Archive for December, 2011:

There Will Be Blood: Why Fighting In The NHL Will Never Be Banned

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Fighting in hockey is brutal, primitive, causes pain and lifelong damage to players… but you know what? I like it.

At first this post was going to be a devil’s advocate piece, taking the pro-fighting side of the argument only as a counterpoint (See previous Buffalo Sabres Nation post by Scott against fighting). It’s a topic I’ve been on the fence about ever since hearing about Derek Boogard’s death, but thinking about it for this post pushed me over to the pro-fighting side.

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Right off the bat, I'm going to lighten this post up with a lolcat. Just refer back to this if things get too serious for you.

Before you label me a horrible person, hear me out. I abhor violence. Hell, Gandhi is one of my heroes and I admire his method of Sutyagruha, or non-violent resistance. (As he said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”) Yet I love violent sports like hockey and football. I deride and look down with disdain on other sports like baseball where there’s almost no physical contact between players. It’s quite the paradox.

I think many people feel the same way. They’d never take a swing at a neighbor or the guy sitting next to them at the arena – at least not without a lot of provocation. Yet when a hockey fight breaks out, the entire place is on their feet, if not cheering, at least feeling the excitement that it brought to the place and wondering who’s going to win. We may not be rooting for blood, but something instinctual from deep down rises up; we want our guy to HURT the other guy, if only for that brief moment.

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There's a reason this guy is one of our all-time heroes and doing color commentary for Buffalo Sabres broadcasts. I'd say it's not for his intellect but I'm afraid he might track me down.

This is the fundamental part of sports: the competitive edge to do whatever it takes to beat the other guy. It’s just that the sport of hockey allows players to legally take swings at each other.

What would happen if the NHL did make fighting illegal? Players would still take cheap shots at each other. Players would still get hurt because other guys hit them hard. Brutal collisions would still happen and players would still develop concussions.

The CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, that Rick Martin had would still happen to some players. As a previous BSN post said a while back:

And so we’ve got to be concerned that the jostling of the brain just from the skills of the sport of playing in the National Hockey League led to him having chronic traumatic encephalopathy when he died.

Sports like football don’t allow fighting, yet players still have all sorts of issues. Some guys don’t walk again after vicious helmet-to-helmet collisions. The speed of the game is going to continue creating these horrible injuries. Hockey is perhaps worse with the speed players can reach on skates.

I’m not saying I like it. What I am saying is that you can take the fighting out of the game but you can’t change human nature. I wish that we were more evolved people, but the animal nature is there, just below the surface, ready to rise up, take control of us and make us do nasty things. This is why alcohol creates more violence – it merely reveals our true nature.

I don’t want the enforcers of the league to have permanent brain injuries. But they also don’t have to be doing what they do. They haven’t been drafted into their career. This was a conscious choice they made and they’re making a damn pretty penny doing it. They can go get a job at Walmart tomorrow if they want. Hell, I might think about taking some punches if I made a million bucks a year.

Who didn’t love it when this happened? This was a guy going to bat for his team in Biron. We still love ya, Marty. (Also, listen to that crowd. We are all sick, imperfect beings, unevolved from the days of Rome.)

On top of that, hockey fights are typically not that damaging (although I’d love to see some stats on punches thrown/landed and am totally prepared to be corrected on this). Most of the time the guys are grappling, hanging onto each other’s jerseys. They might land a couple solid punches, but half the time one or the other still has a helmet on. Their hands might take a beating, but you don’t see a ton of solid hits to the head. Granted that over the course of a season those hits add up (and they are with bare fists rather than say, boxers with gloves on) but I still don’t think they take as much punishment as boxers do.

Also think about the word “enforcer”. Those guys are there to lay down the law. If fighting was taken out, what would stop the cheap shots on skills players? A two-minute penalty? Would a five-minute penalty be enough when you have the possibility of injuring the other teams star player?  Even a game ejection or suspension might not be enough if you can take out one of a division rivals’ top guys.

