Since the untimely and unfortunate death of 20 year-old Don Sanderson during an Ontario Hockey Association fight in January of this year, fighting in hockey has become something of a “hot topic” within the mainstream media and, now, apparently with the league’s GMs. Many journalists – many of whom have previously called for an NHL fighting ban – are again beating the drum loudly, demanding the league to do away with violent scraps once and for all. There’s just one problem, as Scott Burnside hinted at in an article posted on espn.com this Monday: most of these opinions come from outside the game. As Burnside says,
For the most part, people in the NHL don’t see that there’s a debate about fighting at all. Fighting is part of the game. Has been since the days when they used frozen horse dung and curved tree branches. Move along, people. Nothing to look at here.
And, they’re right – in my opinion anyway – that is, independent of the horse feces hockey pucks. However, Brian Burke, GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs and all around nice guy goon, had this to say in response to fights sparked by a hard hit: “I don’t like those fights. I don’t understand them.” Huh? You mean like President Obama doesn’t like government spending? Now, NHL GMs apparently disapprove of “staged” fights, too. So, for the record, they don’t like “staged” fights or those which come about because of retaliation. What kinds of fights those rules changes leave is beyond me.
But, these efforts have become easy to predict. Consider the backlash from the Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore incident from 2004 when Bertuzzi swung at Moore’s head from behind, breaking the Avalanche winger’s neck. It was undoubtedly a tragic event, and it cost Moore his career, if not worse. But, what followed was as annoying as it was predictable, as columnist after columnist climbed out from the woodwork to furnish their opinions on fighting in hockey, and many of them called for a rules change which would forbid the practice in NHL arenas.
The problem, of course, was that many of these columnists write about the NHL once a year when they dust off their annual “Ban Fighting” column following the seemingly inevitable violent injury which happens every season, and though many of them don’t come right out and admit their complete hockey ignorance like Mike Imrem did this week, we all know it exists. It’s at this time every season – following the predictable violent injury – that ignorant columnists across our wonderful country put pen to paper and sermonize their readers with their thoughts of what is part and what is not part of a game they clearly don’t understand or follow. Columnists bombard readers with ideas about how fighting in hockey doesn’t jive with society’s present day ideals of political correctness and censorship. (It’s really just another way of saying, ‘Ew, hockey’s not like basketball, baseball or football, and I’m used to those.’)
Don’t tell them about the success of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which, in contrast to boxing, sells, ya know, an actual fight; don’t mention that Ron Artest running into the stands to scrap with a fan during an NBA game was one of the biggest stories of 2004; and, don’t even try to proffer the idea that the “entertainment” provided by sports exhibitions is viewed by many as an escape from typical societal norms and practices. One day they’ll abstain from making playoff predictions because they “don’t care,” and the next they’re calling the league out. With these opinions, the columnists rile up the masses – comprised, of course, of people who don’t understand, nor care to understand, the game – and pressure is put on the NHL to change its stance on fighting in its league.
What these people fail to understand, though, is that so long as this “pressure” comes from columnists who don’t follow hockey or “fans” who don’t pay to see the sport, it shouldn’t be considered real pressure. Judging from yesterday’s GM Meetings, perhaps now it is.
The truth, as Burnside and others have pointed out, is that the NHL has no plans to do away with fighting – nor should they – but due in part to this pressure, some rather broad changes may be forthcoming. Ignorant columnists worried about selling the games to a broader audience are making the same mistake the league has made repeatedly during the last two decades. Angering the league’s closest followers to please potential customers is – how you say – bad business, and any rules changes designed to please these folks is just plain wrong.
No matter what these columnists believe is “part of the game,” the fact is that NHL fans – the people who ultimately support the game financially, remember – believe overwhelmingly that fighting is part of the game – at least the game that’s played in North America. And, they want it to stay.
I’ll spare readers the detail as to why fighting is necessary in hockey. Yes, I know you know. (For the sake of completeness, let’s say the game polices itself through fighting and, more often, the threat of fighting.) And, while the NHL performs its public dance around the art of fighting, it will also attempt to curtail shots to the head during game action; much like the NFL has attempted to do in recent years. It wouldn’t surprise our readers to know that the two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive; that is, the threat of a fight on the ice can do quite a bit to limit these headshots in frequency and severity by making physical players aware of possible repercussions following an unnecessary or overly aggressive hit.
With all that said, yes, the NHL may tweak the “rules of engagement,” as they say, which means they may take steps to further control the fight, rather than forbidding it. That’s fine. If recommended, there will be some difficulty associated with forbidding players with visors to fight with the extra gear, especially since many hockey folks believe visors should become mandatory equipment, as well. No big deal there. They may not let players “stage” fights and drop the gloves immediately following the faceoff. Though that’s a subtle but huge step towards ridding the league of players who are really just “goons,” that may be fine, too. But, hockey will never be eliminated from the NHL.
That’s because the people who actually watch and follow hockey like it, and more importantly, they understand it. Odds are your local columnist doesn’t.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not sure I care if Derek Boogard plays another NHL game. (Indeed, I prefer middle weight fights, which typically involve players who can, ya know, play a little hockey, too.) It may truly only be a matter of time before the 6’7″ off-season martial artist kills someone, and I’m not so sure I want to watch that. And, I’m not necessarily against change, so long as it’s for the right reasons. So, as the GMs convene and recommend rules changes, I sincerely hope they can offer the following reasoning for any alterations to rules as they currently impact fighting: ‘the changes are made to improve the game or for the safety of the league’s players, not to appease a broader demographic.
Otherwise, the clueless columnists will have won.