On Fighting in the NHL: A Response to Wendy Parker

Sports journalist and web editor Wendy Parker wrote an insightful post on the recent spate of deaths of NHL players. As I talked about here, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak all passed away over the summer, through OD, suicide or “accidental death,” respectively. And all three would be considered “enforcers” were they still playing. Parker’s blog reviewed the similarities in the three men and wondered how hockey would be different without fighting (I’m paraphrasing badly; go read her post). She said she isn’t much of a hockey fan, and solicited opinions from her readers. I am a hockey lover who happens to live in the same town as Wendy, and here is my reply to her:

The tl;dr answer is:

It’s ridiculous for the NHL to focus time and energy on how to prevent concussions while still allowing guys to punch each other in the head.

That being said, is this in my Top 5 All-Time Favorite Thrashers Moments?

Yes.

The full answer is:

There are two things that get fans out of their seats at hockey games: goals and fights. Fans love fights; players respond to them, and the are as much a part of hockey as is ice itself.

But it doesn’t have to be.

There was a time when goalies didn’t wear masks.

A time when players didn’t wear helmets.

Though not required in the NHL, visors are mandatory in the AHL and ECHL (minor leagues). It’s likely only a matter of time before such a mandate reaches the top level of the sport.

The game evolves, rules change, players adapt. Hockey did not become a contact-free sport once players started wearing helmets. As rules are enacted to prevent checks to the head, players will find a way to remain physical without targeting each others’ noggins.

Yet fighting remains. Is it only because no one has the guts to make the call to get rid of it? In today’s NHL, as the role of the pure enforcer is diminished if not completely eliminated (via SI article; no link yet), why is intentionally bashing another guy’s face ok? Because that’s how it’s always been?

It doesn’t have to stay that way, and it shouldn’t. The boys know now. They know what is happening to their brains; they’ve seen now what devastation is possible if the dangers of the enforcers’ lifestyle – that uber-tough, willing-to-do-anything-even-get-beat-up, pop-a-painkiller-to-get-through attitude -  get into a toxic mix with degenerative brain disease.

It’s time for the NHL to take more action against hits to the head. Eliminate the loopholes in Rule 48. There’s no reason any hit to the head should be tolerated. A player doesn’t need to get his hands up around another guy’s face to finish a check. Player A might see Player B out of the corner of his eye, but that’s not going to stop his brain from ricocheting around his skull if Player B’s shoulder snaps the other guy’s head back. The rules can be changed and players will adapt. See: hooking, pre-lockout.

But what about fighting? It will stay. Why?

Because, for now, it’s too hard to remove it from the game. We’re talking about a sport where guys push and shove each other after virtually every. single. play. stops. There’s so much testosterone out on the ice it’s a wonder Johnathan Toews can’t just grow a mustache via osmosis (ok, that was obtuse, I admit). It’s ingrained in them, and in the sport itself. Removing it is not a blanket-rule, single-season project.

And the NHL must take ownership of the absurdity of not establishing rules to get rid of fighting. “Yeeees, we realize it’s completely duplicitous to ban head shots while still allowing guys to pummel each other in the face. We’re working on it.*”

Eliminating fighting is up to the players.

It’s up to them to clean up their game and to learn to protect themselves. It’s their mandate to decide when fighting is really necessary (ever?). Is fighting worth the risk of facial fractures just because some guy skated too close to your goalie? Might want to ask Rick DiPietro. Is it worth the potential injury to try to spark your team? Might want to ask Max Talbot (or maybe not).

After all, it’s the boys who decide when to drop the gloves. Now that they know what’s happening to their brains, will they?

I think fighting will always be a part of hockey. And there will always be fans who go to games because they love to see fights.

That enjoyment should be tempered now with the loss of three guys who loved to play the game. There’s no need to be sad all the time when their former teams play. But no one – players, coaches, front offices and fans alike – should forget the hard lessons we’ve learned with these tragedies.

—–

*(I suggest the NHL enact a rule where fighting is allowed, but they all have to be in the style of Alexander Semin. No one would ever fight again.)

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