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.
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.
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.
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.
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.