Thursday, March 12, 2009

Extra Attacker: "Fighting" in the NHL?

This morning, "The Puck Stops Here" writer Joe Romano invited anyone to jump in with their own opinion on the always-interesting fighting debate in the NHL. At the risk of receiving a game misconduct for being the "third man in" I couldn't resist jumping into the scrum with my opinion. First, I am not a hockey 'outsider'. I've played the game my entire life, and I couldn't disagree more with Joe's thoughts.

Fights can be a ton of fun to watch. It's the reason boxing, wrestling, and any other sport where injuring your opponent is the name-of-the-game, have been so popular over the years. To me, I don't watch hockey to see someone get hurt. I love the speed of the game, the amazing skill, the intensity, the hitting, the toughness. Fighting really doesn't have a place.

In any sport where there's lots of contact, there are going to be occasional fights and tussles amongst players. It happens. But the argument that I keep hearing is that fighting is necessary in hockey because it's a self-policing mechanism. Isn't that why we have referees? To police the games? And if hockey is so outrageous that it needs fighting to keep order, why isn't fighting allowed in football? In no other major sport can you stop the game, half-undress your equipment, and exchange blows with an opponent while the referees spectate and ensure no one scratches or has their hair pulled. Think I'm joking? There's actually a rule that prohibits hair-pulling in the NHL! Now that I mention it, let's take a look at the basic details of Rule 43 in the NHL Rulebook:
"A match penalty shall be imposed on any player who deliberately attempts or who deliberately injures an opponent and the circumstances shall be reported to the Commissioner for further action. In addition to the match penalty, the player shall be automatically suspended from further competition until the Commissioner has ruled on the issue." let's review. If you attempt to injure an opponent you are suspended indefinitely. Yet, you can fight an opponent, shatter his face with your fist, and you'll receive a 5-minute fighting penalty and then be free to drop the gloves and go another round?

In my opinion, all 'fighters' do is occupy roster spots and playing time that other talented world-class players should be filling. Now don't get me wrong...since the lockout and the arrival of the "New NHL" which has cracked down on player obstruction and improved the speed of the game, the role of 'enforcer' has definitely diminished. The days of 6'7" Peter Worrell lumbering around the ice like Bigfoot are over...but the 'semi-talented enforcer' still remains. Why should these guys be in the NHL just in case a coach decides his team needs a fight to spark his team now that they're losing 3-0?

In fact, some fights are even more pre-meditated than that. One of the greatest examples I can remember is this video from a few years ago when Georges Laraque was miked-up for a Phoenix Coyotes broadcast and decided to fight (don't want to watch it all? fast forward to the replay at the 0:47 mark):

Wow, what got Georges' temper raging so badly? "Want to? Okay....Good luck man" It sounds like he was just told to do chores. Now I know the hockey purists out there are going to throw their arms in the air and say "That's just the 'code' in hockey. The fighters have respect for each other." Fine, I understand that, but it's a joke to have guys like that on the roster if that's their true role.

On top of that, if fighting is so necessary to protect star players, why is it typically non-existent once the playoffs roll around? Most teams realize that throwing their fighter on the ice for even a few minutes a game is a liability that could result in a big goal at the wrong time. If there was any incentive for someone to cheap-shot a star player, wouldn't Game 1 of a seven game series with a particular team be the most opportune time? It rarely happens...and when it does, it's often met with an extremely steep penalty (here's a great example - Dale Hunter).

Harsh fines and suspensions from the top-level are typically successful in policing violent sports. You don't let the inmates run the asylum. Look at this year's NFL season. Commissioner Roger Goodell took a stand against hits deemed illegal and made sure any questionable hits were met with prompt and steep fines. You can make the argument that this was ridiculous at times, but I saw players pulling up short of the quarterback by the end of the season with their hands in the air. It was definitely having an effect.

The last argument I want to address is that fighting differentiates hockey in a way that's unique to the sport and appealing to audiences. This does make sense. Maybe you'll attract the MMA-viewer with fights and brawls, but to me the sport would sell itself with the right exposure. Agree? Disagree? Let's hear your thoughts. Anything goes, just remember, no hair-pulling.

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Steve S said...

I understand your arguments and most make sense. I think hockey definitely differentiates itself from other sports since they allow fighting. Football has never allowed fights in the past, while on the other hand baseball has always featured bench-clearing brawls. Despite suspensions they still occur and will continue to occur, they've always been part of the "code" in baseball. If you fire a ball at a guy's head, you pay the price. For the same reason, fighting in hockey has always been a part of the game and it would be extremely tough to all of a sudden eliminate it completely.

alfareria vasca said...

There's no doubt, the guy is completely right.