FIGHTING: WHAT COST TRADITION?

Is it time for the NHL to eliminate fighting?

I’ve heard that question asked 100 times if I’ve heard it once in the last 28 years or so writing about hockey for a living, and I’ve always had the same reaction. I’d look at the Goody Two Shoes asking it like they were some sort of drooling fool, scowl or roll my eyes and say, "Hell, no." Quite often, followed by a barely audible, "Sissy."

When somebody raises the topic or poses the question now, I find I’m not reacting the same way. I’m not sure when my opinion on bare-knuckles fighting changed, and I’m not certain exactly how far it’s shifted, but the question no longer offends me.

I don’t see the possibility of taking the act of "dropping the gloves" out of hockey as some sort of sacrilegious assault on the integrity of the game. I don’t perceive posing the question as a misplaced bit do-good-ism, as a query to be dismissed off-hand because it clashes, rather mightily in my particular case, with the way I’ve always viewed fisticuffs.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m now of the opinion it’s a question that is at least worth asking, even if some of you out there are bound to roll your eyes and utter, "Sissy."

TIMES CHANGE

When people used to raise the issue of fighting, I’d say," It’s part of the game." It seemed like a handy default answer. Hockey players have been punching each other senseless since the first puck hit the ice, so, in that regard, yes, it’s part of the game.

Then again, having goaltenders play bare-faced was once part of the game. I’m old enough to remember it. If you’re in your 20s or even 30s, think about that. Goaltenders used to face shooters bare-faced — slap shots, screened shots. Pile-ups in the crease, skate blades, sticks. Now, if a goaltender loses his mask, the referee blows the whistle.

Having players play without helmets was once part of the game. I used to figure that was a personal choice by players and so did the NHL — use of helmets was grandfathered in and bare-headed players, Craig MacTavish was the last, disappeared. A bad thing?

Take something as basic as the netting required in the end zone of rinks to protect fans from wayward pucks. After 13-year-old Britannie Cecil died after being struck in the head by a puck in a game between the Blue Jackets and Calgary Flames in March 2002, the NHL mandated safety netting would be installed in rinks. There was great debate.

"Netting? We won’t be able to see" or "You can’t put netting in. We’ve never had netting." A young girl died but there was still debate. Do we give netting a thought now?

Times change. And when people are permanently injured or even killed because of what we do and how we do it, even allowing for reasonable risks that are inherent in a game like hockey, they should.

PART OF THE GAME

I don’t like what doctors found when they looked at Bob Probert’s brain. I’m uncomfortable Raitis Ivanans hasn’t played a game since a Steve MacIntyre punch dropped him like he’d been shot in the head. There was a time when I wouldn’t have given the brain injuries suffered by Probert and Ivanans a second throught. Part of the job.

Framed in what we’re learning about brain injuries suffered by athletes and the long-term effects of those injuries, I’m wondering if we should take another look at what we consider "part of the game."

I’m conflicted about that. I’ve always felt something of a kinship with hockey tough guys, players who take up that last spot or two on a roster because they’re willing to bend noses and kick ass, to take care of business and ride shotgun, to put themselves in harm’s way.

Guys like Rudy Poeschek, the toughest player I have ever known, and Georges Laraque, a sweetheart away from the rink who I know well and spent many years on the road with. All the hammers, really.

I admire them and always have. Now, I fear for them, well-paid for being ruffians or not.

SECOND THOUGHTS

This isn’t knee-jerk stuff for me. As long-time readers at Oilersnation know, I did the tough guy gig as a lacrosse player. I scrapped some as a hockey player. I had boxing gloves and a heavy bag hanging in my garage from the time I was 13 years old.

I was a big kid — six-foot-two and about 205 pounds by the time I was 14. I liked to fight. I got my ass kicked more times than I remember because of it. Concussions? I don’t know how many. Too many.

It was part of the game and it was my job and a way to be a part of the team. I did it until I got tired of getting beat up and hurting all the time. I got sick of seeing my mom with tears in her eyes because I’d busted my nose or a knuckle again or had punched out another kid. It was not part of the game for her.

Those days long gone, I still enjoyed fighting. I had all the fight tapes in the old VCR days. Later, I had all of the fight websites bookmarked on my computer. I’ve watched Poeschek and Craig Berube pound each other 1,000 times. Trevor Senn? Look him up. The arrival of YouTube? There’s a smorgasbord of mayhem. Great stuff, right?

HERE WE ARE

We didn’t know then — especially going back to when I was 15 or 25 or even 35 — what we know now, what the medical evidence is telling us about brain injuries. About what happens to the players who bring the crowd to their feet when the gloves hit the ice.

