Friday, March 13, 2009

Punishing the Pugilists

Over the past few months, there have been a few injuries during fights, and one death. Hockey is frequently criticized for being too brutal. It is the only sport of the Major 4 (Baseball, Basketball, and Football being the three others) where players literally drop the gloves and fight like two kids in the street. The critics say this pugilism is seen as unnecessary and distracting from the overall product that the NHL can offer. Those who promote fighting say it's the best way for teams to police each other in what is a very aggressive and physical game; it keeps away the cheap shots and makes antagonists, such as Sean Avery and our own Corey Perry, accountable on the ice. So where do you stand on this issue, Arthur? Is fighting too dangerous and does it take away from the on-ice product?

For the benefit of our readers, I'll just point out that the rule approved at the GM meeting this week was for the NHL to institute a 10-minute misconduct for 'staged fights,' and for the referees to enforce the Instigator Rule more vigorously with respect to fights that start as immediate retaliation for legal hits i.e. an enforcer starting a fight every time he objects to a bodycheck. According to the CBA, these recommendations will have to be approved by the NHL and NHLPA.

Now, I've often heard Michael Wilbon from PTI say that there's no fighting in the Olympics, so clearly the NHL can survive without fighting in its product. That's the common argument of anyone who doesn't really watch or understand NHL hockey. They don't understand that fighting isn't part of the "culture" of hockey; it's part of the basic gameplay of hockey.
Functionally, the only way to get rid of fighting is to get rid of serious hitting. That's the only way that makes any kind of sense and actually approaches the other playable forms of hockey. You can't ask the referees to catch every penalty, and you can't ask every player who has a 5'9" 150lb teammate to look the other way. You'd just have to put a ban on hitting.

Now, people might argue that the NFL survives with hitting and without fighting, but that's not true. The NFL survives with hitting AND rules. Plays don't last that long in football, and each official monitors the amount of physical contact at each level of the game for the dozen or so seconds between whistles. It would be impossible to duplicate that degree of attention when officiating a hockey game. Doug Flutie was allowed to play in the NFL because of rules that protected him-- if you were allowed to hit a quarterback late in the pocket, you'd better believe there'd be fighting in the NFL. Real hitting without fighting basically forces every small and skilled hockey player into retirement, if not the funeral home.

Yes, there's checking in the Olympics, but that's a short tournament. The Stanley Cup is hockey's world championship because the NHL says, 'we're gonna stuff you in a smaller rink, you're gonna chase down every iced puck, you're gonna play a basketball season and four seven-game playoff series of the most physical game you've ever experienced-- good luck.' Every season is a war of attrition.

Don't get me wrong, though. I don't have anything against a less physical brand of hockey. The NHL has worked hard after the Lockout to create a game that emphasizes skating ability and positioning, the cornerstones of the European style of play. But at the professional level, some physical conditioning should be required. Maybe it's archaic, but that's what we demand of professional athletes, to show some physical ability. The NHL has always done that by allowing its players to meet each other at the absolute limit of acceptable physical play and then to police each other when the line is crossed. Without fighting, their product is the hockey equivalent of professional flag football.

As far as the danger in fighting, it's always hard to say that something is dangerous when it's been going on for hundreds of years. Nothing makes fighting more dangerous now than it ever was. I will say that the fight this season between Ryan Carter and Ole Tollefson was dangerous. Carter didn't know what he was doing; he was just trying to keep his job. Then he falls on top of Tollefson, whose head smacks against the ice. A fight is always dangerous if one guy doesn't know what he's doing, but maybe something as simple as a collar extension (like what linebackers wear) could fix that.

First, I'll be honest and say I enjoy fighting. I think it's one of the things that makes hockey tougher than other sports and I think that's a good thing. I think it creates an honor system. Let me use one of your favorite examples, Arthur, the Avalanche of the late '90s and early 2000s. They refused to fight and ultimately created situations that were almost dangerous for the teams they played against because the Avalanche became those pests we talk about in this argument who seem to take an unlimited amount of cheap shots, but it was also dangerous for them, because it probably led to the Bertuzzi-Moore incident. Fighting makes teams accountable to each other.

While I agree that maybe there's a safer way to do this, I think it's most important to make sure that the players stick to the honor code. If the league becomes stricter on Instigator penalties and keeps a better eye on cheap shots I think fighting is fine. But as you pointed out, the bigger problem might be people who don't know HOW to fight getting into fights. I recall a fight on Sportscenter not too long ago where a player had his sweater over his head and the other fighter called in the linesman to break up the fight so as to not injure the other player. This is the approach we need to fighting. Players, and fans alike, need to see fighting as a part of the game and a skill that needs work. Maybe not practice among teammates, but at least some sort of discussion on the dos and don'ts of fighting.

A follow up to this post is available here.

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