Fighting–the NHL’s answer to Twinkies
Friday, 2 November 2007
So you get home from work and you just don’t have the motivation to whip up lasagna and a tossed salad. Instead, you grab a jumbo-sized box of Hostess Twinkies and flop down in front of the TV. Cramming the first Twinkie into your mouth, you feel that quick, easy surge of pleasure that cheap, calorie-laden junk food offers. But then, you start to feel unsatisfied if that’s all you’ve got to eat. You may even get sick if you stuff yourself with more and more Twinkies.
While your typical NHL enforcer wouldn’t take kindly to being dubbed a Twinkie, what he offers with his fisticuffs is a cheap, junk food-like substitute for the satisfaction of skill-based hockey.
Is fighting popular? Does it sell? Sure. Just like 500 million Twinkies are sold each year. So what? That doesn’t mean it’s good for the consumer.
If the hockey you dish up is of high enough quality in the first place, nobody cares if there’s no fighting.
Nobody complains that Mark Messier and Viacheslav Fetisov didn’t drop the mitts in the 1987 Canada Cup, or that Jarome Iginla didn’t duke it out with Keith Tkachuk in the 2002 Olympic gold medal game.
But inform casual sports fans (particularly in the United States) that there’s no fighting in international hockey, and their initial response is bewilderment: “How can you have hockey without fighting?” That’s because their minds have been filled with the junk food imagery of Slap Shot and the 1974-75 Philadelphia Flyers. From a recent Kansas City Star story:
“Let’s face it: Fans do like to see the fighting,” said former [Kansas City] Blades broadcaster Bob Kaser. “When you think about, what gets the crowd going more? Is it an end-to-end goal or is it seeing one of your team’s enforcers going at it with someone on the other team? It’s the fighting that gets the crowd on its feet in anticipation.”
That’s a lack of education. Give fans a banquet of end-to-end hockey, and they’ll see the light.
Most arguments touting the necessity of fighting are nonsense.
Is fighting a crucial element of hockey that brings inspiration to a team? Sure, it can fire up players and fans. However, you can get the same reaction with a big hit, goal, save, or shot-block, without deliberately bruising and bloodying another guy’s face.
Point to Iginla’s fight with Vincent Lecavalier in the 2004 Stanley Cup finals if you will, but that was Game Three, not Game Seven when the Cup was truly on the line. Also, Iginla’s two-point performance was much more crucial to Calgary’s 3-0 win over Tampa Bay than the number of blows he landed on Lecavalier.
As Toronto radio host Bob McCown observed in his new book, McCown’s Law: The 100 Greatest Hockey Arguments: “In 2006-07, there were no fights in the second round of the playoffs, one in the third and none in the Stanley Cup finals.” McCown also points out that eight out of the nine teams that ranked behind the Anaheim Ducks in terms of fighting penalties last year didn’t even make the playoffs, which casts into doubt the argument that Anaheim’s pugilistic approach was a major key to its Stanley Cup victory.
If your knee-jerk response is, “Fighting has always been part of the game,” then why don’t you go back to phonograph players, Model T Fords, and women in corsets while you’re at it? Give up your Internet connection. Send all those Europeans home. Whatever. To invoke tradition in a matter that involves health and safety is just nonsense. If you’re not Don Cherry’s age (i.e. 73), you should be flexible enough to embrace change.
Speaking of women in corsets, don’t make the juvenile allegation that opponents of fighting in hockey want to somehow “feminize” the NHL. This is not an either-or proposition where taking out fighting would eliminate every other form of vigorous body contact.
The NHL wants to keep physical play in the game, but it’s currently trying to crack down on intentional blows to the head, as we’ve seen with the recent Steve Downie and Jesse Boulerice suspensions. Well, what is a hockey fight if not a series of intentional blows to the head? (Going to the body like Joe Frazier or Rocky Marciano doesn’t really wash in a hockey fight, after all.)
