Friday, March 24, 2017

Does Fighting Have a Future in the NHL?

There is no doubt that the style of play for the NHL and much of the hockey world in general has undergone a gradual but definite change in the last several years. The era of the enforcer has faded to the point where such a player is virtually non-existent in the NHL and international competition level of the sport. Very few teams have a goon on their roster anymore, that one guy whose skill on the ice is limited to being able to lace his skates, skate passably, and knock as many guys on the other team to the ice as possible in the shortest amount of time. No longer do we see players whose sole purpose is to intimidate and create opportunities for his teammates through shear force of violence. Instead, we have seen a shift toward focus on speed, agility, and ability to get the puck into the net. Overall, I feel that this has been a very good change for hockey in general and the NHL specifically. That being said however, hockey is a contact sport. Players are going to run into each other either accidentally, or by intent. They are going to continue to slam each other into the boards and goad one another either verbally or by physical contact into losing their temper. This is as much a part of the sport of hockey as tackling a running back or sacking a quarterback is in football. As such, fighting is an integral part of the sport of hockey, and I do not think it is desirable, if it is even possible, to eliminate it completely from the sport.

Fight in ice hockey 2009
LeBlanc vs. Ponich, 2009
By ArtBrom [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Their are valid pros and cons to both sides of the argument about the place of fighting in the NHL. My stance on this issue is that fighting is a natural part of the game and should remain so. That being said, I still wish to give a fair argument so I will start by discussing the other side of the issue. On the negative side, fighting can and does lead to injury. I have frequently seen key players take an injury in an unbalanced fight that caused them to miss critical games thereby hurting their team more in the long run than the fight was worth. Many of these cases were when the fight was fundamentally uneven. Either there was an all out brawl where the inevitable 2 or 3 players on 1 lead to injury, or a much larger or more experienced player takes on a smaller or inexperienced player. The inevitable outcome is that the player who was fighting multiple opponents, the little guy, or the rookie taking on the veteran ends up taking an injury that keeps them out of the rest of the game or even multiple games. The other factor that has cropped up frequently in my research into the attempt to have fighting eliminated from the sport has been the long term damage many players have experienced from seasons of brawling on the ice. There is no doubt that multiple concussions can do tremendous damage to the sensitive tissues of the brain. Often the damage done is not seen for months or even years after the injury occurred.
O'Brien, Chipchura drop gloves, 2009
By Matt Boulton [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr
There are several reasons that these types of life altering injuries have happened. The first is inadequate protective gear. Helmets and pads have evolved over the years in an attempt to make them lighter, easier to move in and see through, and more effective protection. So depending on how far back you are looking in the history of the sport the quality of the available protective gear is a contributing factor. Also our knowledge of the symptoms and dangers of head injuries has grown tremendously over the last few decades, and will likely continue to do so. Better treatments and improved concussion protocols have been implemented over the last several years to protect athletes from critical injury and prevent them from returning to play before they have adequately healed. These changes have made the fights that do happen less potentially catastrophic to the team and the individual players. Yes fights can and do still get out of hand on occasion, and yes players do and will still get injured from these fights.  Does that mean that fighting is bad and should be totally eliminated. No in my opinion it does not.

