A Crisis of Conscience?

(Relevant part starts at 3:50)

It’s summertime and I want to get all philosophical and heavy up in here.

I know I am not exactly breaking new ground by bringing up the topic of violence in hockey but it is one that is surely not going away any time soon and I am especially curious to hear some opinions from you folks.

I just want a quick sampling of opinion to the question, do you believe that the NHL has a moral responsibility to remove fighting from the game?

Let me explain why I am even asking this question. Last week, I was lucky enough to attend a conference (with generous help from my university) in Brazil to give a paper related to my master’s research.

I will spare you the boring details of the paper itself but basically my talk addressed the history of violence in hockey. It was a great experience: I ate some chicken hearts, chocolate churros, and tried to explain Don Cherry to some Brits. More importantly than churros, the conference led to some great discussion that I wanted to continue when I got back to Calgary.


The discussion that followed was centered around a perceived moral problem facing the NHL as a whole.This ‘crisis of conscience,’ as I perceive it, is that professional hockey in North America, and more precisely the National Hockey League, has taken many unprecedented steps to address the spectre of the long term effects of head trauma to its players.

In doing so, the National Hockey League has both acknowledged the danger that concussions pose to players while simultaneously allowing fighting to remain a component of their business and their professional brand. How, in good conscience, can the NHL maintain this dualism? My paper sought to analyze the precedent for this institutionalized disjuncture through examining the history of hockey’s institutions and violence.

However, I am not here to pontificate, if you are bored and want to find out what my paper was about, ask me in the comments and I’ll email you and we can have a lovely chat.I am here on Flamesnation because I want to see what hockey fans think about this issue.At the conference, the vast majority of the attendees were from the UK and USA and very few had familiarity with hockey. Their responses and questions to me struck me as different from what I would expect from a more hockey-savvy audience.   

For example, one retired professor from Northeastern University told me that the fighting he saw in the 60s and 70s turned him off the game completely. This strikes me as an extreme case but it got me wondering just how different the context would be if I framed this discussion in Canada.

Recently, at an Enmax leadership talk, Brian Burke mentioned fighting in hockey contributed a great deal to the entertainment value of the game. If the NHL knows the long-term effects of head trauma (i.e CTE), then, aside from the more obvious legal responsibility that will be fought out in the courts over the next little while, does the NHL have a moral responsibility to do something? What role should the players association play in this discussion? 

Spill, I want to hear what you guys think.

  • RexLibris

    *rubs hands together*

    Academic discussion of the moral and ethical grounds involved with aggression inherent in the sport of hockey.

    Love it.

    On the topic at hand, I have suggested in the past that fighting is an unfortunate and necessary evil within the game because the sport itself is imperfectly enforced.

    If cheap shots were appropriately penalized, and the so-called “taking of liberties” upon smaller skilled players could be enforced in a manner that did not involve sending a hypothalamically-challenged (made that up) athlete against the perceived offender, then the reason for fighting ought to, over time, evaporate.

    Instead, when a player like Zack Kassian can willfully swing his stick and break another player’s jaw, he is sentenced to sit out five games while the injured party is forced to undergo surgery and rehab a serious injury that sidelines him for several months. Invariably, “justice” is demanded and the proverbial pound of flesh is sought. The end result can be, and has been, catastrophic.

    I don’t like the comparison of sport with the “real world” but an event like this happening under “civilian” circumstances results in a criminal record and time served in a federal facility. Presumably, then, the penalty ought to be more severe than a fraction of a full season. Even if sport is only a vague reflection of society, a drama of opposition and aggression played out in manufactured circumstance where the end result is unknown and can only be decided by the effort, skill, and luck of those directly involved in the process, there must still exist some element of the expectations of civil society.

    Comparisons to gladiatorial games are complete hogwash. That nearly two millenia ago and our civilization bears only passing resemblance to that of even late-Imperial Rome. Those who choose to rest their arguments on that example are woefully mistaken and grasping at half-truths and anachronistic facts which have no bearing on the present-day.

    Getting back to the NHL though, it is incumbent upon the league to work towards reducing the chance of career-ending, and potentially life-threatening, injury in the course of playing the game.

    Obviously there is an element of implied, and to a degree informed, consent that takes place when a person chooses to become a professional athlete in a contact sport. However, this is moderated by the general principle of providing a safe workplace for athletes whose financial incentive is to provide productive entertainment to the paying customer, specifically, to play the game in a measure of skill to the best of their abilities, be it speed, skating, scoring, defensive prowess, passing, blocking shots, goaltending, or so on.

    If a player’s skill is to do damage to an opponent then it would appear to be in the best interest of the league and it’s member teams to limit the impact of those players on the overall presence of the game and its other participants.

