Monday, 1 October 2012

Hockey Players Fight Because They Can.

For the last 8 months I’ve attempted to disprove the popular myths about why fighting remains in hockey.  Using accepted academic studies, research from other hockey websites, NHL statistics and observations from professional journalists, I think I have presented a compelling alternative view of this issue.  But I’ve recently come to believe that the reason it remains in the game is very simple.

Hockey players fight because they can.  I’m not talking about fistic skills.  Everyone has the ability to throw a punch with various degrees of success.  No I’m presenting the argument that hockey players have been conditioned that fighting is accepted by league officials and management at most levels of their career.  Put it another way; they fight because no one has ever told them they can’t.

Most of us learned early that punching another person in the head is not acceptable behavior.  Maybe a parent or teacher took us aside to explain why it was wrong or we observed the impact on a victim of a fight and it made an impression on us at an early age.  If you started playing sports you would have been told by your coaches what was against the rules and at the lowest levels of any league fighting would never be condoned.

In football, baseball, basketball, rugby or any other sport, including hockey, there are strict rules against fighting in any youth league.   I coached my daughters for 12 years while they played competitive fastpitch and we travelled across southern Ontario for tournaments.  In all those years I only witnessed 2 fights and both times the players were immediately tossed and suspended for multiple games.  Hockey Canada sets rules for all levels of the game (except junior, more on that in a moment) and a fighting major results in an immediate ejection and a suspension for the next game.  Subsequent fights in the season lead to longer suspensions.

If you are an elite athlete you will go onto to play at the college or university level or get drafted into a feeder league that could take you to the professional level.  But here is where hockey diverges from all other sports.  If you’re past the age of 15, and if you are not wearing skates, taking a swing at someone will get you ejected and likely suspended.  Yes fights happen in college football, basketball or soccer but the officials jump in quickly in order to keep any violence from escalating.  Discipline is immediate and usually harsh enough to send a message.  Taking revenge for some perceived injustice is not tolerated and officiating is left to the referees.

Now let’s take the average AAA Bantam player, drafted at age 15 or 16 and suddenly playing junior hockey in the WHL, OHL, QMJHL or USHL.  At their first training camp they will see teammates dropping the gloves to prove how tough they are.  During the preseason they’ll see 2 or 3 fights per game as players attempt to demonstrate that they belong on the team.  Coaches will encourage them to play hard and go after opponents who are hitting his team.  If a player has some size then they may be told to take boxing lessons.  Teammates will bang their sticks on the boards after a fight and the coach congratulates the combatant.  It’s doubtful that they will ever hear anything negative about fighting from the management of the organization they belong to.

When the rookie gets jumped on the ice they will notice that the referees stand back and wait for the fight to develop and wind down before they attempt to bring it to an end.  The fans and parents will stand up and cheer every time a couple of players drop the gloves.  Each bout is posted on various fight websites and discussed by fight fans.  Every bit of feedback from outside the player’s organization is positive about fighting and its place in the game.

Very quickly players are indoctrinated into the culture of fighting.  For the first decade of their hockey career they have not been allowed to retaliate against a cheap shot or a clean hard hit.  Now it’s not only tolerated but encouraged.   Management, coaches and older players will tell them that fighting is necessary to police the game, change momentum or send a message.  In fact the coach may tap them on the shoulder and tell them to take out the opponent that has been pounding the team all night.  They can go after anyone at any time and only have to deal with a 5-minute major and perhaps the rarely called instigator penalty.  Even the new rules in the OHL and USHL still allow any player to fight on a regular basis and avoid a suspension.  

The junior hockey system enables the player to fight at will.  There is very little conscious thought about the repercussions of seeking revenge.  They fail to recognize that momentum is short lived and may not go to their team after a fight.  They don’t notice that cheap shots continue to occur despite all the enforcement going on.  And they don’t see anything wrong with challenging an opponent when their team is down by 3 goals with 3 minutes left in the game. 

They fight because they can.  That learned behavior follows them into the minor leagues or NHL where the culture of intimidation is consistent and the institutions are similarly supportive of punches to the head.  The same myths and perceptions are presented as fact.  The reasoning remains the same  - so the professional player fights because they can.



17 comments:

  1. You seem to be arguing against a phenomenon that is rare-ish and getting rarer--the spark the team because we're down a goal fight. This is a bit like arguing against cycling because of what unicyclists do.

    The vast majority of fights occur as a response to other in-game violence, either just previous, or earlier in the game. Eliminating fighting will cause these incidents to go up, and more guys will be on IR with head injuries, not less. There's a reason Tyler Seguin doesn't get run (and thus, hurt) and it's not because he's super-elusive. It's because he skates on a line with a guy with the capability to and no compunctions against battering whoever runs him onto the injured reserve list.

    Put another way, do you think Dan Boyle will ever start a scrum (not a fight) with Erik Karlsson again? The penalty for that was a concussion from Chris Neil and a complete embarrassment in front of about 2 million viewers when Matt Carkner dropped the gloves and rode him like a donkey.

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  2. "It's not part of the game"
    No wait ... it actually is, and always has been.

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    1. Factually incorrect. Fighting has not "always" been part of the game.

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  3. Fortunately there are a myriad of lesser sports willing to meet your request for no fighting. Hockey is the one actually serving (well, lockout aside) those of us who do not mind it.

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    1. Fortunately there are many other sports willing to meet your desire to see men punching each other. Boxing and MMA leap to mind. That way you can leave hockey to those of us who enjoy hockey.

