Sports Log 3/28/07: NHL Fighting

I am a proponent of fighting in the National Hockey League. This doesn’t mean I want or expect to see it with any regularity, nor do I even notice the absence of fisticuffs in a given game. But when it does happen, I understand why it’s there.

On the one hand, fighting opens a pressure valve to release steam built up from entanglements on the boards, in front of the net, etc. On the other hand, it serves to reinforce codes of conduct on the ice, i.e., it lets players police themselves. Mess with an opposing team’s goalie, or rough up their star finesse skater, or cheap shot someone, and you can expect repercussions. There’s only so much the officials can spot and/or punish, and the players know when and how to “take exception” to certain offenses. Some of the offenses are peripheral (like shooting on net after the buzzer goes off), and most have to do with respect for the game and the opponent.

Irony #1: at lot of times, a fight is intended to clean up game play, in that it comes in response to an action that was considered needlessly violent. Irony #2: a code of conduct exists within a fight – make eye contact, square off, drop the accoutrements, no sucker punches, etc. I won’t say it’s always chivalrous – especially not in the raging brawls that erupt once in a while – but honorable NHL fights are not random street scraps, either.

The argument in favor of fighting, made by Barry Melrose and many others, is this: if you ban it, actual game play will get dirtier, with more nasty stick work, more clandestine jabs, and so forth. With half the “police force” removed, misdemeanors (and some felonies) would go un-collared. The counterargument is that fighting is not allowed in college, for example, yet that game rolls just fine. In return, I say that the college games, with all due respect for those involved, are hardly on the pressure-packed intensity level of the NHL. Neither are my local minor league games, even though I’ve seen a number of fights there. At the top pro level, you’ve got standings extending into two countries, the Cup, celebrated rivalries, all the top skaters, hard-hitting defensemen, and scrappy goons, and the pot must boil over at times. It’s simply a natural (and in my view, mostly positive) part of the game.

I’m babbling about this because recent isolated incidents in the NHL have made hockey fights a talking point, and some of the talkers don’t seem to have any understanding of the sport, let alone why the fights come about. On the ESPN show Sports Reporters, I watched a fellow – forgot his name, sorry – basically admit that he didn’t watch hockey at all and that if hockey cleaned up its act, he (and the rest of America, ha ha) might tune in. There are a couple of illogical farts in this statement. First, the vast majority of the game is clean, skilled, graceful, and exciting, so too bad he’s missing out. Second, if he proudly doesn’t watch the game and assumes the fights are just random bullying, then his opinion is uninformed. My above explanations of fighting are very condensed; there’s a whole history behind the game’s codes of conduct, and not all of the pundits seem aware of it.

Yes, the recent Chris Simon stick-swing captured the ugly side of hockey violence, just as the Bertuzzi punch-from-behind did three years ago, and as Scott Nichol’s sucker punch earlier this season did. But these are not representative of how the game is played (and fought). Repetition of web and TV-friendly clips can make these bad plays seem more pervasive than they are, especially to those who otherwise don’t pay attention. For every time a player goes down and stays down – and I hate to see that as much as anybody – there are countless “clean” square-offs. There are countless games with NO square-offs. And to the league’s credit, ugly, cheapo incidents on the Simon/Bertuzzi level are severely punished.

(I was at the March Predators-Stars game where Jordin Tootoo sent Stephane Robidas off on a stretcher. It wasn’t a malicious act, though. Tootoo finished hard on the Stars’ star Mike Modano, and he knew that he’d have to pay for it. Sure enough, Robidas rushed in quickly toward Tootoo – obviously not for a hug – and Tootoo greeted him with a fist. It was not a blindside punch, and Tootoo didn’t seek him out. It was an unfortunate impact of two hefty forces – in fact, Robidas was assessed a charging penalty on the play. If he hadn’t been knocked cold, I don’t think anyone would have even mentioned it the next day. Instead, Jordin got a suspension. I guess he was just supposed to stand there and let Robidas flatten him?)

Some pundits also question why NBA players draw so much disapproval for their random brawls – which incur substantial suspensions – while no one gets as riled about hockey (or baseball) brawls. People ask this question as if they’ve uncovered a damning sociological double standard. I leave that to those who want to think in those terms. For me – and I was once a big fan of the sport – fighting is not part of how basketball is played. (For that matter, fighting is not part of baseball, either.) It is part of hockey, like it or not. But since some folks want to equate the protocol of basketball and hockey, I’ll play along for a second, just to make a point. During the December 2006 Nuggets-Knicks brawl, an NBA player sucker-slapped somebody and ran away. (!!) The league punished him, among others. Here’s hockey code: if he had tried such a “drive by” bullshit non-fight maneuver in the NHL, his own team would have punished him.

(For the record, I don’t complain that occasional basketbrawls exist. I think in any major team sport, you have to expect a bench-clearing incident every now and then for whatever reason. If a highlight-reel ruckus happens once every two or three years, I don’t think you’re in the midst of a crisis.)

My fear is that the “debate” on the fighting issue will feed the negative perception of the NHL – the supposedly empty arenas, a need for more TV-ready stars, blah blah. The reality I see is that the league has bounced back from the ’04-05 lockout quite well with improved rules of play, great teams, and a relatively high level of competition. The standings as of today are as tight and exciting as any September baseball division race. And let’s not pretend, like the ignoramus above, that no one cares. The game has a strong fan base, one wider and far less fickle than is usually portrayed. They know why the gloves sometimes drop.

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