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The Vent: Losing one’s appetite for hockey fighting; the flaws in the anti-fighting argument

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy

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The Vent is a column that hands the mic on Puck Daddy over to hockey fans to rant, rave and react to everything in the game. If you have a pitch for an editorial, or have one written, and want it featured on Sunday, email puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com with the subject “The Vent.”

Jim Dwyer is a freelance writer and hockey player. He lives in Boston, and his passion for hockey and frequent visits to Canada have garnered him a reputation as a “Canadian spy.”

Here’s Dwyer on how his opinion on fighting has changed:

By Jim Dwyer

"We're stuck in the middle and need to decide what kind of sport we want to be. Either anything goes and we accept the consequences, or take the next step and eliminate fighting." – Former Detroit Red Wing and General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. (October 3, 2013)*

Should fighting be banned?

This question polarizes NHL management, players, fans and often triggers nothing more than hostility and resentment. The questions below may lead to a more meaningful discussion about solutions to reducing brain injuries, if that’s what the NHL and its fans want.

If fighting is, as its proponents often claim, “part of the game,” then why is it penalized? Why stop the clock while two pugilists conduct business?

Because fans love violence.

As a teenager living in Colorado during the late 1970s and early 80s, I watched with my father as players bared their knuckles. Barry Beck of my Colorado Rockies punishing Curt Bennett of the Blues. I can still see the big hair and flailing fists; I can feel the tug of blood-lust and remember the satisfaction in seeing my guy embarrass the opponent. A year later, it was Terry O’Reilly versus Clark Gillies—four fights, including two in one game—in the Bruins–Islanders 1980 playoff series.

Even into my forties and living in Boston, I’ve reveled in the rough stuff: Andrew Ference’s fists finding Sean Avery’s face; Patrice Bergeron landing a left against the Josh Georges; Sean Thornton exacting revenge on Matt Cooke.

As I approach my 50th birthday, I can no longer stomach the fighting, a stain on the game that must go the same path as the rule that once forbade the forward pass and the notion that goalies who wore masks were sissies.

I used to believe the Code as hockey gospel. I was a fighting evangelist, one that folded his fingers into fists in response to cheap shots and a guy who protected my teammates. I’ve never fought (on the ice), but I’ve been ready and willing.

During a late-night no-check pick-up game, I advised one opponent to stop poking for the puck that my goalie had smothered. The words were lost on him. Later, I propelled toward my adversary—his head down—and then rammed my shoulder into his chest.

Do you think entreating him to fight would’ve prompted him to cease his crease-crashing ways, to lower his testosterone level? I was lucky I damaged nothing but the man’s pride.

In the NHL, why do the fights, as well as the charging and cheap shots the fights are supposed to deter, continue?

Why not allow the NHLPA to administer justice online? If 257 anonymous players (about half of them) can respond to an online poll about banning fighting (**February 2012), then shouldn’t they be able to reach a consensus on each alleged cheap shot?

But Jimmy, you might say, you just said fans love the fighting.

Ever look at yourself in the mirror when your anger is white hot? Or maybe watched fans’ behavior when a fight breaks out? It’s like watching the evil Emperor Palpatine’s face as he zaps Luke Skywalker. So much pleasure amid so much hatred.

Might our attraction to vicarious vigilantism be part of the problem? We can’t punch that driver who cut in front of us, but ice rage is a viable substitute. A Bruin pummels a guilty opponent’s face. Milan Lucic destroys Joel Rechliz, and Jack Edwards squeals with delight, "Rechlicz is the Chuck Wepner (the "Bayonne Bleeder") of the NHL!” The crowd loves the blood.

But the crowd goes quiet when a fighter is down for the count, as Montreal Canadiens’ George Parros did in his team’s home opener against the hated Toronto Maple Leafs. In his second fight of the night with Colton Orr, Parros got tangled in his opponent’s blue and white sweater and then fell, face first, on the ice. Knocked unconscious, Parros left the ice on a stretcher.

Several online news distributors quote Orr: “You never want to see a guy get hurt like that. It was a scary situation. I just hope he’s all right.”

Every fight is a scary situation. Isn’t the intent to land head shots?

But Parros will live…to fight another day, probably against Orr. How far-fetched is this scenario? Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday, November 30. Leafs visiting the Canadiens. Parros and Orr look at each, nod, and then square off (helmets on, of course, so nobody gets hurt) as fans rise from their seats, transfixed and unable to avert their eyes.

