Fighting is complex, but the debate is polarized

You’re a dinosaur.

You’re a dove.

What are you? Second generation of your family to walk upright?

You get beaten up a lot as a kid?

I see you have scabs on your knuckles? Did you walk here?

Why don’t you stick to watching tennis?

Listen to Jeff Marek go toe-to-toe with Greg Wyshynski on their daily podcast Marek vs. Wyshynski.

Ladies and gentlemen, these are the two sides of the fighting “debate,” less a conversation than two groups of people who’ve made up their minds, dug in their heels and covered their ears. Who’ve decided their side is right and spend hours canvassing for ammunition to support their claim.

Larry Brooks of the New York Post joined the fray this past weekend and opened his “it’s time to ban fighting” soliloquy by claiming that defenders of hockey fights resort to name-calling to support their position.

And he’s right. The anti-fighting crew endures assaults on their masculinity (always wondered what that meant about women who like fights…) every time the issue arises.
But the other side can claim no high ground on the issue either; people in the pro-fighting lobby are continually painted as anti-intellectual and boorish.

It doesn’t exactly set the table for any type of real discussion of the issue, which is as nuanced as any in sport. And that’s a shame, because those who are genuinely conflicted about the issue have no place in this dialogue. I count myself as one of these people.

I see most fights as uneventful and a distraction to the game, serving no real purpose. At the same time, there are also those that to me seem as integral to the flow and narrative of the game as the final score.

Does that mean they should be scrapped (sorry)? Or should the league stay the course and ignore all the white noise around the debate? I don’t know, but I do know that each side lobbing insult grenades at each other isn’t getting the issue anywhere.

So to that end, here’s how I see the arguments and talking points on both sides:

“Fighting’s always been part of the game” — A ridiculous and lazy claim for maintaining status quo. Hockey is an evolving entity that’s changed a lot since the first game organized by James Creighton in 1875.

“Fighting is a player safety issue” — At first glance it’s a completely legitimate argument. Let’s face it, logically it’s tough to square concern for athletes’ well being (specifically their brains) while tolerating one of the more violent acts in the game. But players do consent to the act. I think we’re all on the same page about one-sided attacks, but when two agree to square off they tacitly accept what could potentially happen to them, no different than what players do in the sport in general. It’s an allowance of harm to be done to them. It’s a tough line for a tough sport.

“Fighting polices the game”—A claim made for decades aimed at keeping the “rats” out of the league. The history of the game is littered with players whose sole job is to agitate—Sprague Cleghorn (skate slashes, anyone?), Bob Bailey (who once rubbed snow in the face of Rocket Richard during a 1954 fight) Ken Linseman (who bit Lee Fogilin). Does it work? In some instances, yes, but considering the nature of today’s game I have a hard time believing it’s as much as the pro fighting crowd maintains.

Having said that, when the Buffalo Sabres needed a response after Milan Lucic ran over Ryan Miller, they came up with nothing other than to serve up Paul Gaustad, who got soundly thumped in a “policing” fight and bruised the collective ego of Terry Pegula’s squad. (A common sidebar lament to this argument is that the instigator penalty, introduced in 1992, made it tougher for the cops to sheriff what happens on the ice. But this is not a new penalty—referees often assessed an extra two minutes to the player who started an altercation. It was just called roughing or unsportsmanlike conduct. So please, enough crying about the instigator penalty.)

“Staged fights have nothing to do with the game” — Not true. We’ve all been to or watched games filled with violent tension even before the puck drops. It’s palpable, you can feel it. That’s where a fight between each team’s sluggers can defuse and cut that tension so the game can go on. We’ve all seen it before and to claim otherwise either indicates you’re being dishonest or haven’t watched the game long enough. However the pro fighting side has to concede that some fights, usually toward the end of the season, exist solely so the combatants can justify their contracts.

“Other contact sports, like football, don’t have fights, so why hockey?”—Hockey is a flow game, not a stop and start affair, where the players hold potential weapons in their hand while chasing around a puck, which is at their feet. (I’ve always been surprised more people haven’t considered one of the main dangers of this game is that it forces players to look down, which instantly puts them in harm’s way.) Comparing hockey to football has always seemed fraudulent to me as the only profound commonality they share is contact.

“Fighting keeps fans away from the game” — I hear this a lot from media but the question I always come back with is, “If fighting was removed would you buy a ticket?” The answer is usually no.

“Fighting hurts the growth of the game” — When we discuss the growth of hockey, we mean in the U.S., and I have a hard time buying that America wants less violence in their contact sports.

There is nothing that simultaneously evokes as much excitement and revulsion as fighting in hockey. It is its own creature, unique and controversial. And for now, the NHL will do nothing about it. But if it was taken out tomorrow, I wouldn’t leave. I wouldn’t stop enjoying the game for a second; rather just accept this is the new reality of an ever-evolving sport.

In the meantime, if this issue is going to progress the bullies on both sides need to realize that there are intelligent and thoughtful people on both sides. People who have both the players’ and the game’s best interest at heart.

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