Tag:fighting in the NHL
Posted on: June 4, 2009 8:27 pm
Edited on: June 9, 2009 11:32 am

Fixing the NHL--3. Let 'em Fight

A  major issue that comes up when hockey is discussed is fighting.  I'll come out and say it right now: I LOVE fighting in hockey.  It's great when 2 players square off and duke it out, and while I wouldn't want to see this happen in EVERY game, I do like the occasional games where there are multiple fights breaking out all over.  Is this the only reason that I'm a hockey fan?  No, but if it was ever eliminated, honestly, hockey would lose some of its appeal for me (not to mention the fact that I'd feel that it was another case where the NHL has ignored its own traditions and alienated the true, hardcore hockey fans like me, who have supported this league most of my life, to try to appeal to people who most likely will still not pay attention to the sport).
Why should the NHL keep fighting?  There are several reasons why.  One of the most important?  Player safety.  Admittedly, to some people (namely, non-hockey fans), this may not make sense.  Fighting provides a way for players to police the game.  Fighting in the NHL is not a drunken, anything-goes street brawl; there is a code that the players follow that governs fighting.  It helps police the game and reduce injuries for the simple fact that players know that if they cheap-shot somebody, or go after a player (especially a star player) with intent to injure, that they're going to have to deal with retaliation from the other team.  Knowing that you'll have to answer for your actions is a big deterrent in most cases.  While players do occasionally get injured during a fight, in most cases, the worst injuries sustained are minor (a bloody lip, black eye, etc.).  Those injuries are MUCH less severe than the injuries that generally occur from a stick being used as a weapon, an elbow to the head, a hit from behind on an unsuspecting player, etc.  The retaliation factor also helps protect the star players; if the 18th (last) guy on the bench doesn't have the deterrent of on-ice, physical retaliation, he might be much more willing to take a run at a player like Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, injuring them to the point where they miss a significant amount of time, or even see their career put in jeopardy.  Hockey is a fast, physical, intense game, and fighting also acts as a relief valve to blow off some of the tension and aggression that builds up during the course of a game.  The fact that the vast majority of current and former players, coaches, and front office officials--the ones who do or have done the fighting--support it for the reasons I've stated above should tell you something.  So remove the instigator penalty, and let the enforcers do their jobs.  I would make one change though--outlaw the instances when one player picks another up and bodyslams him to the ice.  A move like that could seriously injure a player if he slammed his bare head against the boards or the ice.
Another reason is the fact that the fans like it.  People may not admit it as openly as I do, but let's face it, games where 2 teams have an intense rivalry (with an increased chance of fighting) going draw more interest in the media, and put more asses in the seats.  The Colorado-Detroit rivalry in the late 90s was so intense that there was a very real possibility of fights breaking out every game, and they drew so much attention that ESPN showed their games whenever they played.  Just a few years ago, there was a game between the Flyers and Senators which was just filled with brawls.  Even though there has never been much of a rivalry between the 2 clubs, you better believe that people had their matchups circled for the rest of that season and early into the next season, until they realized nothing more would happen.  While there are people who love hockey and think fighting should be banned, these people are in the minority, and the non-fans most likely wouldn't pay attention if it was banned anyway.  People like that might rip it, but at the same time, have you ever seen the crowd at a hockey game when a fight breaks out?  Everyone's on their feet loving it, and I've never seen (or heard of) an instance where people have walked out of a game because a fight broke out, vowing never to return until fighting is banned, or seen a parent cover the eyes of their kid when a fight breaks out.  And it's a LONG season (going from October through June), and it does keep the fans interested.
Fighting can also help change the momentum of a game.  How often have we seen a team come out sluggish, give up a couple of early goals, lose the battles along the boards, only to see them (and the fans) get fired up after a fight, many times allowing them to get back into the game and make it more competitive?  While over the course of a 82-game season there will always be games where teams play uninspired (for lack of a better word) hockey, the elimination of fighting would lead to a higher incidence of these games.

And yet there are some people, led mainly by certain elements in the sports media, who say that the NHL needs to ban fighting.  Of course, the members of the media are the same ones who'll say that bench-clearing brawls in baseball are a joke because nothing ever happens, it's all posturing, or there might be one guy throwing a punch that's so off-the-mark it's comical; but when there actually is a serious incident, they start screaming about how the commissioner's office needs to give out long suspensions and ban pitchers from throwing inside--as much of a longstanding part of baseball as fighting is in hockey.  These are the same people who rip MMA for being "barbaric", yet can't get down on their knees fast enough to honor boxing, a sport which has been known to cause long-term damage, as well as kill, more than a few of its participants.  And the members of the sports media who are against fighting have jumped all over the tragic death of Canadian player Don Sanderson, who died shortly after a fight in which he slammed his head against the ice.  They report that "a player died in a hockey fight", but they don't report that he played in a league in which fighting was banned, and that he refused medical treatment and wanted to go back out onto the ice after the fight.  Just by reading what these people write about hockey, or hearing them speak about it, compared to how they are with other sports, you really get a sense that they don't like hockey to begin with, and would rather not deal with it, so yeah, I'd say I question their credibility on the subject.
I've heard the arguments of the anti-fighting crowd, and while I respect their opinions, none of their arguments make sense to me, or make enough sense that I can say, "yes, ban it".  They have many excuses for why it should be banned; I'll touch on some of them (and my counterargument) here.

