• The End of Fighting in the NHL

    by  • June 22, 2012 • Features, Hockey, Mike Spry • 0 Comments

    Let me clear up something before we get started, so that I don’t get called a commie, or a pansy, or a Mary, or a Leafs fan. I like a good hockey fight. I have stood on my chair in the middle of a crowded bar, frothing with bloodlust, and cheered for the savage beating a man, a father, a husband, a son, a boy, a child of the tainted culture that is the NHL. I have done this willingly, with neither fear nor regret. But I also like drinking too much whiskey, telling ecru lies, minor thieving, watching Mark Ruffalo romcoms, and on occasion putting on a dainty skirt and being called Jolene. Not all at once, but on occasion. Christmas. Arbour Day. Wednesday. These things are not good for me in mass quantity, but in controlled moderation, as a superfluous and benign addition to my days they are not the self-destructive vices they appear, but rather the willing flaws of the complexity that is life. And they’re not important to me (well, except whiskey), they don’t define me, and should tomorrow come, and my therapists were to tell me that my life would be infinitely better should I, could I, give up Jack Daniels afternoons skipping work watching Just Like Heaven in an ex-girlfriend’s pilfered bubble dress, then I would. In an instant. And this is how I feel about fighting in hockey. The sport would be infinitely better in its absence. Fighting is hockey’s unnecessary vice, its frilly skirt, preventing it from fulfilling its promise.

    Those who believe fighting is a part of the game usually have their argument taken apart with surprising simplicity. First, it’s not part of the game, just as hooking, spearing, biting, racially abusing a player, and taking off your skate and stabbing an opponent aren’t part of the game. Fighting is penalized, and not only is it penalized, but it’s a major penalty, a title alone that argues it is not part of the game.

    The pro-fighting lobby further advocates that fighting is needed so that the game can be policed by the players. If someone can go ahead and show me any example not just in sport but in recorded human existence where self-policing has proved an admirable and successful tool, I’d greatly appreciate it. I believe my first-year sociology prof referred to this as anarchy, and though an intriguing study it is inherently flawed. Libertarians make poor commissioners.

    The most frustrating argument is the one that the NHL seems to quietly hold onto with a desperate and misguided fervor, and that is fighting as entertainment. They show video of players embroiled in fisticuffs being cheered on by rowdy crowds from LA to Montreal, from Miami to Vancouver, and all arenas in between. The problem I see here is that you put twenty thousand people in a room and feed them Coors Light and synthetic cheese, they’ll cheer for pretty much anything. (See: back, Nickle.)

    My issue is not so much my distaste for fighting. I come from a military family. My grandfather was liberating Holland when Don Cherry was still sucking at his mother’s teat. I understand the role of violence. I just can no longer understand it as part of a game I love, a game whose speed and grace is unparalleled in sport. There was an era, however brief, when those who fought could also contribute with skill. They could pot a few goals. They could skate. They could kill penalties, and not just other players. But in today’s game, the fighter has become simply the enforcer, and their role seems to be to insult the game, to rob it of its beauty, its dignity, in the name of cronyism and an NHL leadership that lacks ambition.

    Consider the top ten fighting major leaders from the 2011-12 NHL season. Their statistics suggest that they not just lack skill, but are a disservice to their teams.

    Player

    Games

    Fighting Majors*

    PIM

    +/-

    Points

    Ice Time/Game

    Brandon Prust

    82

    20

    156

    -1

    17

    11:56

    Shawn Thornton

    81

    20

    154

    -11

    13

    9:10

    Derek Dorsett

    77

    19

    235

    -11

    20

    14:41

    Jared Boll

    54

    18

    126

    -8

    3

    8:07

    Zenon Konopka

    55

    18

    193

    -4

    5

    7:50

    Cody McLeod

    75

    17

    164

    0

    11

    7:11

    Matt Martin

    80

    15

    121

    -17

    14

    12:09

    Zac Rinaldo

    66

    15

    232

    -1

    9

    7:28

    Brad Staubitz

    62

    15

    121

    -5

    1

    6:31

    Tim Jackman

    75

    14

    94

    -21

    7

    9:07

    82 Game Average***

    82

    20

    185

    -9

    12

    7:59

         * source: HockeyFights.com

      ** all other statistics from NHL.com

    *** rounded up

     

    So, when a GM is approaching the trade deadline, and is looking to add those important pieces for a playoff run, does he call up his counterparts and say, “I’m looking for a player who can handle 8 minutes a game on the ice, and in that time put us down a man for 2. Oh, and make sure he can’t score or is a defensive liability.” While those players are seemingly a dime a dozen, they do not a championship team make. Interesting to note that six of the above ten played for teams that did not make the playoffs. So, why is fighting and important part of the game? Simple: it isn’t. If anything, it’s a hindrance to a team’s success.

    This weekend is the NHL’s entry draft, a date in the hockey calendar when all teams are tied for first, and anything is possible. (Except the Leafs, who are in 12th and have no hope.)  When teams gather on the draft floor in Pittsburgh, with the tireless work of their scouts spread out before them, what are they looking for? Often, you hear teams are prepared to take the best player available or the player that fits their needs, both immediately and in future seasons. The Edmonton Oilers are on the board, and their weighing the option of a smallish but dynamic and offensively gifted winger in Nail Yakupov or a puck moving defenceman the so desperately need to compliment their core of young forwards in Ryan Murray. It’s a tough choice, but what Yakupov and Murray have in common is that their skills compliment the game. Puck movement, creativity, offense, excitement.

    You know what you never hear on the draft floor, or in the war rooms? A GM or Director of Amateur Scouting saying what their franchise is really in need of is “a forward with limited offensive skill who doesn’t mind sitting on the bench or in the press box most the season, and who isn’t afraid to cut another guy in the mouth, or take a few punches to the head, risking concussion and post-career depression.” But, you know, he’ll have character and grit and sandpaper and truculence. And why don’t you hear such a statement. Because fighting is superfluous. It’s unnecessary. And when the brain trusts of NHL franchises are huddled together, the weight of their teams, their jobs, their families on their shoulders, they search for players whose natural abilities, their God given talents, are not born of violence and desperation, but rather of grace, of an elevation of our youthful reverie, of being able to do things on the that as children, as adults, as fans, we dream about.

    Hockey is an exercise in contradictions, of opposing forces. The USSR versus Canada. Ice versus steel. Offense versus defense. Boards versus bodies. Newton versus the immovable object. Realistically, the chances of fighting being taken out of the game are about the same as Windsor Spitfire forward, and the OHL’s 2011-12 fighting major leader with a whopping 37 bouts (5 points, 221 PIM, -11) Ty Bilcke going first overall in this weekend’s draft, or being drafted at all really. And that’s unfortunate. Hockey has always been its own worst enemy, and much like my affection for whiskey and 13 Going on 30, it seems sadly content with its faults. The time has come for the game to be ambitious about its future, and a move away from fighting, perhaps at first with larger penalties and repercussions, would open up the game again, would allow undersized yet skilled players to be fearless in their play, their creative instincts again allowed to skate free as it did when they first found their love for the game, and the game found its love for them.

    About

    Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others. He is the author of JACK (Snare Books, 2008), which was shortlisted for the 2009 Quebec Writers’ Federation A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry, and he was longlisted for the 2010 Journey Prize. The short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011) was shortlisted for the 2012 ReLit Award. He lives in Wakefield, Quebec. His most recent work is the poetry collection Bourbon & Eventide from Invisible Publishing.

    http://www.mikespry.org

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