    I’ve always felt that playing hockey “with an edge” was the art of hitting to hurt your opponent without injuring them. In the same way a friend (or perhaps more appropriately for some, older brother) could playfully punch you in the shoulder so as to hurt you, but with no intention of causing real damage. It is a small but important distinction.

    If the league can find a balance in enforcement that eliminates intent to injure from the oft-cited “hockey play” that results from large bodies colliding within an enclosed space in an effort to possess the puck and score goals, then presumably fighting could gradually be phased out.

    I believe that fighting is largely a symptom of circumstance. Banning fighting likely only results in inflaming other symptoms of that circumstance. Treat the underlying causes and fighting should become a rarity.

    With regards to fighting being a tradition within the sport, this is a red-herring argument. Helmets were introduced for player safety, against the tradition of the sport. As were composite sticks, improved (debatable) player padding, and a host of other developments within the game. All designed around player safety, improved performance of athletes, and an enhanced entertainment product.

    If fighting eventually leaves the game, will there be an exodus of fans as well? Unlikely, as it is highly improbable that the change would be immediate and during the interim fans would either adapt or gradually leave the game for other sports that pique their interest. Does that mean that it is a zero-sum game where the NHL must choose between retaining fans or making moves to eliminate fighting? No. As you mention in your article, one fan left the game because of fighting, so presumably, were fighting to eventually be more or less removed from the sport then fans like the one mentioned would either return or in future retain their interest.

    My own experiences with questioning fighting usually occurs in junior games. A collection of players whose age can range from 15 to 20 years old, and where a number of players use physical intimidation as a principal method of attracting the attention of scouts, presumably to enhance their skill set which may be lacking, just cannot be justified.

    I’ve watched a 200lb, 6’5″ 19 year old engage a much smaller 17 year old in a fight in a meaningless game, where the smaller player was essentially forced to fight because he was, despite his size, typecast as the “enforcer” on his team. Needless to say he left the ice bloodied and beaten.

    And the response that this experience somehow makes him a better hockey player or that it is justified by his predecessors having experienced the same at some time in the past holds absolutely no weight. That logical fallacy has been used in various arguments of social progression and never stands up to objective ethical scrutiny.

    Hockey is a fast, emotional game where the players are larger and more heavily protected than they have been at any time in the game’s history. Collisions happen, injuries occur, careers end prematurely. The league should have enough faith in their sport and the talent they employ not to fear mitigating the exciting chaos that is the calling card of the game by attempting to eliminate the circumstantial violence that can accompany it. Enforcement is key, and once that is more stringently applied, I suspect the sport will develop into something more beautiful than it is today.

    • “Hockey is a fast, emotional game where the players are larger and more heavily protected than they have been at any time in the game’s history. Collisions happen, injuries occur, careers end prematurely. The league should have enough faith in their sport and the talent they employ not to fear mitigating the exciting chaos that is the calling card of the game by attempting to eliminate the circumstantial violence that can accompany it. Enforcement is key, and once that is more stringently applied, I suspect the sport will develop into something more beautiful than it is today.”

      Do you think that the sport will develop if the rules stay the same? Or do you think rule changes in some fashion are needed?

      • RexLibris

        I think the rules need to be amended in the finer details the way obstruction rules were always on the books, but following the 2005 lockout they were interpreted and enforced more effectively.

        Also, I think the league needs to make a decision and, most importantly, the PA needs to pick a side when handing down suspensions for violent behaviour and plays with intent to injure (the source, in my view, of much of the impetus towards fighting in the league today).

        The NHL and NHLPA need to decide whether to prioritize the safety of players or the oft-cited financial considerations and “rights of the accused”. Too often the injured player is shunted aside in the discussions that come from the league and PA, with a focus instead on the protests by the offending player’s employer and the PA in appealing the ruling.

        Do financial considerations of one owner outweigh those of the owner who is often without a player asset for a prolonged period of time? And at what point ought the PA decide that the protection of it’s body of members by way of supplementary punishment to the offending player outweighs defending the perceived “rights” of that player who caused the injury?

        These groups need to more sharply define their ethical construct and abide by it.

  • BitGeek

    Why not all goons that fight have to play more then 15 mintues in a game! If not they are ok kicked out of the game. This will eliminate goons that call only fight with guys that can play and fight?

  • The Last Big Bear

    Where does violence come from? Need? Who needs the NHL? All of us involved, I’d suspect. So who’s responsible? All of us involved, I’d suspect. However, if we break down the needs: Owners need to be profitable. Players need to be compensated accordingly. Fans need entertainment. This leads me to a few more questions. Do owners need fights to make their businesses profitable? Should players need to fight in order to make a living? Do fans need fights to be entertained?

  • McRib

    Tough topic as there’s no real answer. Nobody likes staged fights so that’s a given. Why not five games for a staged fight and put an end to it. As far as “does the game need fighting” it has been around as long as the game which doesn’t make it right, but it’s historical.

