Ice hockey is an intense combination of speed, skill, and physicality and these factors are both the origins and beneficiaries of the hockey fight. Comedian Rodney Dangerfield once quipped, “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out.” The joke encapsulates non-hockey fans’ view on why people attend games.
This is far from the truth. From 2012 to 2013 only 37% of games contained a fight. Fighting is engrained in the sport and although a vital aspect, it is not the game’s primary draw. It is also a misconception to view all fighting as random acts of senseless violence.
NHL veteran Jarome Iginla sheds light on this. “There is a purpose behind almost every fight I have fought.” Reasons for fighting range from providing an emotional lift for teammates to standing up for a teammate on the wrong end of a dirty play.
Fighting is the players’ way of self-policing the ice. Serious illegal stick work, such as slashing, which is missed by officials will result in the offender being held accountable by opposing players.
It seems counter-intuitive, but the most skilled players profit due to fighting acting as a counter to dirty play. There is also etiquette to fighting. A franchise’s enforcer will almost exclusively fight another enforcer. This will often be instigated with a verbal agreement. Such informal rules mean that those players who consider themselves more lovers than fighters will most often not be targeted.
Fisticuffs do not go unpunished by the NHL. Reprimands include match penalties, fines, and suspensions. It seems strange to say, but the NHL has made fighting much safer through new regulations. These include a ban on players removing their helmets when fighting, two men per fight, and finally the outlawing of fights after games have ended.
Presently, concussions sustained during play are the biggest health concern for players and the NHL. There is no doubt that sponsors and broadcasting networks would prefer a game free of fighting, but this would be to the detriment of the sport. Soccer provides a glimpse in to a possible future for ice hockey. A suppressing of physicality in soccer has allowed cheating and the conning of officials to become the norm.
There is something noble about the hockey fight, a past-time taken up for the good of the team or the protection of a teammate. An act devoid of cynicism that reflects the league’s working class inception sculpted in the harsh Canadian winter.
Commenting on a recent NHL general managers meeting concerning the debate on fighting, Red Wings General Manager, Ken Holland remarked, “I think the consensus in the room is that we like it the way it is.”
The key argument for the support of fighting in hockey is that it is an integral feature of the NHL. It not only attracts fans, but provides players with a way to vent their frustrations and it has been a central part of the sport since its inception.
While these are all seemingly valid points for those wishing to defend fighting in hockey, on closer inspection it becomes clear that they are not. Fighting as a way to attract fans may seem like a positive concept, especially to promoters of the sport.
If people wish to see two men fighting, then why not go to a boxing match? Fans should attend hockey games to see the remarkable skating and puck control and, of course, the other physical aspects of ice hockey.
Physicality is a fundamental part of any contact sport, but it’s the skill and control that players demonstrate in the face of this physical pressure that’s most impressive and attractive. It should not be reduced or limited in favour of unwarranted violence.
Supporters who argue in favour of fighting due to its ability to help vent frustration are towing a miserable line by any standards. Even children are taught that fighting settles nothing, and this makes hockey a poor model for courage against adversity.
When the game isn’t going a player’s way, they shouldn’t resort to violence. Instead they should summon up their own resolve and attempt to improve on their performance. Understandably this is easier said than done, but these players are professionals and they should conduct themselves as such. A mature attitude to difficulty is far more admirable than knocking someone’s teeth out when things aren’t going your way.
Finally, viewing fighting as a central aspect of the sport is simply an outdated, backward-looking perspective. I hold nothing against tradition, but nor am I opposed to change where it’s needed, and in regards to fighting in hockey, we must consider the personal implications it can have on a players’ long and short-term health.
There has been much debate recently about brain injuries in sports and the affects they can have. Serious trauma caused by a series of blows to the head during a fight have been proven to cause various brain injuries.
If more deaths like those of famous hockey players such as Derek Boogaard and Bob Probert, who both suffered from degenerative brain diseases, are to be avoided then fighting needs to be curtailed. Player safety and fair play should take precedence over tradition and this is what fans, players, and the NHL as an organisation must understand.
If fighting is removed from ice hockey, we are left with just pure skill and talent for the fans to enjoy, and an undeniably safer sport for the players. So should fighting be banned in the NHL? The answer seems obvious.