Granted, the majority of fights don’t result in horrific, career-threatening injuries. But you don’t have to look any further than what happened to Philadelphia’s Todd Fedoruk last year (getting his face broken by Minnesota’s Derek Boogaard and then literally KO’d by Colton Orr of the New York Rangers) to establish that this doesn’t always just add up to good clean fun for the fans.
Or, when was the last time you thought about Adam Deadmarsh? Here was an excellent power forward who was forced to retire prematurely at age 30 due to a series of concussions, and he suffered the first one during a face-to-face fight (not a cheap shot, not a blind-side elbow) with Vancouver defenseman Ed Jovanovski in 2000.
You’d like to think that while some fans have an insatiable taste for brutality, few actually relish seeing somebody seriously injured. Then again, the popularity of video footage with Zdeno Chara busting open the face of Chicago tough guy David Koci last week makes you wonder.
What is the allure of fighting? It’s a combination of factors.
Conflict is what draws us in when reading novels or watching movies. Two guys pounding each other is a simple, easy conflict that anyone can understand–even if it’s not inherently beneficial for the participants or viewers.
Just like in auto racing, the element of risk pops up: is someone getting hurt? People have a tendency to gawk. I took a limo ride from LAX to downtown Los Angeles last month, and the driver said most of the traffic slowdowns on the freeway aren’t due to accidents themselves, but to other drivers rubber-necking.
Sometimes, the element of “justice” comes in: beat up the guy who fouled our guy! (Although again, if the NHL and its officials are willing to levy stiff enough penalties for serious infractions, this shouldn’t be an issue.)
The biggest thing, really, is emotion. Fans hate to watch players going through the motions, as if they really didn’t care. When two guys fight, however, there can be no doubt that they’re investing at least something of themselves in the game.
Emotion in hockey is a great thing. But again, you can achieve it in numerous ways, from relentless defensive work to committed forechecking to goal-scoring celebrations, without resorting to fighting. There are other ways for Rick Rypien of the Vancouver Canucks (5-11, 170 pounds) to prove his courage besides fighting Doug Murray (6-3, 240 pounds) of the San Jose Sharks, which occurred on October 15.
Is fighting necessary in order to release the emotional tension that builds up within hockey players? Or to prevent terrible injuries resulting from stickwork such as we’re often told prevails in the European leagues?
Ken Dryden spoke out in his 1983 classic The Game: “Anger and frustration can be released within the rules, by skating faster, by shooting harder, by doing relentless, dogged violence on an opponent’s mind, as Bjorn Borg, Pete Rose, and Bob Gainey do. If Freud was right and anger released is anger spent, then a right hook given is a body-check missed, and by permitting fighting, the NHL discourages determined, inspired play as retaliation. But Freud might be wrong. Anthropologist Richard Sipes thinks so. He has written that violence, instead of being a human potential requiring release, once released is learned and repeated, not cathartically purged away–in other words, violence feeds violence, fighting encourages fighting. If Freud was wrong and Sipes right, the NHL is still wrong.”
As for the argument about the European leagues, the level of stickwork you encounter in today’s Russian Super League, for instance, may be more irritating than what you’d get in North America. But please, show us the parade of castrated Czechs, filleted Finns, and pitchforked Poles. Where is this epidemic of stick-related injuries?
The fact is, nobody has done any studies that indicate that European hockey’s ban on fighting has created a more dangerous environment for its players.
The NHL isn’t likely to ban fighting until someone actually dies in a fight. That’s due to the perception that fighting adds entertainment value and thus pumps up box office and TV receipts. (Then again, might we see a surge in hockey interest among fans of other sports if fighting were taken out and the perception that hockey is akin to pro wrestling changed accordingly? How about doing everything possible to accentuate the elements of speed, flow, and spontaneity?)
It’s unfortunate that a crisis mentality is more likely to dictate the league’s decision-making process than simple logic and reason. That leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Like too many Twinkies.