Now to discuss the positive aspects of fighting in hockey. One of the advantages of a well timed fight is that it can and often does serve to energize a team who has been falling a little flat during a given period of play. I have many times seen a team who is trailing by  or more points rally and come back to win a game after having a fight occur. Fighting can and has intensified the level of play on both sides making for a more competitive and exciting game both to play and watch. I don't think that a majority of hockey fans or players see having an all out line brawl during a game as being a highlight  or a desirable part of the hockey experience. However, seeing players who are passionate about the game and feel strongly enough about their line-mates to defend or protect them makes for a very fun and exciting hockey experience. An inevitable part of that passion is the occasional fight that breaks out between two players who feel strongly about their team and their sport. Hockey is a contact sport, even if fighting were to some how be eliminated players would still get injured.  Last season the Sharks Logan Couture broke his leg at practice and was out for more than 2 months. At the beginning of this season the Penguins Sidney Crosby suffered a concussion during practice and was out for a significant portion of the early season. A trip, a fall from being a bit off balanced while going for the puck, a defenseman throwing himself across the ice to stop a shot, all of these things can and have led to injury. Also, possibly the most important factor, the players all know that these events are likely to happen to them at some point during any given season and accept that risk as being just a part of the sport. As long as the fighting remains on relatively equal grounds between two players who are equally capable of fighting and defending themselves I believe that fighting adds more to the game than it costs. The majority of fighting that we see in the NHL these days does fall within those parameters.
2011-10-20 Leafs at Bruins (18)
Orr vs. Thornton, 2011
By Dan4th Nicolas [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr
The dangers and repercussions of fighting is a concern that the NHL has been taking seriously and making rules to avoid the most serious injuries for more than 25 years. In 1992 the Instigator rule was implemented to penalize actions taken to instigate fighting. Now leaving the bench to start or join an ongoing fight carries the automatic penalty of a 10 game suspension. At the beginning of the 2010-11 season NHL rule 48 was implemented. This rule was made to protect players from blindside hits to the head.  The rule was later refined to include a broader range of head shots for added protection for player safety. Over the years many proposals have been brought before the league's competition committee which deal with the hazards of fighting. The competition committee is composed of players, owners, and general managers which deals with many league issues including rule changes.  Every time these issues have been brought before the committee they have considered them carefully and approved changes that make the sport safer, but have always stopped short of rules to eliminate fighting completely. When discussing the reasons for these choices they have usually made comments along the lines that eliminating fighting completely would fundamentally change the nature of the game, that hockey is a contact sport and fighting is a part of that. The goal is to make players safe while still allowing them to play the sport that they love. It is a fine line to walk but one in which players, owners and general managers have consistently agreed is in the best interest of the game. In 2011 an NHLPA poll found that 98% of players were opposed to eliminating fighting from the game.  In 2014 NHL News ran a fan poll about the continued presence of fighting in NHL hockey and 78% were in favor of fighting remaining a part of the game. In June of 2016 Commissioner Garry Bettman spoke out on the issue of fighting in the NHL during an interview he did with Sports Illustrated, stating that fisticuffs are an intrinsic part of the game and that fighting still has a role in the NHL.

While there will likely always be some controversy surrounding fighting in the NHL it seems clear to me that the majority of players, fans, owners, and general managers all feel that fighting has a place in the sport of hockey and in the NHL. I believe that player safety is a concern for all as well, and that rules will continue to change and evolve to provide the safest environment possible. However, I also believe that it would be near impossible to eliminate fighting entirely from the sport, nor do I think it would be desirable to do so. I for one look forward to continuing to watch hockey played as the full contact sport that it is with all the drive and passion that entails along with the occasional dropping of the gloves.

1 comment:

  1. I'm against head injuries and dirty play. I feel there are many ways to energize a losing team without attacking a player on the winning team, especially since there are really no designated fighters anymore.

    Fighting is a disincentive for players to take cheap shots or play dirty. This could also be resolved by referees calling games more tightly or the league punishing dirty acts with suspensions (the small fines they occasionally give out now are not a strong enough disincentive to change player behavior).

    Bettman said on Wednesday that players have paid more attention to offsides since they implemented offsides review that takes away goals. As mentioned in your article, the automatic 10 game suspension has effectively eliminated players from coming off the bench to fight.

    If the league wants to clean up its game, it needs to punish dirty players, eliminating the need for players to self-police through fighting. Until then, it will be a garage league catering to pro-wrestling fans where the players have to unnecessarily risk head injuries and quality of life as they age in exchange for playing this wonderful game.

    It's a real shame that the league hasn't taken steps to eliminate dangerous acts on the ice.