By Jason Menard
The question isn’t whether fighting in hockey has outlived its usefulness; rather, we have to start looking at whether it ever had a point in the first place.
I consider myself a hockey fan. I have been since my youth, I played the game growing up, and I continue to follow it both as a fan and as a writer, covering junior hockey for Hockey’s Future. I say this to establish my bonafides in light of the inevitable backlash I’ll receive from a certain sub-section of fans.
You see, for some if you don’t like fighting, you’re not a true fan.
If that makes me a “puke” (thanks Grapes), a pansy, or whatever other emasculating term the knuckle-draggers will throw at me, that’s fine. The game that I love will not be impacted at all if fighting is removed from the sport – because what I love about hockey is the speed, talent, and physicality.
Yes, physicality. I’m one of those who would rather watch a 0-0 or 1-0 match filled with solid defensive play than an 8-7 shootout riddled with sloppiness, turnovers, and bonehead play. I love watching a team execute proper positioning, effective breakout passes, and defensive prowess. And that includes physical play.
The game has changed and not for the better when it comes to physical play. It seems there are no longer any good clean checks. More and more often, a clean open-ice hit is followed by a mid-ice scrum. Putting a shoulder into a guy (or, even better, the lost art of the hip check) and separating him from the puck should be celebrated. And while the fans out there do appreciate it, the players, increasingly, are taking affront to it.
Fighting in hockey reached its zenith in the 70s, thanks to the success of the Broad Street Bullies. It also enjoyed an extended moment in the sun during the 80s, especially with players like Dave Semenko enjoying a marquee role as Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguard. But things have changed; the game has changed. Some people just aren’t ready to let go.
Fighting advocates will suggest that eliminating fighting will result in increased stick work, but that’s never been proven. And even with fighting in the game, we’ve seen sticks go from being a tool to a weapon, simply due to a combination of a declining lack of respect and a sense of invincibility caused by armour-like equipment.
Fighting also exists thanks to the overly long season. Too many games don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, so a roster spot and time can be wasted on goons. You don’t see these players when the games count: playoff hockey and elite international competition are devoid of goons and fighting is a rarity.
And when, exactly, is the best hockey played? That’s right – in the playoffs.
Fighting is, at best, a carnival side show. Much of it is pre-meditated, exacted by designated players pre-determined to perform on cue. Rarely does it result from the passion of the game, but rather it’s a tactic deployed to gain or halt momentum, often by players who spend less time on the ice during a game than the five minutes they earn by plying their “trade.” And one needs to look no further than Arron Asham’s self-professed “classless” gesture to see how fighting’s less about production and more about performance art these days.
This doesn’t even take into consideration the suggestion that the effects of fighting may be causing real, long-term consequences to its participants. No one can say for sure that fighting leads to depression, drug use, or alcoholism. Yet. But it’s a question that needs to not just be asked, but also investigated.
The other questions are about the continuing role of fighting in the game? Does it still have a place? What purpose does it serve? Sure, fans will get out of their seat to watch a fight, but will they stay away in droves if it’s removed from the game? Not likely. And eliminating fighting doesn’t mean removing physicality from the game. Far from it. There’s still plenty of room for players who can deliver good, solid, clean body checks. Only we won’t have to endure these stupid mini-scraps after each and every bump.
And what of the question of enforcement? Right now there’s an attitude that players need to police themselves to protect their stars from having liberties taken upon them. But eliminating fighting can’t be done in isolation; it needs to be combined with more aggressive penalties for head shots, stick work, and other infractions. Start with longer suspensions for cheap shots and continue with full two and four-minute penalties that give the opposition the chance to score multiple times on the power play.
A few fists to the head may serve as a punishment, but putting your team in a position to lose because of a stupid penalty would actually be a deterrent.
I’m not going to be a hypocrite and say I’ve never enjoyed watching a fight. It’s just that now I’m having a harder time reconciling the need with the demand and the benefits with the long-term cost.
The game constantly evolves. A hundred years ago, we had rovers and a ban on forward passing but the league survived those changes. Forty years ago, players still ran around helmetless, but that seems ludicrous to us now. So is there any doubt that the league would survive eliminating this playground fight mentality?
It’s not about growing up, it’s not about being squeamish. It’s about having a harder time seeing what the point of fighting is, and when the costs start outweighing the benefits, it’s time to change.
Carnivals don’t stick around forever, it’s time for the side-show that is fighting to pack up and leave the game.