Unable or unwilling?

What kind of sport do we want to be? Do we surrender to our dark sides, let the hate, like blue electricity, flow through us? Or do we choose love and ask the NHL’s lords to let go of this fighting nonsense and encourage the players to police themselves by polling all players when a questionable hit is caught on video?

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Gerald Morton is a part-time Zamboni operator, PhD Candidate, occasional lecturer at Vancouver Island University and former hockey target. Here's his pro-fighting take:

By Gerald Morton

Fights.

I'll admit my biases.

I like fighting.

I like the surge of adrenalin I get from the safety of my couch. It reminds me of a time when I was younger, stronger, faster and quicker to anger. It reminds me of a simpler time, before I knew the consequences of such actions. It would take extraordinary circumstances to make me fight these days. But, I'm glad it is still in our game.

People, (read: reporters who are obligated to watch hockey but don't seem to love the game), often say there is no point to a fight. The advanced stats community is quick to assure us that fighting has no discernible benefit.

If you treat every fight as equal and don't qualify for context that is probably true.

This lack of distinction amongst some of the hockey media is troubling. I disagree with a lot of things. But things I ignore, or dismiss outright, I know to worry about most. In these shadows are my hidden biases. These undiscovered corners of my mind constitute an inordinate amount of the invisible frame I use to make sense of my world. The role of a reporter or researcher must first be an examination of self. The lack of effort to understand the role of fighting in the game, and the desire to fight amongst players, is an indicator of a closed mind and, by extension, poor reporting. The media are supposed to investigate stories, question common narratives and uncover truths that aren’t self-evident. They aren’t supposed to build their own narratives and then close their thoughts.

The advanced stats community may not be as closed-minded but they do tend to group all fights into a single category. If you want to understand fighting you need to analyze it with the same rigour you apply to hockey's other elements. We also need to understand the role of statistics. Stats are aggregates of numbers, which are normalized over many thousand events. Stats make sense over months and seasons and careers. But, we care most about small sample sizes. We care about single games, seven game series or the 16 games it takes to win the Stanley Cup. This is, mathematically, at odds with the way stats are calculated and make sense. This is not an argument against advanced stats. They are useful, important and change the way hockey is understood in rational and precise ways.

This community is uncovering hockey’s hidden truths more than any other group. However, they can’t answer every question in an emotional game. And statistics are a limited use tool when observing single events. Quantitative understanding without qualitative analysis renders a poorly realized world.

Does every fight have benefit to every game? No. But can the right fight, at the right time, for the right reason make a difference? Me, Kant and Aristotle say yes. (Relax, they’re dead; I can bastardize their ideas if I want).

Dave Shultz and the Flyers also agree and point to Larry Robinson as evidence.

These same 'people' enjoy the smug satisfaction of pointing out inconsistencies in 'the Code'. Really? An amorphous collection of ad hoc rules never formally agreed upon is not perfect. Thank god I am sitting down. Formal laws are codified and scrutinized by the most adept of legal minds. Yet, they are differently interpreted and implemented by judges and police officers every day. Why would anyone expect 'the Code' to be perfect?

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This is one of the many straw men arguments that emerge from unexamined bias. The Code is an ongoing artifact of hockey culture concerning the moral imperative for, and ethical behaviour around, fights. Like all cultural artifacts, it has the baggage of history. It is based on a league that doesn't exist anymore. It is built upon the notion that all hockey players are tough, willing, and able to fight. But fighting is mostly voluntary today. The code is a living document, passed down from one generation to the next. And, like all who have gone before, older hockey players prepare the young for a world that no longer exists. Stop trying to ignore its existence because it isn't perfect. Marriage is one of only two cultural universals and I don't know a lot of perfect marriages. Culture isn't perfect. That's how growth and change exist. The code is hockey culture. And culture is always an imperfect, but powerful thing.

Fighting.

Apparently, fighting isn't necessary in hockey. No kidding?