    Most games have a form of enforcement outside of the rules including baseball (pitchers have an unwritten rule to support the team with a bean ball); football (always cheap shots after the whistle that cause injury) and most other sports other than soccer that’s downright embarrassing with the flopping, diving and fake injuries.

    Back to hockey, there is an argument that you don’t need fighting in the Olympics or Stanley Cup finals to have great hockey and it’s true, but an 82 game season, rivalries, cheap shots and a host of other reasons makes the odd fight a good thing. And we don’t want our game to look like the European figure skating/cheap shot debacle where spearing and kicking are common and there’s no retribution.

  • McRib

    The short answer is simply “Yes”. The NHL (and their respective franchises, the teams), like any employer, is under a moral obligation to do everything in their power to protect the safety and well-being of their employees, the players.

    If this were another industry, there would be no debate.

  • A couple more points to consider:
    1. Fighting has been around since Day 1 of hockey’s existence. We like to think of things getting worse or more extreme as time goes by, but guess what, fighting today still works the same as it did in 1920. Players have not developed more threatening or more malicious fighting tactics that pose any greater risks for the ones involved.

    2. Has anyone ever seen some statistics of injuries caused by fights vs. injuries caused elsewhere on the rink? How about injury frequencies in other sports? Well, if you’re afraid of consenting people getting hurt, why not ban any activity that could be perceived as dangerous? Why do we let people do back flips in ATVs in the X Games? Why do we let NBA players play without wearing any protective equipment? I hear some of those injuries are pretty gruesome. We seem to find enough entertainment in watching these sports. It shouldn’t matter if the source of damage to that player is another person or if it’s the environment itself: you should still have the same concerns.

    Bottom line: When you say you want to prevent injuries, you are actually saying you want to prevent accidents. This is impossible to do with a 100% success rate.

  • PrairieStew

    I am in favour of small steps. Let’s begin with game ejection for the second major instead of the third. Let’s also add the 1 game suspension for the 5th major of the season, then a 5 game suspension at 10. Pretty soon the fighting specialist will be harder to carry.

    What needs to happen in conjunction with this however is a a way to deter the stickwork and other dirty play during the game, not just after with suspensions. Game ejections after 3 (on the 4th) aggressive minor penalties. Anything that is not hooking, holding, tripping, interference would count. A double minor for roughing counts for two. So if a guy gets in a scrum and gets 4 for roughing (you know – a gloves on – almost fight) and then later gets a slashing call; he has to play clean the rest of the way or he is done for the night.

    Ejections would also accumulate – say after 3 a game suspension – after 5, 2 games etc.

    • piscera.infada

      I was under the assumption that 3 stick infractions (slashing, cross-checking, butt-ending, spearing, high-sticking) in one game is an automatic game misconduct, as that is the rule in minor hockey. Upon further research, I guess it isn’t. That would certainly cut down on some (obviously not all) of the stick-work. I was interested to learn that two misconducts for stick infractions results in a automatic one game suspension. Although, you rarely see a misconduct for these kinds of acts, I think this is where you could make hay in this regard. Spearing should always in my opinion be a misconduct – it’s a savage act; no one should ever be using their stick that way.

      • PrairieStew

        The 3 stick foul ejection disappears at junior. I think adding it at the NHL would help. My proposal also includes roughing, elbowing, charging, boarding but would eject on the 4th not on the 3rd penalty.

  • Derzie

    The ever present battle between our primal urges and our civilized mind. We all have both but each of us have differing balances between the two. Those in favor of fighting are listening the primal voice. Even though the mind side knows there is not one single solitary logical justification for it. Fighting, hunting, fishing. All favor the primal. There is no ‘right’ answer to whether you like fighting or not. You either do or you don’t and no one is going to change your urges. Also, the masses that spend the cash are always more primal than cerebral. The NHL will be as primal as they can get away with. If & when the masses turn, so will the move away from fighting. If MMA is a thing, and it is, hockey fighting is like a feather pillow battle in comparison.

  • Derzie

    I’ve played and watched hockey for over 5 decades and have never understood why fighting has been allowed. Watch enough games and you soon see that it certainly is not “enforcement” and in fact usually leads to more violence. It’s about retribution and for that fact alone you would think the NHL would want to eliminate it and improve player safety. What kind of professional league would allow players to take revenge on a competitor with no fear of discipline?

    Different and improved enforcement by the league and refs would go a long way towards reducing a lot of the reasons that fights occur. I’ve written about what other leagues are doing and how the NHL could change their rules and disciplinary process, a kind of blueprint for improving player safety – http://itsnotpartofthegame.blogspot.ca/2013/03/a-blueprint-for-improving-player-safety.html