The National Hockey League tolerates (to a degree) something that no other professional sport will even slightly condone — fighting.
NHL fighting has been a yearly debate at the end of each season, and it seems that each season it gets completely glossed over or paid some lip service or perhaps given a slight rule change which does nothing to really discourage the practice.
Like many fans, I tend to get a rush out of watching a couple of burly gents knock the snot out of each other, but that’s purely the primal part of my brain speaking to me.
The advanced mammalian portion of my brain says that there just isn’t a place for fighting in a sport that has grown in popularity so much, and in a league that has finally begun to recover from the seemingly endless P.R. blunders and work stoppages that keep everything stalled.
Look, I get it. These guys are skating at top speed, slamming into one another (or some plexiglass) and hooking and slicing at each other with sharpened wooden implements. It has to be easy to get pissed-off in those circumstances and want to nut up.
But it doesn’t mean they should.
The arguments against “allowing” fighting in the NHL are age-old. Poor sportsmanship. Sets a poor example for young viewers. Hurts the legitimacy of the game. Dangerous to the participants. On and on and on, all these perfectly logical objections have been deflected time and again by one simple phrase.
“It’s part of the game.”
Hey, news flash guys – clotheslining and intentional headshots were once a part of the NFL. I don’t see the game suffering without them.
It’s time for the NHL to learn from the example of the NFL and begin to make some rule changes that will discourage players from even thinking about dropping the gloves and doing the almighty sweater-dance.
The NFL has, year by year, made changes to their rulebook to ensure the safety of players, eliminating certain type of hits and tackles, and levying strict penalties and fines for breaking these rules. Yes, there’s been pushback from the fans, and more than a fair amount of rotten tomatoes being tossed in Roger Goodell’s direction, but the league hasn’t suffered in terms of popularity or revenue.
All NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (who is already a rotten tomato connoisseur) has to do is begin implementing some sweeping changes to eliminate fighting, and we’d see it practically disappear, once and for all.
However, this is the same Gary Bettman who said in an interview with Sports Illustrated that fighting is the “thermostat” that helps cool things down when tensions run high. The same Gary Bettman who said (in the same interview) that “I’d rather them be punching each other than swinging sticks at each other.”
Typical Bettman logic.
Now I’m not under the illusion that there is any way to completely eliminate fighting from the league. That would be a ridiculous expectation. Bench-clearing brawls still happen in baseball and basketball, and guys on the football field still (stupidly) punch each other in the helmet.
(What’s with that anyway NFL guys? Do you really think you can do any damage by flinging your taped and gloved hand a a piece of hardened polycarbonate and graphite? But, I digress.)
The point is that the right penalties and/or fines would dissuade fighting to the point where it would actually become news when two players threw caution, a few game checks, and a suspension to the wind for less than 30 seconds of sweater-tugging and air-punching that make the worst wrestling match look like UFC bout.
It’s all about making it “worth it” to the players. A few minutes in the penalty box? A small fine? Totally worth attempting to maim the other guy.
But lose a fat sum of cash and the opportunity to play for a game or two. Most players – even the ones not invited to MENSA meetings – would think twice.
But it’s tough to change a culture. Fans love the enforcers…the tough guys…the (outdated term) goons. Yeah, goal scoring is wonderful, and goalies repelling pucks like they were harnessing their midichlorians is important…but the Jeff Beukeboom, Tie Domi, Dale Hunter and Stu Grimson types are always going to have their followers and fans egging them on.
Even many of the players get agitated when you talk about trying to eliminate fighting from the game.
“I hate that it’s even being talked about,” St. Louis Blues center Steve Ott told the Hockey News. “It’s absolutely ridiculous that even the notion of fighting being taken out. What a terrible mindset.”
(Tries to look up where terrible had become a synonym for sane)
“It’s part of the game. It always has (been), and I think it always will be,” Ottawa Senators forward Chris Neil said.
See what I mean? There’s that phrase again.
Don’t misunderstand. This isn’t a terrible issue in the league at this moment, at least not like it was 40 years ago when fighting was becoming the norm, and the league was losing credibility and viewership. The Paul Newman classic film Slap Shot was nothing more than a Hollywood lampoon of how bad things had gotten in professional hockey at that time.
Even the fictional Hanson Brothers from the film, portrayed by Dave Hanson, Steve Carlson and Jeff Carlson (who did play hockey and whose characters were loosely based on the real life Carlson Brothers) have a place in their hearts for “old time hockey” and fighting:
Just the same, it is an issue, and it has to be addressed…not just waved over with all the enthusiasm of a golf clap.
But herein lies the problem. Even if commissioner Bettman were on board with trying to make this happen, the hurdle of getting the NHLPA to approve such rule changes would be insanely difficult. This is a union who took forever just to grandfather in the mandatory use of protective visors.
So what’s the answer? Game ejections? Suspensions? Bigger Fines? The Marquess of Queensberry rules?
Yes, Yes, Yes…and, well why not?
It doesn’t really matter what the consequences of fighting become, as long as there are consequences severe enough that it will make a player stop and think about it.
Make the penalties worse for instigators, and even more severe if there is an injury as a result of the fight. Do something…anything Mr. Bettman.
No, it wouldn’t be easy, but it still needs to be pushed along a little more than it has been.
NHL fighting. It’s part of the game, but it doesn’t have to be, and – more importantly – doesn’t need to be. The sport is better than that. The league is better than that. And fans deserve a product that doesn’t include regular acts of stupidity that bring nothing positive to the game.