No, the enforcer has had a role in hockey for eons because of this fact. Just as you cannot legislate morality, you cannot mandate safe play. But you know what does stop cheap shots? Putting the fear of God into the other guy. Making him know that if he touches your star players, he’ll have to deal with your fists.

It may be sick, twisted, primitive and bloodthirsty. But it’s also about preventing more violence. The enforcers are guys who typically couldn’t make it in the NHL any other way, and this gives them a way to make money. Rightly or wrongly, they soak up the damage so that other players don’t have to.

The NHL knows this and they don’t want to lose their marquee salespeople for the sport. They also know the draw of a fight and it’s intrinsic value.

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You might as well have had "Lucic versus Gaustad" on a marquee outside First Niagara Center before this Sabres game. Fighting is a huge draw for the NHL and they know where their bread is buttered.

Could they clean it up, and make it more family-friendly by removing fighting? Maybe. But there’s no evidence that it would grow the sport, and it might actually hurt revenue.

I love hockey and one of the reasons I do is because of the way the guys stick up for each other. And yes, I love hockey because of the fights. I will continue to love hockey fights until I somehow evolve beyond my flawed human nature. When peace on earth breaks out, then we can remove fighting from the NHL. Until that day, I’m enjoying it.

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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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Octopush: Pond Hockey in Miami will Leave You… Breathless?

It turns out you don’t need ice for hockey.

Or pads.

Pretty much just your underwear, and a snorkel.

If you haven’t heard of “Octopush” before, (and if you live in the “frozen wasteland of Buffalo” where it “snows ten months out of the year,”) you’re not alone. It’s not exactly grabbing headlines on ESPN.

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Then again, the NHL isn't exactly grabbing headlines on ESPN, either.

Well, in honor of tonight’s matchup between the Sabres and Miami Florida Panthers, we’re going to educate you on what the British Octopush Association calls a “supreme aerobic game.” Who knows, maybe this is a secret conditioning regiment for the resurgent Panthers squad.

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What a save! I think. Actually, I have no idea what is happening here.

Yea, it’s basically mini-stick hockey under water.

Still, it seems to be fun and has a world wide following. If you’ve read this far, I suppose I should let you know a few facts about this game. From the aforementioned Association:

Octopush is underwater hockey and is a supreme aerobic game. It was invented in the early 1950s by sub-aqua divers in Southsea who got bored just swimming up and down pool lanes to get fit. The game is now played worldwide. Underwater hockey is fast, furious, and fun … and you can join in.

Players wear the basic equipment of a mask, snorkel, fins, and water polo hat. They hold a small stick, about the size of a spatula, in a gloved hand. The idea of the game is to use the stick to push the 1.2 kilogramme puck into the opposing team’s goal, which consists of a three metre tray at the opposing end of a 25 metre pool.

All other sports allow the participants to breathe as they play. But in underwater hockey, players breathe through their snorkels on the top of the water before diving down to do battle with their opponents. Some players can stay down for a long time indeed, but the real skill of the game is judging when to dive. It can take just a few seconds to tackle an opponent and pass the puck to a colleague, and then return to the surface for a well-earned breath!

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Not the best spectator sport.

I’m sure you’ve already leapt out of your seat to try out your swings with a spatula. In any event, that’s Octopush. Maybe the Sabres can use this to help motivate the team instead of bag skating them. Lindy, if you’re reading this, you’re welcome – and here’s the hours for the ECC pool.

While you gear up for tonight’s game, here’s a video of the fastest game under where ice should be. Cue the public domain rock and roll:

I can’t believe no one has thought to introduce the cannonball into this. That would be a real game changer.

If you’ve now read this far, my apologies. Enjoy tonight’s game.

Go Sabres.

 

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Ted Black Says Lindy Ruff Stays And Some Other Cool Things

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Well, apparently the head coaching gig in Buffalo is the topic du’jour. Giving up a 3 goal lead and having a shaky home record can do that to a fanbase.

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Lloyd: What's the soup du'jour? Waitress: It's the soup of the day. Lloyd: Ooo... that sounds good, I'll have that!

