHL is to capitalize on the engaging personalities of its stars like Sydney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Joe Thornton, who, by the way, seem like absolute saints when contrasted with the ego-maniacs headlining baseball, football and basketball. This, along with High Definition TV and lower ticket prices, rather than fighting, is what the sport needs.


Neverwrong said...

Good take...Hockey is in the same position as a political candidate that plays to its passionate base during the primaries and then moves to the middle during the general election. Hockey, unfortunately, does not have a general election and continues to play to its hardcore base that views fighting as a vital element of the sport. Until they realize that the base won't disappear if fighting is extinct, then they will struggle to expand the game to the masses.

onecakebaker said...

I think that the fighting in the NHL is an attempt to play to the WWF crowd. Personally, I find fights boring.

Esquire said...

I agree with your article. I don't need to see fighting to be highly entertained at a hockey game. I read with interest some of the comments from the players recently. It seems that almost without exception the players all take the position that fighting is necessary to police the sport. Joe Thornton voiced this opinion just last week. I wonder if the players are just taking the "company position" or whether they really believe it. With two referees in the game not much goes unnoticed. If necessary the penalties for cheap shots could be increased and the alleged "need" for fighting could be eliminated.

Anonymous said...

Finally a position we agree on. There is certainly something to be said for civility and very little of worth for the animalistic attitude of the combatants. NMI

Shield said...

Well said. I have always found good European hockey more entertaining than the NHL version: bigger rink, better skating, no fighting, emphasis on skills.

ExEsquire said...

Good article. I agree.

David said...

Agree completely. Never liked fighting. Also agree with comment that NHL should move to Olympic size ice surface. I would no more ask the players their opinion on the importance of fighting than I would ask investment bankers if TARP receiving executives deserve to get bonuses.

SpecRider on the Storm said...

Saying that fighting in hockey should be banned is like women saying that men should sit down and pee instead of standing... it is just against our nature. This is not to say that men have carte blanche to pee all over the walls and the floor in the process. Standing is a requirement - having good aim is a necessity.

Fighting and hockey is a lot like that - yes they can play without fighting, but it is just not the same game. What is happening; is that fighting is no longer about protecting the star player, it is about who can make the biggest splash on the ice. There have always been "enforcers", you know the guys that have marginal player skills - but who have always been put out on the ice to "settle the score" when some unseen altercation has occurred.

Unfortunately, in the world of instant gratification and increased violence in all realms of television and film - kids see that fighting is a first resort rather than a last. And, we end up with major injuries and a few unfortunate incidents (death and paralysis is not a part of the game).

For me; however, there is no gray area in the debate - if you allow some fighting (the justifiable retaliation) you have to allow all fighting. There are times where fighting is a part of the entertainment. In our changing world and the decrease in actual civility in society - fighting has become a dangerous diversion.

If you allow fighting - when do you start training the kids to fight fair. We don't allow them to check until they are 14. Is that soon enough to teach them when and why I pugilistic display is warranted?

It would be naive to think that the sport would return to older values - the rules have changed, the plays have changed. Hockey is not the sport it was when I started to enjoy it back in the 60's when players did not wear helmets - remove the risk of injury and people will hit harder... simple as that.

The problem we have now is that the boys have not grown up to be gentlemen - if they cannot fight fairly then (and I know this has been a long vacillation) then I find myself agreeing that fighting should be removed from the game.

Incontrovertible said...

SpecRider, you had me fooled. I thought you were a supporter of fighting based upon the first 6 paragraphs of your post. Then, all of a sudden, kaboom, in the final paragraph, you line up with the rest of us in saying no to fighting.

I'm surprised that no one took the opposite position.