Fighting: The issue that divides hockey.

Krys Barch twitter
Krys Barch and Shawn Thornton trade blows. | Photo by Dan Hickling

WHAM! A crushing hit into the boards brings the home crowd to its feet. As fans pound the glass with their hands, the visiting forward takes exception to the hit and fires a slur of obscenities at the home defenseman. The defenseman smirks and mocks the forward. Moments later, both men have dropped gloves and helmets and decide to engage in hockey’s most controversial pastime: Fighting.

It’s an issue that divides players, coaches, devoted fans, casual fans and even non-hockey fans. Both sides are also quite adamant in either their support or disdain for the tradition of fisticuffs. On one side, you have the traditionalists like Bobby Orr, Brian Burke and of course, Don Cherry. They feel that hockey has been a part of the game for years and that it is a necessary part of the game. Orr has said that he “felt that it was his duty” to participate in a fight. Burke says that fighting “regulates the level of violence.” Don Cherry is well, Don Cherry. There are times where I’ve wondered while watching Hockey Night in Canada, if he’ll reach the point where he blows his top, sprints down from the press box, leap over the boards and pile into a scrum. Because he wanted to.

On the other side, you have people who are concerned with the frequency of concussions and brain problems, and frankly think that fighting makes hockey look ridiculous to fans of other sports. Hockey is often seen as a niche sport. Opponents of fighting want to make the game more marketable to new fans. One of the members of this group is Ken Dryden, who feels that supporters of fighting “twist logic and twist it again” to support their own views and conclusions.

As the years pass by, I find myself agreeing with the latter.

Growing up, I had always considered myself to be a hockey fan, but my love for the sport started to grow during my senior year of high school when the University of Minnesota won the national championship. Later that year, I arrived at the University of North Dakota and my interest exploded. During my days at UND, I watched numerous games in person and on some occasions (typically, rivalry games such as those against the Gophers, Wisconsin and Denver), I would see our players toss down their equipment and pummel each other without mercy. It was a thrill at the time – maybe more so for some of my inebriated friends – but nothing thrilled me more than watching one of my fellow students pound the tar of out some guy I’d never met.

Even after I left UND, I would get excited when fights would break out. (This was also when I went through my MMA and Ultimate Fighting phase as well as my Don Cherry phase). To imagine my favorite sport not having something as stimulating as fighting was almost sacrilegious. Since then, I have moved from rabid hockey areas to areas where hockey is virtually nonexistent and interest in the game would only spring up if the local NHL team (Chicago or St. Louis) was doing well in the playoffs. This has tempered my enthusiasm for the violence in the game.

I have also suffered from injuries myself over the last year: two concussions, a serious neck injury, frequent back pain as a result of a car accident. I know being rear-ended at a complete stop by a car going 60 mph isn’t the same as being in a hockey fight. But pain is pain. After experiencing it personally, I don’t want to see some guy suffer brain trauma simply out of tradition and “regulation.”

I’ve also come around to Dryden’s way of thinking by interacting with non-hockey fans. When I tell them how much I love the game, one of the first things they say is “why is fighting allowed?” In the past, I’ve tried to justify it like Orr and Burke have done. As I look at those arguments, there isn’t really a legitimate reason to be found. One must fight to keep their honor? In most of the fights that I see, the person who must keep their honor isn’t the one who ends up fighting. That role typically falls to the enforcer. A guy whose sole purpose on the team is to entice an opponent to trade blows, deck some guy who didn’t do anything to him personally and then get his face rearranged, all in the name of team honor. It’s a thankless role that George Parros has played for many years until he was carted off the rink after hitting his head on the ice in October. It is also the role that Derek Boogaard played for my hometown Wild and in New York before his death in 2011. It’s a role that is voluntary; proponents of fighting say that enforcers know what they are getting into. Maybe they do, but I bet most are thinking in the short-term, about helping their current team, rather than about what might happen to them 20 or 30 years from now.

The NFL is dealing with a PR disaster. Concussion lawsuits levied by ex-players have some wondering if football will even be around 50 years from now. In late November, the NHL got slammed with a lawsuit of its own and now the league has an important decision to make. Do they let tradition win out, or do they follow what science is saying and make a change? There is a fear among the traditionalists that hockey will suffer if fighting is eliminated.

Dryden had a great response to that fear. He said if you want to see what hockey would look like, just look at the playoffs. If you notice, enforcers, goons and pests rarely play in the playoffs because with so much on the line, they can’t afford to lose people to fights. I’m pretty sure the game has not suffered because of the lack of brawling.

Change is important. Sports are constantly changing, mostly for the better. That’s how the world works. When you refuse to embrace change, you fill yourself with delusions that things are fine even when the evidence is saying it’s not. Pat Sajak (yes, that Pat Sajak) sent out a tweet recently during the Flyers-Capitals brawl and said “this is part of the reason it (hockey) remains a niche sport.” The NHL makes billions each season, but it could make more if it markets itself as a game that popularizes skill and contact, instead of violence. It’s time to dump the tradition of fighting and look toward the future, which could be very bright. It’s time to change.

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