NHL Should Give Peace a Fighting Chance

I’m going to let you in on a little secret.

There is no honor in fighting.

The tradition on the hockey rink of pummeling the guy who just collided with your goaltender, or just said something insensitive about your wife, is an odd one at best. In most pro sports, fighting is all out banned. In the “big four,” the NFL, MLB, NBA, and the NHL, the one with ice is the only one that features hand to hand combat as part of the sport.

What’s that you say? “If we didn’t have fighting, players would feel free to be as chippy as they want?”

I’m sorry to disappoint, but that theory doesn’t hold weight in those other three leagues. There is no place for it in the game, and it’s time that the NHL and its fan base stopped turning a blind eye to the ugliness, the danger, and the sheer barbarism of it.

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The face of "honor."

When I was little, I was brought out in the backyard with my brother by one of my grandfathers. He wanted to “show us something.” We eagerly followed him out the back door, but I was curious as to why my parents had an odd sort of look on their faces as we passed by. Out on the yard, he looked us over solemly, and told us “I am going to teach you how to survive.”

My grandfather was an immigrant from Poland. He came here with many other Polish veterans after WWII, after the occupying Soviets would not allow them to return home for fear of an uprising against Communism. He had fought, been captured, escaped a prison camp, and gone on to fight for one country after the other, each time escaping to fight again when those countries fell. He had to see and do things that no one should have to see and do.

He was a real tough guy, the kind we immortalize in film, the kind we look up to with a mixed buzz of iconic fervor and wonderment. But this is what he told us:

The first thing you do, is kick them, here. (In the nuts, folks.) Then, when he is stooped, come down hard on the back of his head. Finish him.

That was it. That is what fighting is, folks, from a man who fought his way through more battles than most of us could ever want to think of. You want to talk about honor in fighting?

Yea.

There’s no honor in kicking someone in the nuts.

But you do what you have to do, to survive.

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"The first rule about Fight Club, is you don't talk about Fight Club." Wrong. It's time to start talking about this.

Retired NHL players are now coping with doing what they have to do, to survive. It’s an issue terribly hard to ignore now, isn’t it, since the diagnosis of Rick Martin with a degenerative brain disease called CTE, a condition which is quickly becoming synonymous with the consequences of the game of the NHL enforcer. The New York Times just printed a 3 part series about this alarming condition, telling the story of Derek Boogaard and his untimely death. It’s must read stuff, especially for a league with a fan base that still thinks fighting should be a part of the action. That fighting matters. That fighting protects players. That fighting is an honorable thing to do.

When I was a student at Buff State (waaaay back in the 1990’s), I was attacked by a group of, well, what I assume now was a group of gang members. It was broad daylight. I was with two friends – one of my buddies was on the football team. The other, the lacrosse team. It’s not like we were an easy target, but we were descended upon anyway – on Elmwood Avenue, right in from of Subway at the corner of Forest Avenue. The fight was a blur, and I don’t remember much. But I do remember four things:

  1. At some point, I cracked a guy’s head against the fender of a red pickup truck. I don’t think he got up.
  2. There were baseball bats and razor blades.
  3. All cars and passers-by turned a blind eye, and looked the other way.
  4. Somehow, the three of us all survived.

 

That’s fighting, folks. You can romanticize it all you want, insert war analogies into hockey commentary until you’re red white and blue in the face, but it is not romantic. It is not honorable. It is not safe. And it is lethal.

Bucky Gleason had a great article about Mathew Barnaby the other day, worrying over the former Sabres pugilist’s problems with coping after retiring from the game. Funny, how I have to type “game” there, even though his main job was to fight, and when he wasn’t fighting, his job was to start fights.

Doctors say telltale signs of brain trauma are erratic behavior, depression and substance abuse. You need not be a neurologist to see Barnaby suffered from various symptoms. He acknowledged as much himself last season.

He complained that he was short-tempered and didn’t feel right for two years after he retired. He wondered if he had disconnections in his brain and worried about his long-term health. At the same time, last May, he refused to blame concussions for his own behavior.

…So far, Barnaby has become another cautionary tale that has become all too familiar in recent years with professional athletes, particularly ones who played contact sports and shared his pugnacious style. He has been fortunate in the sense that he’s still alive. Nobody wants to see him injure himself or someone else or wind up dead.

Barnaby is still fighting, but now he’s fighting to regain control of his life – before it is too late.

Where is the honor in Boogaard’s death? In Barnaby’s downward spiral?

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In this?

The news of CTE and it’s ramifications on sport may be new news to us this season, but it should be a game changer. We’d all like to believe that there is honor in fighting, somewhere. Somehow, standing up for yourself, your teammates, your country, or your friends should be the stuff of courage and moral righteousness.

The fact is, it only gets us hurt, and killed.

The fact is, when it gets really ugly, people turn and look the other way. But it’s time to face the facts, to take off those blinders, and look at this lethal problem in the NHL once and for all. We need to do what must be done in order for players to survive.

That, folks, would be the real honorable thing to do.

Go Sabres.

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