1.  There's no fighting in international hockey, European leagues, college, or kids leagues.
Well, there shouldn't be any fighting in kids sports period--I mean, don't the overaggressive parents do enough to damage their kids when it comes to organized sports?  Although, I did have to laugh when I read that the Minnesota Wild's Derek Boogaard started camps for kids to show them how to handle themselves defensively in a hockey fight...it made me wish that they had camps like that when I was a kid.  In the college level, the ban is in place as the NCAA's main goal is to use sports to develop student-athletes as people (biting my own tongue on their REAL goals here), and they feel fighting doesn't match that goal.  Europe in general is just a completely different culture from North America, and the game there evolved without fighting (probably due in large part to the fact that their professional leagues follow international rules more than the NHL).  Hell, maybe they get rid of all of the aggression they bring to sports through hooliganism at soccer matches.  International competitions are staged with the intent of following Olympic ideals of peace, honor, competition through sports, etc.  While NHL players do take part in international competitions such as the Olympics and the World Cup of Hockey, there are 2 important things to remember: the rink for international games is bigger than a standard NHL rink, which allows for less physicality (again, this applies to European leagues too), and the fact that while the games can be intense, these are EXHIBITION games for professional players, so they might not be as willing to put themselves at the same risk of injury that they would during a game for their NHL team.

2.  Hockey cannot be considered a family sport as long as fighting is allowed.
So do you want to tell that to generations of Canadian families who have been involved with hockey since it's beginnings?  Or to the families that attend games together (when they can afford to)?  The fact is, fake or not, there are MANY more violent acts at a WWE event, yet those events are packed with families in attendance.  If these people were really concerned about the amount of violence in hockey due to fighting, they'd pushing to ban wrestling, MMA, boxing, and any other violent sport--yet I don't hear about that.  While there are some parents who won't let their kids play hockey, or football, or skateboard, or participate in any number of activities due to its "danger" or "violence", it's driven more by ignorance of the sport as a whole.

3.  Fighting isn't a "necessary" part of the game and slows up the pace.
Like a football offense standing around in the huddle to max out the time on the play clock?  A batter stepping out of the box and readjusting every piece of equipment he's wearing before he steps back in?  Or one of my favorites, the excessive fouling at the end of a basketball game that can make the last 30 seconds literally last 20 minutes?  Fighting is an important part of the game for the reasons that I stated above, and let's face it, while it might slow up the pace that the game runs at, it's a MUCH more entertaining delay than in other sports.  And (maybe not so coincidentally), the 1970s and 1980s, when fighting was at its peak, also was the highest-scoring period in NHL history.  Maybe the fact that players like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Jari Kurri, and Mike Bossy were protected by enforcers who were allowed to fight had a LITTLE something to do with that.  So how is more excitement brought to the game through fighting, higher scoring, and protecting star players "not necessary"?

4.  Fighting is rare in the playoffs and they're still exciting, so that means that the regular season would be more exciting without fighting.
Ummmm, no.  There are differences in style of play in EVERY sport between the regular season and postseason, and the NHL is no exception.  In a best-of-seven playoff, EVERY game is important; the same cannot be said of every game during the grind of an 82-game regular season.  As you get deeper in the playoffs, the matchups become better and more even; seeing one of the top 2 or 3 teams in the league beat up on the 29th- or 30th-best team (out of 30) doesn't make for much of an entertaining game; fighting definitely draws more interest to matchups like that.  And FYI: fighting is UP in the playoffs this year; there were over twice as many fights in just the first 2 rounds of this year's playoffs as there were in all four rounds last year--and the playoff ratings are up from last year.

5.  Hockey isn't as popular as other sports because of the fighting.
Whenever critics of a sport in America refer to "other sports", they mean football, baseball, and basketball, and it's hard to compare any sport with another, but for argument's sake, I'll try here.  The NFL is the king of all sports leagues, due to many factors which I won't go into here, but one major factor is--wait for it--the violence, which the NFL plays up, and Americans eat up.  For most of the last 150 or so years, baseball was to America what hockey is to Canada--our national sport, which is still deeply ingrained in Americans (even though the NFL has long since surpassed it in popularity); also remember that MLB doesn't have a lot in the way of competition during the "dog days" of the regular season.  And while the NBA has dropped some in popularity from the days of Magic, Larry, and Michael, it was able to do an incredible job of marketing that popularity on a global level in ways Gary Bettman could only dream of.  Even Kim Jong Il's son is reportedly a huge Michael Jordan fan.

6.  Hockey would be better if you got rid of the goons and added more scorers.
I'd like to clarify one point: I consider "goons" to apply to the players who take cheap shots at other players with their bodies or sticks, and enforcers to be the players whose job is to fight and protect their teammates.  If you ban fighting, the enforcers will be gone, but the goons will multiply, as there will be no one to keep them in check.  Say what you want about "the league cracking down on them, suspensions, etc.", but on-ice officials will always miss calls, and there are acts of goonism that even by reviewing videotape, it would be hard to determine clear intent in every case.  And having enforcers, who take up one of the last spots on the roster, are NOT blocking another Crosby or Malkin; if more of those players existed, they'd be in the league.  If anything, the players who are enforcers now also bring other skills to the table, that enforcers from previous eras might not have had.

