Last November, I headed down to my gym at work. I was the only one in there at the time, so I tuned one of the televisions to a replay of the game between the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers from the previous night. The Capitals were up 7-0 in the third when some rough play caused the game devolve in to fisticuffs, highlighted by the Flyers goalie assaulting the Capitals goalie who had no interested in fighting. When he was interviewed after the game, the Flyers goalie Ray Emery was quoted as saying, “I basically told him to protect himself. I gave him a chance to protect himself.”
Fast forward to January of this year in a game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Calgary Flames. Again, I had the replay on the television in the gym. Literally 2 seconds in to the game after the first puck drop, both sides dropped their gloves, resulting in 10 fighting majors, eight game misconducts and 152 penalty minutes. The Vancouver Canucks coach was suspended for 15 days without pay.
In both incidents, other people that came in to the gym that saw the melees weren’t surprised to see the antics of the players on the screen. To them, that’s what hockey was. Someone repeated the joke “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out”. I felt bad that the sport that has so much skill and so much to offer was once again reduced to a single punchline surrounding fighting.
Fighting is one of the most complicated issues in all of hockey. It’s also one of the most polarizing. The reaction to both incidents by the media was representative of the split in opinions by my hockey-watching friends.
One one hand, people claim it is part of the game and that it’s “tradition”. They say that fighting keeps the game in check and serves as a deterrent from other teams taking shots at star players.
On the other hand, others say that fighting is one of the most dangerous parts of the game that is built on firing a frozen bullet at a padded goalie and crunching opponents in to semi-flexible boards. Fighting results in broken hands, concussions, and even a death back in 2009. It’s an unfortunate legacy of a bygone era.
Back in the day, being an enforcer was a role geared more towards the ability to be big, aggressive, and to fight and required little actual hockey ability. It’s the same role idolized in movies like Happy Gilmore and Goon. That’s fine for Hollywood comedies, but is it necessarily the image that is going to grow our game?
In my opinion, the argument that “fighting is tradition” is holding hockey back from evolving. While fighting may not be the reason that hockey is the 6th most popular sport in America behind every other major sport and auto racing, keeping it is not helping change people’s perception of the game and getting more people watching, either.
The argument that if the rules were changed to discourage fighting that there would be a run on top players ignores the fact that there are still other rules, penalties, and consequences for those types of actions. The NHL is already taking action against head shots, and there are fewer head shots. If they took similar action with fighting, we could reduce or remove fighting. Spending 5 minutes in the penalty box for a fight is not a deterrent. But if the participating players serve a suspension and have to fork over some cash, they’ll be less likely to fight and less likely to engage in activities that lead to fighting.
Even the NFL, one of the most brutal sports out there and currently the most popular sport in America, has rules that explicitly discourage fighting with fines and suspensions among the penalties. In the NFL, players are subject to fines even if they aren’t fighting but don’t remove themselves from the vicinity of a fight.
It’s a choice to keep fighting as part of hockey. It’s not because we can’t remove it from the game, it’s because the people that are making the decisions don’t want to. There is no fighting in Olympic hockey or in some European and most recreational leagues, and the lack of fighting doesn’t keep people from watching them. It turns out even this season, likely due to some rule changes and more players wearing visors, that fighting happens to be down, but attendance is not.
It’s time to change. It’s time to evolve. Simply put, it’s time for the NHL to grow up.