Prust and Lucic square off

 

With all the recent discussion about fighting in hockey – and this has been going on long before the events of this season – I wrote last week about why the sport should move forward and try to eliminate fighting. 

This week, I’m going to look at why it would be an absolute travesty to remove fighting from the game. 

Many of the reasons to institute a ban in hockey fighting are completely rational. A lot of them are also based on thorough research from experts.  However, the key thing missing from any argument that supports a fighting ban is support from the true assets of the game – current players.

I haven’t heard one player that is currently playing the sport come forward and support a ban in hockey fighting. Now I won’t be quoted on that, since I don’t have enough hours in the day to scour the Internet for news coverage where players have responded to this question. Nor do I think every NHL player has even been polled publicly.

What I do know is that if the players did want fighting gone, it would be. All it would take would be a stand from the NHLPA saying that players would not play unless fighting is banned.

And that’s it. This hasn’t happened – and it doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon.

But let’s dig a little deeper into the reasons why fighting should remain a part of the game.

A lot of the calls for a fighting ban are coming from people who don’t have an intimate appreciation for the game. A primary reason that sports are so popular is that they evoke emotions in people and allow them to be part of something bigger than themselves. There’s something about seeing a guy fight for a fellow teammate in a hockey game that has a nationalistic war-like feeling to it. It shows people commitment and comradery that you don’t often see in real life.

Many of the major advocates of a fighting ban only see the act, not what it represents. They see fighting in hockey as no different than a street fight, when really it’s not like that at all. They see guys like Colton Orr as complete thugs and compare them to the guy who brutalize some guy at the bar, when the reality is, many of these guys (not all, you can always find exceptions) are great guys who give back to the community.

A perfect example of this is Derek Boogaard, whom I mentioned two weeks ago. Boogaard, despite being absolutely terrifying on the ice, was a pretty damn good guy. He fought because it allowed him to play the game he loved, but he didn’t preach reckless violence. Boogaard even ran summer camps in Minnesota (when he played there) that taught young players how to fight safely so that they wouldn’t put themselves at any more risk than they needed to.

He recognized that fighting would always be a part of hockey, so he wanted players to remain safe while doing it.

I have also talked to many high level players who have done this as well. They learn about how to safely fight so that they don’t hurt themselves, or their opponent. While it might seem hard to understand this from the perspective of the average viewer, it’s true. It’s about mutual respect, which is why when Colton saw Parros unconscious on the ice, he immediately waved for the trainer.

The bond between hockey players is a strong one, probably stronger than that between players in any other sport. These guys talk all the time and don’t (with a few exceptions) seem to hold lingering grudges against one another. No one wants to see anyone else hurt, even though tempers flare frequently.

The bond between teammates is even stronger. Hockey combines extreme physicality with teamwork more than any other sport. These guys will probably die for one another. Any further proof of this can be solidified by watching this video of Ian Laperierre blocking a shot with his face in a playoff game. I could easily find dozens more clips of players sacrificing their bodies for the good of the team if I wanted to.  

This isn’t a slight on other sports, per se.  There is no doubt that football players sacrifice themselves physically, but it’s just not the same, because in football, there is an offense and a defense, the whole team collective isn’t as strong as it is in hockey. I also think that NFL players are a lot more self-centered than hockey players. In sports like basketball and soccer, there is teamwork, but neither sport requires players to physically sacrifice themselves like they do in hockey.

And that is the key point that a lot of people cannot understand. You cannot make judgements about the team dynamic without actually being part of it. And while people constantly lament about how annoying it is when hockey players say stuff like “have you played the game?” It’s true.

In hockey, each player has a role and is happy to fulfill it. Each guy also knows that every other player on the team will step up for him if he needs it. Even the skilled guys appreciate role players like Colton Orr and are glad they are there to protect them, even though from a skill standpoint, the difference between these players is like night and day.

So the point of this long-winded background is that hockey players embrace fighting as an important role within the game. They see it the same as a playmaker or hitter. They don’t like to see guys get hurt, but they appreciate the role fighting plays.

While the NHL does have a responsibility to protect its players as much as possible, they must do so in a way that doesn’t alienate the players. Banning fighting would certainly do this, it would seem.

And as far as protecting players is concerned, you can make a pretty compelling argument about how most sports are dangerous and have long term health repercussions. A running back in the NFL essentially has a shelf life of 10 years at the very maximum because of the pounding his body takes. Soccer players end their careers will bum knees and deformed ankles. A lot of baseball players can barely lift their arms once they retire because of the rigors of the sport.

Elite athletes acknowledge and accept this risk when they pursue millions of dollars at the highest level. They make that personal decision. Every hockey player that gets to the NHL has followed hockey since about age 3. It’s not like they haven’t seen fighting (or any of the other dangerous aspects of the game) before. They know full well that there is a risk and they are willing to take it. 

There’s no doubt that banning fighting would eliminate some of this risk, but it won’t make hockey risk-free. There is also the notion that without the threat of having to fight, players will be more reckless and likely to make dangerous plays. I mentioned last week that there is no real proof to support this, but on the other side of the coin, we don’t really know. And once you’ve made the change to a non-fighting league and the game becomes dirtier, it’s pretty hard to go back and say “well actually we need to have fighting back to balance this out.”

The injuries sustained from fighting are bad, but it’s just as dangerous to get hit from behind or blindsided with a shoulder pad to the head. These types of plays could increase if players aren’t turning their head and worrying that they might have to fight after one of these hits. And let’s say fighting is eliminated and there are more dirty plays. Players aren’t all of a sudden just going to let this go. They’re going to react with a vengeful dirty play or something worse. We don’t need to see more stuff like the Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore incident, or the Marty McSorley on Donald Brashear slash. That stuff can be just as bad, or worse.

It’s also to important to consider that without players knowing that they will have to fight as a result of dirty play and learning how to fight safely, we will see a bunch of huge men without a way to release this aggression. We might then see more Kessel-eque behaviour. He had absolutely no clue what to do, so he just started chopping away with his stick. The last thing hockey needs is players assaulting each other with weapons.

When you look at it from this angle, fighting is a safer release than it might initially appear, since fighters respect each other to stop a fight when it’s over and are learning how to fight as safely as possible. As I mentioned in the previous post, players will always lose their tempers. Although the code isn’t exactly what it used to be, it still serves an important purpose in keeping the natural balance of the game. 

This can be summed up perfectly by something I heard on the radio last week. Author Stephen Brunt was talking about his upcoming book about Jordin Tootoo where he explores the role of an agitator who plays on the edge. Brunt said that in his discussions with Tootoo, he said something to the effect of “there’s nothing like going into the room during the intermission after a fight and knowing that all the guys respect and appreciate what you did. They don’t have to say anything, but you can feel it the room that you filled your role for the team and that the other guys appreciate it.”

That feeling must be pretty powerful and is the reason guys are willing to fight for one another. That feeling is also the reason that fighting can’t go; while it may look to others like fighting is just fighting, it actually means so much more to the integrity of the game.