Friday, 11 July 2014

Gentlemen, To Your Corners! - Round 2

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages... ok, I'm no Bruce Buffer, but today is a good day for a heavyweight tilt as John and Neal return to debate the merits of another hockey topic! John took Round One by a mere single point as the two men debated the issue of diving and embellishment in the NHL, but both made great arguments for their respective sides. We'll see these two square off again today as Round Two between John and Neal gets underway!

A Fight about Fighting!

Neal's Stance

Before I start I will admit, this is an argument that seems like impossible to win. I am taking the blasphemy side, the side that wants to ruin hockey as purists would say. It's going to be my job to make all of the fans of hockey see the light as I put it, a battle I know going in is extremely uphill. Now you guys have heard the arguments before against fighting which are all true - that it increases injuries, and that fans seem to tune in to games the most that feature little or no fighting (Olympics and/or playoff hockey, for example). There is also an excellent article online that proves the fact that the presence of a fighter does little to prevent teams from taking liberties with their players that you can read here. I’m not going to rehash tired arguments, so I am going to take a different approach.

My argument is that the teams should get rid of fighting itself because it behooves them to do so. Statistics seem to lean towards it actually can hamper your team in the long run in the effort to be able to "enforce the ice". I don’t even mean towards suspensions and fines, I mean wins and losses and the pursuit of Lord Stanley's Cup. Can someone name the team who has led the NHL in fighting majors the past 2 seasons? That would be the bumbling Toronto Maple Leafs who missed the playoffs last season and lost in Round One the year before that. Finishing second would be the "big and bad" Boston Bruins who lost out to the Montreal Canadians in the second round. Montreal was the only team in the top-ten to reach the Conference Finals, and Anaheim was one of two teams - Boston being the other - to have reached the second round. The remaining top-ten teams are littered with playoff misses (Vancouver, Nashville, Islanders, Ottawa) or first-round flameouts (Philadelphia, Columbus). Bonus points for the three teams tied for eleventh who also missed the playoffs (Edmonton, Buffalo, Washington). Meanwhile, the two teams who met for the finals were ranked 21st and 24th respectively. I thought this may have been a fluke year, but I dove into recent history and showed this is part of a bigger trend.

I looked at the data since what I call the lockout (the lost '04-05 season. I know we had ANOTHER lockout, but I always view this as the lockout since we lost a whole season and the massive rule changes from the clutch-and-grab era) and found that most teams who win the cup are very low on the list. Chicago fought a paltry sixteen times a year ago when they won. They fought 36 times in '09-10, but that was still only 21st that season. Both LA cup teams finished in the bottom-half in fights in the regular season. Out of the nine seasons since the lost season, only twice has the cup winner finished in the top-ten in fighting majors (Anaheim and Boston). Detroit actually won the cup by finishing LAST in '07-08. More often than not, the winning teams don't fight a lot.

In conclusion, I want to show people that they shouldn't root for teams to fight. This isn't the 90s anymore and there is a mountain of evidence to support that enforcer hockey isn't winning hokey. This is the part where Teebz probably says that John won just because that's the popular viewpoint, but I hope that my point of view has at least caused people to stop and think "Is fighting hurting my team?"

John's Reply

Let's begin by saying that anyone that says you have to make fighting in hockey illegal, well, just isn't a hockey fan. Fighting in hockey is already illegal. You get a five-minute major for fighting. The toughest penalty you can get without it being a misconduct. Now they may say that you need stiffer penalties such as game misconducts and suspensions like seen in other sports, but I don't agree.

Let's start off with the injury issue. Everyone keeps talking about the risk to injuries from the repeated blows to the head. But I ask you if hockey is any worse than MMA? MMA fighters have minimal padding on their hands and rain down multiple blows. I will argue that a punch from a player on the ice is less damaging then punches from a fighter with padded gloves. And studies have shown that the vicious KOs in MMA result in LESS brain damage because the fights are stopped as soon as the fighter is in danger, like hockey, as opposed to standing ten-counts that will allow boxers to recover and continue to sustain injuries.

Continuing on the injury front, many former players and officials have noted the increase in dirty plays that result in injuries such as boarding and high-sticking since the invent of the instigator rule. Players are no longer accountable for their actions. They can throw a dirty elbow and skate away. If they are confronted for it, they can gain a powerplay if jumped. So now when your star player is on the receiving end of a dirty hit or, instead, commits a questionable hit, the team has to send out a goon to fight another goon to make things right. How is this accountable? The instigator rule has developed the role of goon in a big way. There are very few hockey fans that would moan and groan if one removed staged fights and the goons from the game. Remove the instigator rule, you no longer need a goon, and staged fights go away.

We need to leave the fighting for a purpose in the game. People will argue that fighting doesn't serve a purpose, and that officials should be held accountable for enforcing the game. People will say that there is no such thing as "momentum gains" from fights. I, however, will say that is complete BS. Referees cannot catch every infraction, and the missed infractions will result in players taking their frustrations out in other ways - dirty stick work or dangerous hits. We see it all the time when officials "lose control" of a game. However, by taking fighting out of the game it will increase tenfold. Since players will no longer be able to drop the gloves, they will settle for a two-hander across the wrist. The rationale is one of "Heck, it's only two minutes and that guy just put eighteen stiches in our star forward". Fighting CAN be used to gain momentum. According to recent analytics, fighting creates a surge (more shots-on-goal) within the first three minutes after a fight 76% of the time for a team, and 23% of the time for both teams. If your team seems like its falling asleep, throwing some knuckles sure sounds like a good way to wake the team up.

