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“You wanna go?”: An Essay on Hockey Fights

 

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Brandon Smith challenges Chara to a fight.

If you run your mouth, you run the risk of someone punching you in the face. I feel like that is self explanatory really. Actions and words have consequences. Sometimes the fall out is brought about by kharma, slowly catching up to you and sometimes another person just brings you up short. I feel this is the law of the jungle. Don’t expect to be an asshole and not have consequences.

This sums up my feeling on life, the universe and fights in hockey. I was a big fan of the instigator rule which gave extra penalty minutes for starting a fight and I believe fervently that you shouldn’t be allowed to start shit and then just hang the fallout on the reaction of the other person.

However, this isn’t just my usual soap box on acceptable human behavior. I’ve had cause to really look at the role of fights in hockey and what follows is a reflection on the topic. It’s a contentious subject and one where my opinion has been evolving for a long time.

Growing up I thought fights were great. I could see why frustrations, rivalries and a desire for retribution necessitated fighting. In the latter regard I could really get behind a good old fashioned bare knuckle bout that springs from standing up for your teammates. The wheels of justice can be slow and sure that guy who just checked your team mate in the head may get a fine or a suspension but that doesn’t do much for you at that moment.

Then due to various circumstances I drifted away from televised hockey for a time. When I came back, the sport seemed so rough. Certainly it hadn’t been this tough when I was a kid, right?

Wrong! Actually it was rougher when I was younger.

Fights were already down and players that were strictly enforcers were on their way out. It’s just a rather shocking sport when you aren’t used to it and when I came back to hockey it was with my husband in in tow. He is not used it. The relevance of fighting in hockey is therefore a frequent debate in my house and had given me some pause as I got caught defending them, sometimes with fuzzy logic.

There is no denying the game has already changed. Now a days if you play a “physical game” you also have to bring other talents to the table. Boston defense man Zdeno Chara is a perfect example of this. Yes, he lays down huge hits. Yes, he drops the gloves but he states that he has always worked to be more than just a physical player and his points and trophy cabinet confirm his success. In fact here he is refusing to fight Brandon Smith. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in hockey. You’re welcome.

Even Cody McCloed, the Colorado fourth line center who still averages a fight per game chips in with the occasional goal. Yes, our fourth line can score. Don’t believe me? Here you go.

Perhaps even more telling is the generational shift that’s so obvious in rookie Max Domi’s play. His father Tie Domi was a notorious bruiser who I remember best for playing in Toronto. Max on the other hand plays a disciplined game, skates well and both scores and sets up plays for his team mates.

So…

Fighting: what is it good for?

Opinions are split into three camps.

Camp one: fighting is a tradition. This is a man’s game. You must stand up for yourself and your team mates. The crowd loves it and if it goes away completely hockey will not be the same. You hear this a lot from old timers like Don Cherry who is a rabid traditionalist and just over the top about everything. For guys like Don, hockey and fights are inseparable. They also claim that it “fires” up the team and can snap you out of a slump in a game.

Camp two: Fighting isn’t good for anything. It’s dangerous to both players involved and taking a penalty is never helpful. This is my husband’s camp. He’s concerned about possible concussions and argues that putting your team short handed for five minutes, which is an eternity in hockey time, is just never justified because it usually ends in a goal for the other team.

Camp three: As long as there is a need for fights in hockey they will continue. However as the game evolves penalties, fines and suspensions for dirty hits continue to diminish the need for fighting. This is my camp.

Let’s start out with the least scientific rationale for fighting. Motivating your team through starting a fight is not an angle I use to defend them because I think it is much more difficult to prove its usefulness in that sense. The theory and I’ve witnessed it from time to time, is that you can fire up your team by starting some shit with the other team. Although I’ve seen it in action you just can’t prove it and the result could be attributed to any number of other factors. You just can’t prove that the risk of a long penalty is worth the potential gains.

In 2013 Patrick Roy, perhaps the king of the goalie fight, reflected on his own fighting days in an interview with Chris Osgood, the Red Wings goalie on the receiving end of one of those fights. “I think, there are fights in hockey that can turn a game around and ones that cause you to lose your focus.” Since he has considerable experience in this area, this tells me its not a sure thing and if it can negatively impact your focus maybe it’s better to try and get fired up another way.

Using your fist to make sure a message is received, however I think is pretty easy to demonstrate as a straight line of cause and effect..

Example: Joffrey Lupul crashed into Tuukka Rask, literally tumbling over his body and knocking Rask’s helmet off in the process. Rask responded in true Raskally fashion by punching him in the face with his blocker. As he was getting up Lupul received another glove on punch in the face from Zdeno Charra, just what he always wanted, I’m sure.

It didn’t turn into a full blown fight because Lupul had the good sense to make himself scarce but the message was clear.

Rask -“stay out of my crease”

Chara “Get out of my goalie’s face”

I’m going to come out and say I’m completely biased on this part. Growing up I was always the one between the posts. I think like a goalie. I care about goalie safety and I often wonder if anyone else does. My biggest pet peeve is guys sliding into the goalie feet first like he’s home plate. Cause skates are sharp, yo.

Protecting your goalie and goalies protecting themselves this way is common and not without reason. Not so many years ago, completely by accident Richard Zednik  was slashed in the throat with a skate and if not for his own sense of self preservation and a quick witted trainer, he would have bled to death. Let’s not forget hockey is freaking dangerous. (Do not youtube this incident. You will find it but you don’t really want to see that.)

Fighting, therefore, is most often used as a self policing method. Someone is targeting your star rookie’s knees and the ref doesn’t see it? You go after him and convince him that he doesn’t really want to try that again. Last season I saw a perfect example of what I see as a reasonable use of fighting.

Player A checked player B in open ice. Player B’s head was low and most of the Player A’s shoulder and elbow collided with Player B’s head and neck area. Player B was slow to get up. There was no whistle and play continued. Player C, teammate to Player B, looked to the ref to see if there would be a penalty and when there was not he challenged player A to some fisticuffs.

Both players went to the penalty box for five minutes. Neither player A nor Player C was injured in the fight although I don’t know if B sustained a concussion from the hit. Notice that player C paused first to see if justice was forth coming. It was not. At that point he took justice into his own hands. I know. I know. We’re not supposed to do that, in life or in hockey but come on. I think we can understand the impulse.

The net result of this instance was zero. The teams played four on four instead of five on five for a few minutes and neither fighter was injured. The better result in this instance would have been a penalty to to player A which could lead to a scoring chance for player B’s team.

This year I have noticed an immense improvement in calls on the ice for bad hits in particular. Last year there were many instances where no call was made on the ice but a hit was considered dangerous enough by the department of player safety that someone was fined or suspended. For the record I think it’s important that someone was cracking down on this but I was upset that these were being missed by the reffing team on the ice and I’m so glad to see the calls being made. There has also been a steep drop in fights this year. I don’t think this is coincidence.

So I do think that fighting in hockey is dying out and you know what? That is OK. In fact it’s good. Taking a penalty is not a productive thing to do and we really don’t need another method for getting injured. I think fights are just going to continue to fade away until they are as rare as leather helmets.

PS No, hockey fights aren’t staged although in some rivalries you can spot them brewing a mile away. Sometimes they’re retribution for something that happened last time the teams met, etc.

PPS Goalies, I say this because I love you. Wear your god damn neck protectors! They were invented for a reason. I’m looking at you Tuukka “Angry Pants” Rask!

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