It is to be torn between the absurdity of it, and the sheer barbarity.
So let’s deal with the latter, then the former.
Imagine what it says about a society that allows unpaid teenage boys to fight with their bare knuckles for the amusement of paying customers.
For all the good things there are about junior hockey in Canada, and there are many good things, this continues to be an appalling black mark on the sport at this level.
Yes, there’s a lot less of it than there used to be. A lot less.
That there’s any at all is sickening.
Which brings us to the absurdity of the brilliant Connor McDavid being injured (injuring himself?) in a hockey fight while playing for the Erie Otters of the OHL on Tuesday night.
This is a 17-year-old magician who is all dekes, head fakes and deception, a scoring machine who is piling up points at a remarkable pace this season – 51 points in 18 games – while on a date with destiny to be the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft next summer.
Not one little bit of this superb player’s game is about toughness, or being tough, or fighting. He won’t ever bring spectators to an NHL rink with the promise he might fight. He will pack ’em in with his scoring talents and ingenuity.
Heck, he’s already slated to pack ’em in at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto and the Bell Centre in Montreal next month when he suits up for the Canadian national junior team at the world junior hockey championships.
Unless, of course, he can’t play.
Unless his participation in a pointless fight that may have resulted in a serious hand injury – we’ll find out more on Wednesday – knocks him out of the tourney and a possible showdown with American star Jack Eichel. Or compromises his ability to be at his very best.
Was it McDavid’s choice to fight? Ultimately, yes. But we know the pressure that is put on hockey players to “man up” and drop the gloves, and we know of the sport’s general indifference to the abuse heaped upon the better players by the less talented.
We also know that there are knuckle-dragging scouts out there who would excitedly put a star beside McDavid’s fight as though it represents his guts and desire. These are the same folks who see PIMs are a big plus with any player.
So sure it was his choice, but then again, not really, right? The highlight shows put fights on display every night, the newspapers love to run pictures of scraps and there’s no shortage of those who argue that fighting is an integral part of the game that must never be eliminated for fear of the consequences.
Much of the culture of Canadian hockey propagated by the usual suspects is that fighting in hockey is manly, it represents courage and the best values in young men, and it demonstrates a commitment to the sport that non-fighters don’t possess.
Junior hockey, of course, is right at the epicentre of this culture, particularly as it is played out in smaller cities and towns across the country.
Could McDavid resist this overwhelming attitude? Sure, but it wouldn’t be easy, and ultimately it seems, he couldn’t.
So if he’s been injured badly in a fight, let’s make sure the game, and the junior game, doesn’t get away without taking significant responsibility. If you permit players to fight and remain in the game, to some degree you are promoting fighting, allowing it to be used as a tactic and encouraging players to fight. It’s that simple.
While the three junior leagues have taken some steps to reduce fighting, for some reason they refuse to take the final step and get rid of it altogether. Of course, the same leagues have taken a hard stance against head shots while still allowing players to drop their gloves and punch each other in the face repeatedly.
Well, now that approach to the sport – remember, these are teenage boys playing for a pittance and maybe a shot at a pro career – may have cost the game the playing talents of the best junior since Sidney Crosby, and possibly for an extended period.
Maybe it will turn out McDavid isn’t hurt that badly, and that would be good news indeed.
But it won’t change the basic issue here. Can’t we produce major junior hockey in this country in which fighting is specifically outlawed and not tolerated? Can we not develop and nurture talents like McDavid without forcing them to confront the ugly, violent underbelly of the sport?
Hockey is a fast-paced, hard-hitting game that produces more than enough injuries without adding this extra layer of violence.
Of course, when asked, McDavid will mouth the usual clichés about keeping fighting in the game. He wants to be admitted to the lodge, and no player wants to be the guy who is against fighting.
You can’t ask a 17-year-old dreaming of the NHL to take a stance like that.
It’s up to those in charge. They should have done it long ago.
Surely an organization that can take drastic punitive action against teenagers who say inappropriate things on social media can take a similarly hard stand against bare-knuckle brawling.