Shawn Thornton, Boston Bruins Left Wing
Ask the opinion of any fan, player or coach about fighting in the NHL and you’re likely to receive a very passionate, unanimous answer. It’s not going anywhere.
As said by Bob Dylan, “don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” So, before I go into a passionate elaboration on why fighting will never be banned from the NHL, I want to share an eloquent, succinct quote from blogger, Brandon Keim in Why the NHL Needs Fighting. He writes, “Brawling in hockey isn’t just a cultural vestige, the elimination of which would improve the game or even protect its players. It fills a gap that rules never can. Some fighting is absolutely necessary to ensure that hockey doesn’t devolve into the Gladiator games that critics of violence already believe the sport has become.”
Hockey is as much a culture as it is a sport. Maybe it is waking up before dawn for 6AM practice. Maybe it is the parents willing to drink terrible rink-made coffee in a freezing arena. Maybe it is fans paying to see grown men wield themselves at one another in a ballerina-like elegance. Whatever the reason, hockey has evolved into a culture that appreciates a good fight as much as it does the home team putting a puck top shelf at the end of a two on one.
Despite what critics may say, fighting is not a useless display of barbaric violence, and to suggest its’ ban entirely is simply ignorant. As stated by Keim, fighting ensures something that rules cannot. It creates an unwritten code between every one involved, fans included. Hockey players have the ability to self-police, and that is something no other sport has the ability to do.
It is no secret that fights are decreasing. Just to name a few, rules like legalizing two lines passes, goalies wearing smaller equipment, and the instigator penalty have been implemented in an effort to open the ice and allow players to skate and utilize their speed rather than their fists. Here is the full list of recently added rules.
As I’ve said before, just because something is good in practice does not mean it is good in theory. These rules have created a much faster game and decreased the amount of fights. While that may sound legitimate, it has created a scarcity of enforcers. In such a physically demanding sport coaches cannot afford to have goons take up spots on their bench, which evidently leaves players with nothing to fear and as a result the game has become more dangerous.
Take a flip through the history books. Back in the day, if anyone took a run at Wayne Gretzky while he was on Edmonton, they knew they would have to answer to Dave Semenko, and that is a challenge no one with a brain would accept.
Today, if someone takes a run at Sidney Crosby, there is no price to pay. No one is afraid of Matt Cooke or whoever else is supposed to step in and protect him. As a result, Crosby, who is arguably the greatest player in the game today, was out the majority of last season after taking multiple blows to the head.
On January first in the 2011 Winter Classic, Crosby was blinded sided by David Steckel of the Washington Capitals. As if that was not bad enough, four days later Crosby was again driven into the boards headfirst by Tampa Bay Lightning defensemen, Victor Hedman. As a result of those two hits, on January 12th the Penguins announced Crosby was out of the game indefinitely. My point ladies and gentleman, is that this would never have happened to Wayne Gretzky.
There are more concussions than ever because players don’t worry about any consequences of cheap shots. Hockey is unlike any other sport in the world, largely because of the fighting factor. It creates a sense of responsibility and respect for each other, knowing if you take a run at a player, someone bigger, tougher and stronger is going to come after you. What carries more weight, the fist of a two hundred pound man and a whirlwind of disrespect, or a small fine and game suspension?
Consider the recent fight where Zac Rinaldo knocked out BJ Crombeen in what may be one of the biggest fights of the year. When asked about it after the game, both players agreed they put themselves in that situation, knowing the potential consequences. Check out the fight:
Ironically enough, that same night director Rob Zombie was at the game gathering info for his movie on the Broad Street Bullies. As stated above, fighting has a very legitimate place in hockey. It creates a code of respect between players and ultimately makes the sport a safer game. But, it is also great entertainment. Hockey is probably the only sport where directors, like Rob Zombie can create movies without drastically romanticizing the actual events. Look at Miracle, Summit Series, and even Slap Shot to an extent.
“You can’t make this stuff up.”
To reference Keim again, hockey is an intrinsically violent game. He writes, “No fewer than 158 National Hockey League players — slightly more than one of every five in the league — are injured. The vast majority of their injuries were not incurred in fights. Even if basic physical contact intrinsic to the sport were somehow removed, the game would remain a dangerous one, played by large, powerful and hyper-competitive men moving extremely fast in a confined space.”
To be a hockey fan, you are not only willing, but eager to witness grown men risk their well-being for the sake of entertainment. The same goes for nearly every other competitive sport in existence. Why, then, should intentional fighting be any different? Should hoarse racing be banned because a jockey gets knocked off his hoarse? Should college basketball be banned when a player takes a swing at another player after the whistle? Should the Super Bowl not be broadcasted because of helmet to helmet hits? The answer is no.
To a critic who wants to ban fighting on the grounds of safety, you are wrong. Fighting, converse to a naïve opinion, makes hockey a safer game. To a critic who wants to ban hockey on the grounds of making it less barbaric, you are again, wrong. If you dislike physical play, you have no business being in a hockey rink in the first place.