nhl fighting:

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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