Fighting in Hockey: Part of Culture or an Ugly stain?

(NOTE: This is NOT an anti-fighting rant. I want this to be an open argument)

WITH these play-offs some of the most violent on record, sportswriters and fans on both sides of the border are beginning to wonder where fighting stands as a part of the game of hockey. For some, fighting is as integral to the game as assists and hip checks are, while others see fighting as a disgraceful act that mars what should be a beautiful game. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of fighting, but, even so, I’m starting to have doubts that fighting should be taken away, as some writers suggest, as a “presentable” image of the “coolest game on Earth”.Their arguments may have some merit, but before one decrees that hockey is too violent, they must first understand what hockey is. Hockey is an anomaly of the sporting world, as it combines both speed and grace with toughness. When one thinks of hockey, they probably can’t visualize the toughness without seeing the speed and vice versa. Football is a distant second in this regard, as, while speed is valued, running backs charging up the field isn’t as common as breakaways, 2-on-1s and the like are in hockey, a sport which can be nearly as violent. Unfortunately, whenever a violent atmosphere takes place, anger and emotions build quicker, and there is only so much one can take before they “snap”. Add to the fact sometimes the play-offs almost feel like a war when teams feel they have to “get back at each other” and the violence can only escalate, sometimes to unacceptable levels (see Kyle McLaren’s hit on Richard Zednik, Gary Roberts’ hit on Kenny Jonsson, etc.).

Of course, just because it is inevitable doesn’t necessarily mean that it is good for the image of hockey, at least to outsiders. The Toronto Star’s Chris Zelkovich groaned over the fact that National Hockey League broadcasts on both the CBC and ABC decided to talk up the vengeance on McLaren’s hit rather than focus on Saku Koivu’s great comeback. Zelkovich continues by asking how the National Hockey League can ever expect to be respected as a major league sport in the United States if it continues to hype their product like a carnival freak show, since, to him anyway, not everyone on Earth wants to see a figurative (or maybe even real) bloodbath.

While that may be true, I’m not too sure I follow what Zelkovich is saying. After being on HTR for almost six months now, I’ve come to the realization that hockey fans- hardcore ones at least- want to see a good, old-fashioned brawl, and even the casual fans admit they like to see a good scrap. This isn’t to say that hockey fans are terrible people- just come here and you’ll know that isn’t the case. It is just that hockey fans, most of them anyway, like fighting and brawls, at least occasionally (I’ll admit: sometimes the brawls are fun to watch. Sometimes). I’ve almost come to the conclusion that fighting is a part of hockey culture, and, while it may be an ugly component, it is one nonetheless. Also, if “Zelko” is claiming that Americans won’t be able to “get it”, how come so many Canadians and all of us at HTR- including our American contingent- “get it”? Hockey doesn’t require a Ph.D. to discern, and if all of us hockey fans- who had to start liking the game at some point- were able to see hockey for what it really is, then what is stopping the rest of the people? Also, even if you remove the fighting, hockey- with all the hitting- still looks violent and can even look like a carnival freak show. Put it to you this way: if hockey players resemble animals, then so do football players. They hit just as hard and can look just as stupid, especially with all those scrums. Now, that is just an analogy- I don’t really think either is stupid- but it doesn’t seem to come to people that no matter what, hockey always looks violent, and, if football and it’s violence can be accepted, so can hockey.

Still, is fighting too much violence? Personally, I’ve always held that fighting makes hockey look like a caveman competition, and it projects a negative image. Hockey violence occasionally gets onto the police blotter, and, while the cases are extreme- Marty McSorely’s “mistake” is the latest example of this- they still shed a light onto hockey that it may be too dangerous to play. We all know what Vaclav Varada and Bryan Marchment do for a living, but many others commit cheap shots making them not as rare as people would like. However, cheap shots are more of a problem with the NHL brain trust than fighting- all hockey fans don’t want to see that. Also, when the NHL suspends a player for going “too far” in a fight- like Shayne Corson the other night- it present a negative image, at least to me, since it seems that the NHL promotes this kind of ugliness. I won’t make too much of it since I don’t want to make this piece an anti-fighting rant, but I did have to admit the NHL’s action seemed foolish.

In the end, though, what can one make of fighting? It still is an unresolved question and is one I don’t think ever will get answered. Sure, hockey looks stupid when a fight breaks out- but it can look just as stupid anyway without the fighting and, if hockey is stupid for it’s violence, then so is football. Since hockey is both a finesse and physical game, violent acts like fights are bound to happen due to the cauldron of emotions on the ice, and, as Bill Clement said in NHL 2000, “there’s such a fine line between hard nosed hockey and a roughing penalty”, so placing limits on physical play can be difficult. Fights happen in other sports, like football (one instant occurred in last season’s play-offs), and, while the other sports ban fighters, they still happen due to the emotions, and even if hockey banned fighting it wouldn’t go away. Also, since some people- who are all now hockey fans- came to see hockey beyond the fights, I don’t think it is out of the realm for others to do the same. To really take out fighting anyway, I think you have to take out the physical element that leads to the fights, and that won’t happen. In the end, there is a fine line we have to draw to ensure that the game is kept intact and doesn’t look foolish, but before that can happen, the issue of fighting has to be resolved. Until then, we can expect nothing, and the debate will carry on, despite what others may want.

-DG


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