Let's use an example from the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals. The Tampa Bay Times wrote, "One of the most indelible images of Lecavalier's career is fighting Jarome Iginla during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final against the Flames. Jaws dropped in Calgary as arguably the two best players on the ice dropped their gloves just more than six minutes in. Lecavalier got in a couple of good shots before Iginla rallied. But the message was sent: The Lightning wasn't going to get pushed around. Tampa Bay lost the game 3-0 but won the series in seven and its only Cup. 'Our bench definitely rose up when Vinny did that,' Dave Andreychuk said after the game. 'Vinny has taken charge in a lot of games for us, and he's made the players around him better. That's what he did tonight.'" Does it matter that Vinny lost the fight or the team lost the game? Not to the players in the locker room that used it as a rallying point.

Some people will tell you that the most viewed hockey is playoff hockey where there are few fights. But we have to remember that these extra tune-ins are casual fans that only tune in for playoff hockey. It has nothing to do with fighting or the lack there-of. As far as any stats that show winning teams tend to fight less, I would argue that drop-off in total fights is a result of winning more often so then a correlation between winning and fighting similar to a lot of winning NFL teams having more rushing yards - it's because they are ahead at the end of the game and want to run out the clock. Likewise, when you're a winning hockey teamyou are ahead in a game most of the time and have less need to fight, or you're holding a one-goal lead and playing a cleaner game so as to not put the other team on the powerplay. So the question becomes does fewer fights cause you to win more games or does winning more games cause you to fight less?

In conclusion, we need to keep meaningful fighting in the game. Remove the instigator penalty and let the players police themselves to an extent. Let them blow off steam on the ice. Let them gain or lose their momentum. Hockey injuries are going to happen. It is less likely in a fight, and fighting will lower injuries caused by aggressive play. And let’s all admit that a hockey fight is pretty exciting too.

Again, both John and Neal have done excellent work in building their respective cases. Punches and counter-punches have been thrown, and both men have taken the issue of fighting to heart as they defended their positions. However, I will say that there is one thing that needs to be factored in for both arguments, and that will set apart the winner from the runner-up in this round.

Neal is entirely correct in that the best teams usually don't fight. They are fast, skilled, and normally filling the opposing team's net with vulcanized rubber. Teams that have won the Stanley Cup recently don't even have a true heavyweight in their lineups unless one considers Zdeno Chara a heavyweight despite his numerous Norris Trophy nominations. Instead, teams are now using hybrid players - players who can score and play tough - to maximize the amount of skill on their benches without giving up the intangibles of toughness and fearless hitting. Neal is entirely correct in that these are the teams advancing to the late rounds of the NHL Playoffs, and many teams are following that model now.

Where John picks up points is in his defence of the stars. Teams don't pay guys like Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, and Anze Kopitar to drop the gloves. In fact, most coaches would tell the star players on the bench not to do that and leave it for a third- or fourth-liner to deal with later in the game. If a star, though, is being pestered in a major way by a pest, you want someone to take a stand to allow the star player to do his job.

If you're a traditionalist, you love a good hockey fight. The only problem is that there aren't any really good hockey fights any longer. All of them are scuffles and glorified wrestling matches. I'll fully admit that I love a fight and will stop and watch a hockey fight on TV if aired. But the one thing that placates fighting in the biggest way is winning. There are million of Torontonians who would gladly give up the accolade of "most fights in the NHL" for "Stanley Cup Champions 20XX". In fact, fans in 29 other cities would gladly do the same.

As much as it pains me to say this, today's NHL player has to be able to skate, shoot, score, check, and fight. Today's NHL player must be able to defend himself unless he's given the role of "first-line scorer" like a Kane, Crosby, or Ovechkin. The recent champions have proven that fighting isn't a necessary component in winning, and the NHL is all about winning. Winning results in loyal fanbases, loyal players, and everything that goes with that such as merchandise sales, ticket sales, and sponsorships. In other words, it's not the fighting that people come to see in places like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles. They come to see the hockey. The fighting is justa bonus if it happens, but it's not crucial to the game in terms of the overall entertainment value. Unless, of course, you might be a terrible team in a bad market.

In saying this, it pains me as traditionalist, but the reality has proven that fighting is no longer necessary in the business of the NHL, especially when it comes to winning Stanley Cups. While I still enjoy a hockey fight, a Stanley Cup is the goal of all thirty teams, even the Broad Street Bullies. Because of this, the points on my scorecard lean towards having a skilled team that does less fighting.

Round Two is another great topic here on HBIC as both John and Neal made more good arguments in To Your Corners! If you want to participate in something like this, email me here and I can explain how this works! If you want to submit your own article with no opposing view, you can do that by emailing me too! Thoughts on this? Leave them below!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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