Scott brought up the fact that we should at least be having the conversation about Lindy Ruff. Why is it verboten to speak of firing him? Yes, he’s been great and most of us love him – he’s sort of the patriarch of the Sabres organization and the rock of the family.

However … all good things come to an end. Even Scotty Bowman was fired. Of course that’s probably not a great example, as he went on to win Stanley Cups elsewhere.

See, this is the eternal debate. The team isn’t doing great so perhaps firing the head coach and bringing in a new guy will take us to the promised land. But what if Lindy Ruff is the guy for Buffalo and he isn’t really the problem? What if we fire him and he wins Stanley Cups with, I don’t know, let’s say Columbus after they fire Scott Arniel. Crazy, right? But it’s possible.

We can have this debate all year long, and it’s something that we should at least talk about. No one should be untouchable. However, it’s all moot at this point because as Tamara has pointed out, Terry Pegula adores Lindy and said that he’s not going anywhere.

Well now, if that’s not enough for you, Ted Black reinforced that point this morning in his weekly chat with WGR 550. You can listen to the full audio here.  There are lots of great bits in the audio and we’ll transcribe and otherwise pick apart some of it.

[Howard Simon of WGR] How much of that (the Sabres’ philosophy of winning the Stanley Cup) includes the status of the head coach, the status of the GM and making a change in one or both of those spots if it’s necessary and is it necessary by they way?

[Ted Black] No it’s not, so it really renders the rest of the question moot.

[WGR] It’s not a moot question, don’t you think that’s an issue right now? You tell me, in your mind, in Terry Pegula’s mind there is no issue with coaching or GM at this point?

[TB] None.

[WGR] How come?

[TB] Why well, there just isn’t. I don’t think Darcy or Lindy have injured as many players as have been injured. It’s not like we’re hopelessly out of the playoffs or hopelessly out of 1st place in our division or the conference.

Come on Ted, quit flip flopping and leaving wiggle room here. </snark> So the official word is hands down, Lindy isn’t going anywhere, he’s our guy, stop asking questions, there is no room for leeway on this matter, end of chat.

However, later in the interview he said, “We don’t live in always and never.” Ah, so you’re telling me there’s a chance!

(Yes! The second Dumb & Dumber reference in the same post! Give me some sort of imaginary blogger points! *fistpump*)

Some other snippets from the interview that should sit well with any Sabres fan:

  • This team is dramatically better than it was last year and we’re not done yet. We’re going to use every opportunity to improve ourselves.
  • On trades: You have to have a partner, and at certain points of the year there’s not a whole lot going on.
  • When this team is healthy, this team is very, very good.
  • We are going to win a Stanley Cup. It may not happen this year. It may very well happen this year. But we’re going to do it or die trying.”
  • On the rash of injuries having a silver lining: [We’ve learned] that these young guys that had no track record going into this year can play in the league and play at a pretty decent level.

So it’s reiterated from on high that Lindy is here to stay – at least for the forseeable future. Whether that’s a good or bad thing we may never know.

I do know this: I love Ruff as a coach. He’s “our guy”. The Pittsburgh Steelers have had only 3 coaches in their history and there’s something I like about that. Sometimes you need that steady rudder to guide you when the storm is raging all around. Could we do better? Maybe. But it’s a chance I’m not willing to take at the moment, and neither are the Sabres.

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As Sabres Slide Continues, is Ruff on a Hot Seat? Is that Even Possible?

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“Lindy ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

So said Terry Pegula. Then, he signed Ruff to an extension. Pegula’s admiration of his head coach is obviously no secret. He loves the guy. Heck, I love the guy. If you approach any hockey fan in Buffalo, he’ll tell you that he loves Ruff, too.

But then, a lot of those same fans will shuffle their feet and add “but I think he’s lost this team.”

And in the back of Pegula’s mind, I’m sure his love for Ruff is up against it with not loving how this team loses, and how soft it plays.

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If this post Ruffles your feathers, so be it. We're all in this hockey conversation together. Please feel free to slaughter me in the comments section.

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