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  4. I think it is a little simplistic to say players fight simply "because they can". I am in favor of fighting in the NHL, because I think it serves a valuable purpose to put an send a shockwave of emotion through the team and the fans. In a game like hockey, where team energy level can make or break the outcome, Having that outlet and that opportunity kick everybody into the next gear is incredibly valuable. Also, if a teammate of yours is being harassed by an opponent, challenging them to drop the gloves forces them back to playing hockey rather than relying on intimidation to gain an edge.

    I believe there is an important distinction between the enforcers, who are mostly just pylons for opposing teams to maneuver around, and players who actively contribute to their team while providing the toughness to defend teammates and provide a spark. The difference between a player like McSorley (referencing a previous article of yours) or Milan Lucic (referencing the poster above) and Stu Grimson or Cam Janssen is that the former two players actively contribute(d) to their teams' scoring potential while protecting his linemates. If someone hits Gretzky or Seguin, retribution will be swift and painful, so opponents are forced to match their skill level rather than try to drag everyone down. Grimson and Janssen, on the other hand, actively detract(ed) from their teams' scoring potential. They will not be on the ice when Selanne or Kovalchuk gets mauled or potentially injured, so there is little to lose for opponents to take a few liberties, which is when the situation quickly escalates into a disaster and someone gets injured.

    Fighting is still a necessary part of my NHL as I watch it, though my preference would be to see players tough enough to stand up for each other while still contributing to the beautiful side of hockey, rendering the enforcer role useless and raising the overall quality of the sport.

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    1. If your team needs illegal tactics in order to be properly motivated, then that's a problem with your team.

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    2. All sports have "smart" fouls/penalties/infractions, though. The safety over the top in football may take a holding penalty to prevent a sure touchdown catch, a point guard may take a reaching penalty to prevent a fast break the other way in basketball, pitchers intentionally hit batters in baseball... the list goes on. It's all a matter of strategy and weighing the lost yardage/free throws/automatic bases/five minutes in the box against the potential gains.

      All sports involve acts that, off the playing surface, would be deemed illegal or inadvisable. Lawrence Taylor and Brian Mullen could never have inflicted the damage they did to a civilian and gotten away with it and more than Brent Johnson (to DiPietro) or Arron Asham (to Jay Beagle). I don't expect auto racing groups to post speed limits that would be reasonable off track, and I don't expect prizefighters to stop punching because they would get in trouble if they did it outside the ring. Hockey is no different, and while the culture shifting towards safety is an immeasurably positive one, removing fighting entirely is not the correct answer.

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    3. If your position relies on your belief that fighting is a "smart foul" then it's on pretty shakey ground. There is nothing smart about dropping the gloves. Let's look beyond the injury factor - 8% of concussions were caused by fights according to NHL reports. In an earlier post I published data from 12 NHL seasons that showed when fights per game dropped, non-fighting PIMs also dropped. That same post also showed that teams that fought the most also earned more non-fighting PIMs; tripping, slashing, boarding, spearing, etc. Multiple studies by various sports journalists have also demonstrated that teams with an active enforcer have been less successful over the past 20 years, generally bacause they have to kill more penalties than their opponents. What is "smart" about employing a player whose primary role is to break the rules and put your team at a disadvantage?

      Sorry, fighting exists in the game because of some misguided belief that it actually has some positive impact. If you look at the facts and study the issue rationally then you discover that hockey players fight because they can, not because they should.

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    4. I agree with you that a player dedicated to breaking the rules is not in any way, shape or form positive. These players are also the ones committing the non fighting PIMs, because they have no other method of playing defense (this isn't exhaustively researched, I'll try to find a way to look it up). This role has no place in hockey, or any other sport (though they all have examples).

      However, a player who is able to fight well while being able to skate with the snipers and playmakers to avoid taking unnecessary penalties are valuable and have the positive impact I tried to describe before. The "smart foul" argument was in response to the notion that a team needs to rely on fighting or emotion, and isn't anywhere near the center of my argument. Sorry if I was unclear on that.

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  5. So, what you're saying is that you have no idea what you're talking about and are most likely not even qualified to write about hockey as a profession or even a hobby since you seem to believe that fighting is not only allowed but very much encouraged in the junior hockey ranks.

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    1. Well said, random anonymous internet guy. You've really given us something to think about.

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  6. I've played hockey, broken an orbital bone from fighting. It belongs. It's too violent and fast of a game to not have fighting. I'd even say eliminate the instigator rule to slow down more of these cheap headshots. No penalty, or suspension, will slow down any player. Look at the head hit Hossa took. Torres wasn't penalized on the play, the Hawks were for instigating though. Phoenix got a power play out of that!!!! And Hossa got a concussion. Don't talk about hockey anymore, you've never played at any sort of competitive level, you're not an expert.

    I'm sick of these men sports reports sounding like moms for these professional atheletes. They are not babies, they know exactly what their profession entails, and are well equipped to take care of themselves.

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  7. Paul, you are exactly right.

    No other sport, including football, in which hitting is a prime objective, allows behavior that would be criminal in any other setting. The idea that it relieves other types of violence is ludicrous. But you can see from these responses that it will be tough to get it out of the game because it sells.

    I think ultimatelt it will be banned because of the damage it does to players' health, and some class-action lawsuit.

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  8. Hey anonymous. How about backing up your arguments with some facts? I played hockey also and there was absolutely no need for the extracurricular bullshit!! What a waste of time!!! You want fighting, go watch boxing or UFC!!

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