So, if the NHL is taking steps to reduce the number of concussions its players sustain by eliminating headshots from the game, how long can it allow players to drop their gloves and punch each other because "it’s part of the game." Because it entertains us?

I know the numbers in recent NHL studies on concussions — Mark Spector at Sportsnet, among others, has written some compelling stuff on this — show fighting isn’t nearly the biggest culprit when it comes to brain injuries. Cheap stuff like Matt Cooke got suspended for and legal hits during the course of a game account for many more.

That said, based on what we know now, how many brain injuries are OK? What’s the number? If the NHL is finds it unacceptable for a player to target the head of another player with a shoulder or an elbow, how much longer can it accept that doing it with a fist is part of the game? I don’t have the answer.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

  • Oiler Country

    Fighting? It’s the part of the emotion in the game I believe. Fighting rarely happens even now, with the exception of a few outliers.

    Taylor Hall fought because he was sick and tired being pushed around and saved by a teammate. Fighting told the NHL, Taylor won’t folder up the tent if he’s roughed up. Ankle injury aside, it wasn’t the result of the fight, it was a freak accident.

    Gorillas in the league the likes of Parros, MacIntyre, Boogard, et al. well… I’m forced to pause. Do they have a place in today’s league? Tough to say. Most would argue they do not, because if you can’t play hockey, you shouldn’t be in the NHL, if you are a damn good fighter, you might make it to the league and play 2 mins a night. Just ask Mac, who played one shift in one game. Was he a value to his team out there? No, no he was not.

    I don’t think you can take fighting out of the league, but you can limit the amount of times it occurs by removing the pure fighters out and leaving the people that can play hockey in.

  • Eulers

    Robin, Huge kudos to you for reevaluating your position on this issue. I’m glad that the issue is up for healthy debate.

    I wouldn’t mind at all if the league banned fighting, though I respect other fans that want to keep it and I especially respect the MacIntyre’s of the world. However, like Robin, the mounting medical evidence is tilting me towards an outright ban.

    I sure don’t miss fighting during the Olympics or the playoffs!

  • Gilmore Tuttle

    Passion! You can rule passion out of the game. No cheap shots, no retribution, no anger, no passion. If someone take righteous exception to passionate play, let them deal with it. There are far too many snoozer games we pay top dollar for. Please don’t do anything to reduce the passion.

    There are always guys that need to be dealt with with muscle in this world and we are never going to eliminate that. Just look at our friend in Libya. He picked a fight and now he gets a punch in the nose. Wow, a ceasefire.

  • Oiler Country

    Oh dear! Oh dear! I wonder what Don Cherry will have to say about you after this? I, on the other hand, agree with you entirely and appreciate your thoughtful approach to a problem that, amongst hockey fans, is an emotive and divisive, issue. I am a, shall we say, “mature fan”, and I, too, remember the days of bare faced goalies. I have seen many changes in the game designed to increase the safety of the players and the entertainment value of the game. When I watch old, classic games that electrified me when they occurred I am amazed at how slow and pedestrian it all appears. So it is without question that the game has changed and, for the most part, it has been for the better. I believe that it is time for the game to embrace the change and eliminate fighting. If the NHL does what it should and takes the lead in promoting player safety (the NHLPA has a role in this as well but seems to prefer to remain nearly silent and let the NHL take all the heat), the final argument in favour of fighting, that ultimately an enforcer must make a player responsible for his actions on the ice, is eliminated. Hasn’t worked very well anyway, has it? See Matt Cooke et al. The game is played by healthy, young, testosterone-fueled males and collisions will inevitably happen. If they are dealt with effectively and the teams involved suffer penalties as well, it will be virtually eliminated from the game. As in soccer and other physical sports, immediate ejection of the combatants from the game makes these events a rareity and those of us who prefer to admire the grace, speed, skill, and, yes, toughness of this magnificent game can enjoy our viewing secure in the knowledge that no-one’s brains are getting scrambled in the process.

    • Hockey is going to result in injuries, including brain injuries, even when played within the rules. The data shows that. You cannot have 200-pound men running into each other and into boards and glass at high speed without risk of injury. It isn’t golf or badminton and nobody wants it to be.

      There will always be concussions in hockey unless you take hitting out of it, an then it’s not hockey. You can, however, take reasonable precautions to minimize the number and severity of injuries and we can, and should, re-think what is an acceptable level of risk even for those who play for pay.

