FIGHTING: WHAT COST TRADITION?

Is it time for the NHL to eliminate fighting?

I’ve heard that question asked 100 times if I’ve heard it once in the last 28 years or so writing about hockey for a living, and I’ve always had the same reaction. I’d look at the Goody Two Shoes asking it like they were some sort of drooling fool, scowl or roll my eyes and say, "Hell, no." Quite often, followed by a barely audible, "Sissy."

When somebody raises the topic or poses the question now, I find I’m not reacting the same way. I’m not sure when my opinion on bare-knuckles fighting changed, and I’m not certain exactly how far it’s shifted, but the question no longer offends me.

I don’t see the possibility of taking the act of "dropping the gloves" out of hockey as some sort of sacrilegious assault on the integrity of the game. I don’t perceive posing the question as a misplaced bit do-good-ism, as a query to be dismissed off-hand because it clashes, rather mightily in my particular case, with the way I’ve always viewed fisticuffs.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m now of the opinion it’s a question that is at least worth asking, even if some of you out there are bound to roll your eyes and utter, "Sissy."

TIMES CHANGE

When people used to raise the issue of fighting, I’d say," It’s part of the game." It seemed like a handy default answer. Hockey players have been punching each other senseless since the first puck hit the ice, so, in that regard, yes, it’s part of the game.

Then again, having goaltenders play bare-faced was once part of the game. I’m old enough to remember it. If you’re in your 20s or even 30s, think about that. Goaltenders used to face shooters bare-faced — slap shots, screened shots. Pile-ups in the crease, skate blades, sticks. Now, if a goaltender loses his mask, the referee blows the whistle.

Having players play without helmets was once part of the game. I used to figure that was a personal choice by players and so did the NHL — use of helmets was grandfathered in and bare-headed players, Craig MacTavish was the last, disappeared. A bad thing?

Take something as basic as the netting required in the end zone of rinks to protect fans from wayward pucks. After 13-year-old Britannie Cecil died after being struck in the head by a puck in a game between the Blue Jackets and Calgary Flames in March 2002, the NHL mandated safety netting would be installed in rinks. There was great debate.

"Netting? We won’t be able to see" or "You can’t put netting in. We’ve never had netting." A young girl died but there was still debate. Do we give netting a thought now?

Times change. And when people are permanently injured or even killed because of what we do and how we do it, even allowing for reasonable risks that are inherent in a game like hockey, they should.

PART OF THE GAME

I don’t like what doctors found when they looked at Bob Probert’s brain. I’m uncomfortable Raitis Ivanans hasn’t played a game since a Steve MacIntyre punch dropped him like he’d been shot in the head. There was a time when I wouldn’t have given the brain injuries suffered by Probert and Ivanans a second throught. Part of the job.

Framed in what we’re learning about brain injuries suffered by athletes and the long-term effects of those injuries, I’m wondering if we should take another look at what we consider "part of the game."

I’m conflicted about that. I’ve always felt something of a kinship with hockey tough guys, players who take up that last spot or two on a roster because they’re willing to bend noses and kick ass, to take care of business and ride shotgun, to put themselves in harm’s way.

Guys like Rudy Poeschek, the toughest player I have ever known, and Georges Laraque, a sweetheart away from the rink who I know well and spent many years on the road with. All the hammers, really.

I admire them and always have. Now, I fear for them, well-paid for being ruffians or not.

SECOND THOUGHTS

This isn’t knee-jerk stuff for me. As long-time readers at Oilersnation know, I did the tough guy gig as a lacrosse player. I scrapped some as a hockey player. I had boxing gloves and a heavy bag hanging in my garage from the time I was 13 years old.

I was a big kid — six-foot-two and about 205 pounds by the time I was 14. I liked to fight. I got my ass kicked more times than I remember because of it. Concussions? I don’t know how many. Too many.

It was part of the game and it was my job and a way to be a part of the team. I did it until I got tired of getting beat up and hurting all the time. I got sick of seeing my mom with tears in her eyes because I’d busted my nose or a knuckle again or had punched out another kid. It was not part of the game for her.

Those days long gone, I still enjoyed fighting. I had all the fight tapes in the old VCR days. Later, I had all of the fight websites bookmarked on my computer. I’ve watched Poeschek and Craig Berube pound each other 1,000 times. Trevor Senn? Look him up. The arrival of YouTube? There’s a smorgasbord of mayhem. Great stuff, right?

