Thursday, 12 March 2009

Rant: Fighting In Hockey

Fighting is a hot topic in the hockey world right. Whether it be at the General Managers meeting or at your local rink, everyone has an opinion on fighting in hockey. I've tried, on several occasions, to show how "the code" keeps players honest by making them accountable, and I hope this message is getting through. I will say that the staged fights are entirely ridiculous, and those players should be punished for simply dropping the gloves and not contributing in their teams' efforts. I also have go on record and said that players in developmental and junior leagues should be forbidden to fight. With this in mind, I want to respond to a few people who decided to write in to a newspaper.

A friend sent me this article from today's Winnipeg Free Press. Chris Cariou, the reporter who wrote the piece, had asked for reactions to fighting in hockey from the general public. And the public did write. You can read through all of the responses on the Free Press site, but I want to address some of these individually.

"As a younger man, I enjoyed the fights. As a father of a 20-year-old hockey player, I hate them. They should be banned and it is the only way the sport will get respect. Example - Olympic hockey." - Barrie Nelson

This is what I will refer to as the "Nick Kypreos Paradox". Everyone loves a good hockey fight, but no one wants to be in one, nor would you want to see your son or daughter in one. That's completely understandable. Now, I'm not sure what respect the game needs to earn, but if Mr. Nelson is making the case that Olympic hockey is better than NHL hockey, there are some flaws with that.

First, Belarus vs. Kazakhstan? Entirely boring hockey. It's not to say that the players aren't giving it everything they have. It's just that the players don't have the skill level of a Russia, USA, or Canada. Yet both Belarus and Kazakhstan have played in the Olympics, and - aside from Belarus shocking Sweden - neither team has a lot to brag about. This would be equivalent to a New York Islanders-Atlanta Thrashers game. Yawn.

Secondly, a great game is one we all remember. That's why we talk about the Canadian win in Salt Lake City or the "Miracle On Ice" with such vivid passion and excitement. Those Olympic games resonate with us due to our national pride. What about some of the bigger NHL games? Games like Colorado-Detroit in the playoffs (Claude Lemieux incident) are games we remember. It's more of a regional pride rather than a national pride. Huge difference between the two.
"Please do everything to stop the fighting in hockey. Hockey is a game of many skills but not in brutality.

That is a savage mentality. We strongly disagree with Don Cherry on this."
- John R. Friesen

Hockey is a game of skills, and I totally agree with Mr. Friesen in that regard. However, when the most-skilled players are being injured due to dirty play and they cannot be suspended for any significant length of time due to the NHLPA enforcing the CBA, there is a void there where one team feels slighted while another team gets off with a slap on the wrist.

If the player who threw the questionable hit on the star player was forced to answer for his hit-from-behind or elbow to the head right then and there, do you think he might consider throwing that kind of hit again? As true as it is, you always remember getting your bell rung, and that's what the enforcers used to be able to do - police the game. Supplemental action from the NHL can also be handed down, making the player consider his actions even more. This is why fighting worked 20 years ago when Mr. Nelson was watching the game.
"1) Fighting on skates is a waste of time and leaves participants temporarily spent.

"2) Some of the best hockey we see is in the world championships and the Olympics, where fighting is not permitted."
- Peter Macdonald

Again, we have a couple of serious flaws here.

It's true that fighters are spent after they fight, but they are spending five minutes in the penalty box at minimum. These guys are fairly well-conditioned athletes, though. If they can't recover in five minutes from a one-minute scrap, they might want to hit the stationary bike more often.

While the most-skilled hockey is played on the international stage, we're talking about all-star teams being assembled for the participating countries. You don't usually see a lot of scrappers on all-star teams, so it makes no sense to send players who don't have an extreme amount of skill to a tournament where skill will win you a gold medal.

And while we're talking about the IIHF's rules, fighting is banned in international play, but it has happened before. 1987's World Junior Championship should be a memorable time for Canadians as the Soviet Union and Team Canada engaged in a bench-clearing brawl. I'm not saying it should happen, but it does.
"There is no good reason to allow fighting in any sport, including hockey, at any level. We hear phony excuses. Sports are to teach discipline and good conduct. Is this not what we teach in school? Fighting is violence; physical assault is illegal. Athletes must learn to control their temper." - Vic Wieler

"Athletes must learn to control their temper"? Are you kidding me? While I don't disagree that sports does teach discipline and good conduct, there are always players that test the limits of good conduct in an effort to find an advantage, and people get angry when someone does something they shouldn't.