      • kawi460

        Once again, I agree with you entirely. It appears that the NHL has at least taken a few tentative steps on the road to ensuring that the equipment used, the arena they play in and the rules regulating the game maximize the protection afforded the athlete without compromising the essence and integrity of the game. For me, this also includes an “acceptable level of risk” as a result of the physical aspect of the game. I want to see the physical contact regulated, not removed. I also believe that it is time for the NHLPA to get involved in developing the awareness and attitudes of their membership to the desirability of playing in a way that does not endanger the lives, livelihoods and health of their union brothers. The NHLPA is uniquely positioned to do this having the capacity to administer the ultimate sanction: if you repeatedly and intentionally play outside the rules and endanger your fellow union members, you will be denied membership in the union. I am tired of being called a pansy or accused of not being a hockey fan because I do not feel that intentionally injuring another player, a rival or opponent, not an enemy, is “a part of the game.” For those who’s tastes run to watching men beating each other into submission there is MMA and they can indulge to their hearts content without obliging the rest of us to participate as well.

        • kawi460

          I understand the sentiment, but you will never, ever see the NHLPA turn out one of its own. No chance. No way. No how.

          What clearly-stated stance has the NHLPA taken during this whole head-shot issue?

  • D-Man

    I don’t think you’ll ever see fighting leave the game.. As many have already said – there is too much testosterone on the ice to eliminate completely. I’m not even sure an immediate ejection from a game would deter a good scrap. The game is evolving on its own – the Smakintyre’s of the world are becoming a dying breed. If a player can’t skate at an NHL caliber, he won’t be playing – regardless of how good of an enforcer he is.

    I think the NHL should focus more on allowing the players to police themselves. Take the instigator rule out of the rule book. In my days of old time hockey – Matt Cooke would never have made it off the ice in one piece for that dirty elbow. If we allow the skilled power forwards such as a Lucic or an Iginla or even a Morrow to deal with that crap – I think you’ll see concussions drop even further.

  • Chaz

    Also, I concur with you Robin; whereas I had the opinion up until recently that fighting belonged in the game, period I no longer am so sure. Not saying I want it out, but I’m open to exploring that option now. I think within a few years, this debate will eventually result in it leaving the game.

  • dr_oil99

    I don’t know where to go with this, I appreciate what your saying but I also feel it’s starting to sound like social engineering. I want to believe that people who go into a career know and understand both the benefits and the risk involved. Do we not allow Firefighters to enter burning buildings because they might get hurt?
    These are grown men who are payed money and they have all the information they need to make an informed choice about their careers. If we follow this line of thinking we end up with shinny on a pond which is great but I do not want to pay to watch that.

  • Chris.

    The fighting in hockey needs to be evolved…

    1. Eliminate it from junior or mandate that gloves remain on.

    2. Get rid of the staged fight. That’s ridiculous to watch. Spontaneous = good; staged = bad.

    3. If the players’ get thier fight on, immediate game misconduct for remainder and the for the next.

    4. Heavily penalize stickwork and headshots consistently. Punish the lazy dumb players and the teams employing them. SMac contributes well enough when given a chance and doesn’t take dumb penalties he is not lazy or dumb.

    The NHL has created its own monster. It is inconsistent in its penalities and messages. It glorifies fights and hits that injure and that needs to stop. Showcase the speed and skill of these players and not the thuggery.

    Finally, I kind of like the idea of gloved fighting but I am not sure if it will gets end up as jersey tugging.

  • Gilmore Tuttle

    Great article Robin. Balanced, passionate, interesting. Really great piece.

    I recommend everybody read former football player and WWE wrestler Chris Nowinski’s book: “Headgames Football’s Concussion Crisis.” He also did a great interview on Terry Gross’s NPR show. Nowinksi says we have to minimize concussions. I think Robin’s point is excellent: minimizing unnecessary fighting is an easy way to do that.

    And everyone is right that you can play an intense, physical, passionate game without much fighting at all. The examples are endless: the Olympics, the old Canada Cup, the playoffs nowadays.

    And the NFL and CFL are physical, too. Some melees break out, but everyone is expected to calm themeselves and collect themselves.

  • Chris.

    Am I missing something or is fighting already not allowed? People who fight get a five minute major penalty… Adding a game misconduct, or fine, or short suspension will not eliminate fighting… at least not the real fights born of true emotion or the desire for retribution. ~Ban~ fighting and watch the total resurgence of the roughing penalty.

  • Oilers21

    Fighting used to be a part of the game when it was Gordie Howe or Maurice Richard doing the punching. Now we have staged fights between guys that work on their MMA style fighting instead of working on skating or stickwork during the offseason.