HERE WE ARE

We didn’t know then — especially going back to when I was 15 or 25 or even 35 — what we know now, what the medical evidence is telling us about brain injuries. About what happens to the players who bring the crowd to their feet when the gloves hit the ice.

So, if the NHL is taking steps to reduce the number of concussions its players sustain by eliminating headshots from the game, how long can it allow players to drop their gloves and punch each other because "it’s part of the game." Because it entertains us?

I know the numbers in recent NHL studies on concussions — Mark Spector at Sportsnet, among others, has written some compelling stuff on this — show fighting isn’t nearly the biggest culprit when it comes to brain injuries. Cheap stuff like Matt Cooke got suspended for and legal hits during the course of a game account for many more.

That said, based on what we know now, how many brain injuries are OK? What’s the number? If the NHL is finds it unacceptable for a player to target the head of another player with a shoulder or an elbow, how much longer can it accept that doing it with a fist is part of the game? I don’t have the answer.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

  • Chris.

    I’m not so concerned about fighting in hockey. However the only professional leagues (and junior) where it is even tolerated is here in North America. No big deal one way or the other for me.
    I dont even think the NHL needs to rule on head shots – there are rules already that take care of this. You want to stop the Matt Cooke’s of the world from the kind of crap he pulls? Then get rid of the armour these guys wear today. Mark Messier didn’t take a run at a guy with his elbows up covered by anything more than a little leather. The shoulder pads a wee tiny plastic cup on the top of a bunch of cotton stuffed padding. The equipment has had a way bigger impact on the lack of respect players show one another. If you were gonna through that elbow or blindside shoulder to the head, you would have to deal with the consequences…now they dont even feel anything.

  • Oilers21

    The 2 comments I take issue with that you hear way too much are “X is part of the game, you can’t take it out” and “players have lost respect for each other”. These points just dissolve under any sort of scrutiny. If we couldn’t change hockey because things are “part of the game” we would still be playing with a rover and no forward passing. There would be no glass along the boards and no one would wear helmets. I could go on forever. To say that fighting is “part of the game” and shouldn’t be removed for that reason is just ridiculous. Likewise the point “players have lost respect for each other”. Just watch any game from the 70s and prior. Where was the respect when Dale Rolfe was beaten so badly by Dave Schultz that his teammates were afraid to come to his rescue? Where was the respect when Rick Jodzio pummelled Marc Tardif with both fists while Tardif lay unconscious on the ice? It may seem I’m pointing to specific isolated cases from the past but anyone who watched hockey from the ’70s would know that’s not the case. Not saying that there aren’t players that don’t respect each other, but I just can’t believe that all of a sudden players “lost” some sort of mythical respect that they all used to have for each other.

  • Chris.

    I agree. Call penalties that are slashes, cross checks(even in front of the net), hits from behind, elbows . Like in football, make it a penalty for a late hit (2 seconds after the puck is gone). The league now calls all these cheap hooking calls, even if appears you reach in with the stick. But a guy can take a nasty cross check from behind in front of the net and it is not called. Less fights will occur if the league takes action on the crap. Let the emotional fights still go.

    NHL hockey is in trouble. Too many teams, too many marginal players, no consistent discipline. When it is about economics and markets and not about product, the game will suffer.

  • Chris.

    I would like to point out that there are at lot of jobs out there were the rate of permanent injury or death is a lot higher than hockey and those professions do not make anywhere near as much money as hockey players.

    Also I think that some of this has to go back to the players. A fight doesn’t have to be nasty. You don’t have to swing so hard that you know if you connect your breaking bones. Or if you notice the opponent is cut open then that’s where the fight should stop. Maybe an appropriate course of action would be: if a player is injured in a fight, the fighter causing the injury will be suspended until the injured player is healthy enough be back in the line up.

  • kawi460

    I remember in jr b they put cages on players….. this caused a lot more of trash talk and stick play, a couple of years later they went to visors and there have been less cheap shots, and trash talking as players don’t want to get in a fight or get a glove in the face.

    IMO fights belong in the game for several reasons, to police the game and for momentum changes to name a few,

    good read

  • kawi460

    Oh I cannot wait until next season when we can actually hope to talk hockey rather than having to read this endless navel gazing about too much fighting, how awful about Proberts brain, ummm Charlie Sheen is crazy, too many head hits etc etc…it has been too f***ing long since we could actually write long exhaustive reports on our first round opponents and what line match-ups we would do,do you remember the great Dallas battles?,even as we knew we were doomed still we had hope….too f***ing long. We have to get in next year or we will self-destruct.