All of the greatest players - Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Pele, Joe Montana, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig - have lost their tempers. Whether it be on the field or off of it, we all get angry. The problem in hockey is that the game is played at high speed with a lot of physical contact, and people get angry when someone starts playing outside the lines of discipline. This is why tempers are lost, and fights start in the game of hockey.
"I am an octogenarian, hockey fan for 75 years. I enjoyed hockey for most of my life. In the last few years I have stopped watching because all I see is fighting. It is disgusting to see two men out there hammering each other until the blood flows in many cases." - Marcel Verdonck

I'm entirely sure that Mr. Verdonck has not been watching in "the last few years". Unless he subscribed exclusively to Anaheim Ducks or Philadelphia Flyers televised hockey broadcasts, the number of fights as compared to the last 70 years is relatively the same, and less than what was seen in the 1980s.

Let's not forget the number of stick-swinging incidents seen in those 70 years. Let's not forget the careers that were ended from questionable hits: Ace Bailey, Bobby Orr, and Pat Lafontaine to name but a few. Let's not forget the Bobby Clarke slash on Valery Kharlamov's ankle that fractured the Russian's ankle in the 1972 Summit Series. I'm sure that wasn't disgusting by any means.
"This paper is condoning this violence by publishing these fights in photos that sometimes take up nearly a third of a page. Your photographer takes many shots during a game, so why publish two guys bashing each others brains out? Don't you realize that children also read this paper and emulate some of these goons?" - Walter Schurko

For all the people reading this that said "I want to be Tiger Williams, I want to be Dave Schultz" when growing up, raise your hands. I'll wait. Seriously. Go ahead.


No one wants to be Tie Domi or Bob Probert. No one wants to get their faces punched in. That's a fact. Most kids want to be Ovechkin or Crosby or Zetterberg. Why? They score goals. And scoring goals is all about glory and stardom. It's way more fun scoring goals than getting punched in the head. I'm quite certain that kids who read about hockey in the newspaper are looking to see if their heroes scored the night before, not to see if their favorite enforcer is leading the league in penalty minutes.

And as an aside, if you can't explain to your kids why fighting in hockey in developmental leagues is stupid, should you really be allowed to be the guardian of those kids? You tell them that they can't do certain things until they are adults, so why is fighting in hockey so hard to explain?
"It spoils any sport by putting the focus on injuring the best players of the opposing team. It exists because team management supports its use and the players who use it. It will only be stopped by those leagues who ban its deliberate use, fire players who continue to use it and administer rapidly escalating fines against those coaches and team managers who continue to tolerate its deliberate use." - Don Meadows

Note to all CFL and NFL teams: watch for this man picketing outside your stadiums. I'm almost certain that football players try to hit one another as hard as they can to "send a message" and "be the biggest dog in the yard". An entire sport thrives on "injuring the best players of the opposing team", and yet hockey is thrown under the bus.

As for deliberate use of fighting, I agree that staged fights take away from the game, and those who participate should be fined heavily along with the coaches who allow this sort of thing to go on. But to claim that an enforcer is targeting the best players on the other team? That's baloney. The guys who do that are the "cheap shot" artists that the enforcers used to keep in check. That little instigator rule killed off that aspect of the game.
"Ban fighting in hockey. We invented the game and we make the rules. No more sorry excuse that violence is part of the game. Fighting in hockey happens only because we allow it." - Albert Chan

Don't look now, Mr. Chan, but we also invented basketball, and I don't hear anyone grumbling about some of the questionable stuff that goes on in that sport. It doesn't matter who invented it. It's a game played by the world now.

Fighting is allowed, but it is penalized in the game when players engage. If we use your rationale, we should ban hockey sticks because a lot of players get high-sticked, slashed, butt-ended, and cross-checked. For as many rules that are put in place, some people will continue to break them. For better examples, check your local crime report. Those rules have been in place a lot longer, and it doesn't stop those people from breaking the law, does it?

Now, a lot of people will say "this guy is another Don Cherry", and I am here to tell you that I am not. I believe there is a time and place for fighting in hockey, and staged fights are not it. I am an advocate of removing fighting completely from all leagues for anyone under the age of 21. Once you're of age across North America, you can decide how you want to live your life, and that includes being an enforcer in hockey. If that's what you want to do, have at it, son. No one can tell you otherwise.

For those of you who have never played the game, though, you need to walk a mile in the boots of someone who has. I guarantee you'll change your views once you do. It's not as glamourous as you may think. I've fought a few times in my life while on the ice, and it's the hardest job in the world without question.

And that's something everyone should know.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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