What exactly is necessary in this totally invented game with little connection to the ancient games of war and battle that are the origin stories of modern sport? This ain't two dudes wrestling. It's not a spear throwing competition. It is another example of the masculized idiocy that stems from these types of war games. Which, of course, is the point. It is raw emotion and physicality filtered through a tradition of practice and rule making. Modern team sports are a mix of misogyny and corporate capitalism. The remnants of primal sporting competition are faint echoes now. There is no purity, or meaningful historic connection. We aren't running to Marathon here. They are invented traditions and symbolic tools of governmentality and business. Let's stop pretending hockey is a pure game, marred or ruined by fighting. Hockey is spectacle. Fighting in hockey is simply more of the same. It might be the purest expression of sport in this game.

If you like it, or don't, admit it.

Stop trying to intellectualize your emotional reaction. Arguments for, or against, fighting are emotional. You can't logically discuss the dangers of fighting and call for its ban when you support, or are supported by, an activity that routinely causes a free floating brain to bash around the skull after a body check. Sports (real sports, not games like golf) are bad for you at the professional level. They will break your body, your mind, and leave you a damaged man. They have always been a Faustian trade of perfect youth for terrible old age. Bob Probert knew it, Bobby Clarke knows it, and the current crop of aging NHL players is coming to terms with this truth.

Fighters.

I am tired of hockey scribes and media faces taking lazy pokes at the skills of those who fight. It is easy to take a virtual shot at John Scott and say he can't skate. Neither could Luc Robitaille. Ryan Smyth has never been confused with the Flash on ice. John Scott doesn't get a lot of ice-time. Neither do most fourth line players. I understand John Scott is not a tremendously well-rounded hockey player. But he has a skill set that NHL GMs have determined is worth having. Lots of players have made NHL careers out of limited skill sets. Some players have exceptional speed, and little else. Backup goalies make entire careers out of being good teammates and willing practice players. Only fighters get a constant stream of negative media attention.

The top five fighting major leaders from the last full season of NHL hockey (2011-2012) were: Brandon Prust (20), Shawn Thornton (20), Derek Dorsett (19), Jared Boll (18) and Zenon Konopka (18). The common wisdom from the anti-fighting crowd is that fighters can't do anything else. They are awful players with just enough skating to stumble from fight to fight and then return to the bench having served their worthless purpose. However, four of these five skaters had at least 50 points in a Major Junior hockey season. (The exception was Thornton). Four of these five skaters had enough NHL potential that they were taken in the NHL draft. The exception was Zenon Konopka who scored 86 points in his final year of OHL eligibility and was second on his team in scoring. This is all circumstantial and a fine example of cherry-picking data. But the general point stands. Those that fight most in the NHL are skilled hockey players. These aren't brutish junior B rejects, or tier II junior A thugs. These are kids who made the best junior leagues in the world on the basis of skill, work ethic, and desire. Many of them were amongst their team leaders in offence by the time they left. These are men that made rational choices during their hockey lives to maximize their career potential. Everyone in the game has seen exceptional skill wasted. These men found a way to make their moderate skills relevant.

This is the point I want people to understand. The argument about fighting is primarily an emotional argument for the viewer. Most dedicated scrappers made a rational choice. I like fights, some people don't. There is no reasonable argument about the validity of fighting in hockey that doesn't come back to a gut response. Many people see fighting as an unnecessary part of a game that adds danger, causes injury and increases the probability of CTE for retired players. This is true. It is also true that body checking is an unnecessary part of the game that adds far more danger, causes more significant and atrocious injuries, and certainly causes CTE in some retired players. And, if you argue that body checking is more fundamental to hockey realize you are directly discrediting all Women’s hockey.

In fact, most minor hockey associations in Canada have removed body checking from non-competitive hockey. And since fighting in minor hockey has always been heavily punished, I would argue neither of these are fundamental to the game. Old-timer leagues don’t allow slap shots. Should they stop saying they are playing hockey? Of course not. They are not playing NHL hockey. And this must remain the difference.

All hockey is not the same. Nor should it be. I don’t need to see fighting amongst Olympic teams. I don’t care to see 16 year old boys getting beaten by 20 year old men in junior. But, I like to see fighting in my NHL product. Some of us have realized that hockey is a total invention and that no aspect is sacrosanct. Others have carved out a piece of Plato's cave, in which hockey (sans fighting) exists in the pure form.

Both of us lie to ourselves when we get caught up in the mayhem and beauty of hockey. At least I know I'm lying to myself. I come to my perceptions of the damages I witness, my understandings of the violence I condone and the acceptance of heart-breaking destruction I applaud with a heavy heart but open eyes.

I only ask that you do the same.

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