    The game of hockey like the invention of the automobile has become a specialized career. You are a “stay at home defenseman” or a “power forward” or a “puck moving defenseman”. Then there is the other one, you are a fighter. It used to be that you could characterize a huge number of players with each one of those titles but not anymore.

    So I say, get rid of the fighter, get rid of the thing that slows down the game and does nothing but make us a circus sideshow to americans. Yes it’s our game but it must grow and to do that, we must sell it. So sell the speed, the toughness, and the ice. Leave the fighting to UFC which is where McIntyre could probably excel!

  • Chris.

    I was sitting next to a guy from Holland in my local bar. There was a replay of a hockey fight on TV. He said he was a soccer fan and was utterly disgusted by what he was watching and said both players should be banned for life. I told him that the players were not undisciplined, but were just doing their job. In Canada we believe it’s way less disgusting for the paid professionals to do battle on the ice than to have so much violence in the stands.

  • Chris.

    I’m not so concerned about fighting in hockey. However the only professional leagues (and junior) where it is even tolerated is here in North America. No big deal one way or the other for me.
    I dont even think the NHL needs to rule on head shots – there are rules already that take care of this. You want to stop the Matt Cooke’s of the world from the kind of crap he pulls? Then get rid of the armour these guys wear today. Mark Messier didn’t take a run at a guy with his elbows up covered by anything more than a little leather. The shoulder pads a wee tiny plastic cup on the top of a bunch of cotton stuffed padding. The equipment has had a way bigger impact on the lack of respect players show one another. If you were gonna through that elbow or blindside shoulder to the head, you would have to deal with the consequences…now they dont even feel anything.

  • Oilers21

    The 2 comments I take issue with that you hear way too much are “X is part of the game, you can’t take it out” and “players have lost respect for each other”. These points just dissolve under any sort of scrutiny. If we couldn’t change hockey because things are “part of the game” we would still be playing with a rover and no forward passing. There would be no glass along the boards and no one would wear helmets. I could go on forever. To say that fighting is “part of the game” and shouldn’t be removed for that reason is just ridiculous. Likewise the point “players have lost respect for each other”. Just watch any game from the 70s and prior. Where was the respect when Dale Rolfe was beaten so badly by Dave Schultz that his teammates were afraid to come to his rescue? Where was the respect when Rick Jodzio pummelled Marc Tardif with both fists while Tardif lay unconscious on the ice? It may seem I’m pointing to specific isolated cases from the past but anyone who watched hockey from the ’70s would know that’s not the case. Not saying that there aren’t players that don’t respect each other, but I just can’t believe that all of a sudden players “lost” some sort of mythical respect that they all used to have for each other.

  • Chris.

    I agree. Call penalties that are slashes, cross checks(even in front of the net), hits from behind, elbows . Like in football, make it a penalty for a late hit (2 seconds after the puck is gone). The league now calls all these cheap hooking calls, even if appears you reach in with the stick. But a guy can take a nasty cross check from behind in front of the net and it is not called. Less fights will occur if the league takes action on the crap. Let the emotional fights still go.

    NHL hockey is in trouble. Too many teams, too many marginal players, no consistent discipline. When it is about economics and markets and not about product, the game will suffer.

  • Chris.

    I would like to point out that there are at lot of jobs out there were the rate of permanent injury or death is a lot higher than hockey and those professions do not make anywhere near as much money as hockey players.

    Also I think that some of this has to go back to the players. A fight doesn’t have to be nasty. You don’t have to swing so hard that you know if you connect your breaking bones. Or if you notice the opponent is cut open then that’s where the fight should stop. Maybe an appropriate course of action would be: if a player is injured in a fight, the fighter causing the injury will be suspended until the injured player is healthy enough be back in the line up.

  • kawi460

    I remember in jr b they put cages on players….. this caused a lot more of trash talk and stick play, a couple of years later they went to visors and there have been less cheap shots, and trash talking as players don’t want to get in a fight or get a glove in the face.

    IMO fights belong in the game for several reasons, to police the game and for momentum changes to name a few,

    good read

  • kawi460

    Oh I cannot wait until next season when we can actually hope to talk hockey rather than having to read this endless navel gazing about too much fighting, how awful about Proberts brain, ummm Charlie Sheen is crazy, too many head hits etc etc…it has been too f***ing long since we could actually write long exhaustive reports on our first round opponents and what line match-ups we would do,do you remember the great Dallas battles?,even as we knew we were doomed still we had hope….too f***ing long. We have to get in next year or we will self-destruct.