7.  And then there's the business argument: the league won't get sponsors and TV deals as long as it allows fighting.
This is the argument that for me makes the most sense, but it just doesn't hold up.  There might be advertisers who say that fighting is holding the league back, and that they won't invest in it until it's banned, and it could be the truth.  But I think that it's just another in a long line of excuses they've given the NHL as to why they won't get involved with the league.
Almost everything Gary Bettman has done since taking over as commissioner has been geared to making the game more "acceptable" to corporate America and mainstream American sports fans (while ignoring the fans who have supported the league all along).  The TV and money (advertisers) people said "We don't like that your division names are weird".  The NHL changed them to the same names the NBA used, but the money never came.  The TV and money people said "The NHL is only a regional league in the U.S.; it's not a national sport".  So the NHL went on a mad dash to expand and relocate teams to the Sun Belt, giving the league a nationwide presence in America for the first time.  The money never came.  The TV and money people said "There aren't enough Americans in the league; it's too foreign".  The league now has more--and better--American players than ever before.  The money still didn't come.  The TV and money people said "Your ownership is too archaic in their thinking; you need owners who are modern in their thinking".  So the NHL gave an expansion team in the LA market to Disney, who named them the Mighty Ducks after their successful movie franchise of the same name.  This was when Disney could do no wrong--if they had decided to take the "Hitler on Ice" bit from the end of The History of the World--Part 1 and made a tour out of it, they would've made money.  (And before anyone gets offended, that's an exaggeration to illustrate my point.)  And the money didn't come.  The TV and money people said, "We don't like tie games", so the NHL cheapened the game with shootouts.  The money didn't come.  The TV and money people said "Hockey's too violent".  The NHL instituted rules that have dropped the rate of fighting far below their peak in the 1970s and 80s, but STILL the money hasn't come.  So why should anyone believe the TV and money people now when they say "Get rid of fighting, and we'll become involved"?  All these changes have not only not increased the popularity of the league, it's regressed to the point where it's struggling to hold on to its status as the "4th major-league sport".  A very solid argument could be made that NASCAR has passed it.
Obviously, they feel that there isn't enough interest in the sport to get involved to a greater degree.  If they're so convinced that hockey would be a gold mine without fighting, why hasn't there been an attempt to start a league in which fighting is banned from day one?  They had a golden opportunity during the 2004-05 lockout, as they could've had their choice of top NHL players, and started with a league of 8 or 12 teams, that would've pushed out the more physical players in favor of the more skilled players due to the fighting ban and the fewer number of roster spots available, but nothing happened.  To me, that speaks volumes about how interested corporate America is in hockey, fighting or not. 
Most advertisers have never shied away from programming that featured sex or violence if they knew that they'd have a big audience, and you better believe that if the NHL went the Slap Shot route and was getting NFL-type ratings, the advertisers would be lined up.  There was even enough interest on the part of advertisers for the XFL that NBC went in as partners with Vince McMahon, and the league played for a year.  But the NHL doesn't even stir up that much interest in advertisers, even though the McMahon connection led to immediate doubts about the validity of the XFL as a true sports league.
Look at the NHL's history of making stupid long-term decisions in exchange for quick cash.  In the late 1980s, the league took their games off ESPN (the only national exposure the league had in America at the time) in favor of SportsChannel, a much smaller cable network (it's now Fox Sports Net), because SportsChannel offered more cash up front.  The league added 9 expansion teams in the 1990s, partly to appease the American TV and corporate people, but also to cash in on the expansion fees.  And they lost half a season in 1994-95, and the entire 2004-05 season, to lockouts in order to force a salary cap to provide cost-certainty (which has failed as many teams continue to lose money).  Given that pattern, it's pretty safe to say that if the TV and money people were knocking on the NHL's door with a fat, national TV contract based on the condition that fighting was banned, it'd be gone within a day. 
At some point in the future, the NHL might hit a tipping point where the league would explode in popularity if fighting was banned.  However, they're nowhere near that point today.  In fact, I think that if fighting was banned now, it would kill the NHL as a major league sport in America.  The mainstream fans and corporations that they've been chasing for so long still wouldn't care, and they'd lose a great deal of the hardcore fans who have supported the league up to this point.  While I'm not going to be one of those people who says if they ban fighting, I'll never watch a game again, I definitely would lose interest, and go from being a hardcore fan to a casual fan.  As much as I love all areas of the game, the fighting and physicality is a big part of my enjoyment as a fan.  It would also send another message to me that even though I've pretty much been a lifelong fan, and have supported this league through thin and thin, that the NHL views the business of the people who have constantly ignored it more valuable than mine.
To paraphrase Patrick Henry (and I feel almost sacrilegious doing it): "Give me fighting, or give me the remote!"

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com