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Fighting in the NHL: A 2 Part Series

Part 2: The Argument in Favour

August 2, 2007

Fighting exists in hockey mainly because of the unique, elemental aspects of the game. The inherently violent nature of the sport together with the presence of sticks, are the 2 main reasons underlying this singular quality of hockey. To hold a stick, pipe or any other length of weaponry, imbues humans with a warrior-like mindset and creates an instinctive reaction to lash out whenever attacked or threatened. It's the stick. It's all about the stick.

hockey fight
Fighting as a means to regulate other violent behaviour?

Regardless of penalties in place to deal with stick infractions, when a player is threatened or feels fear on the ice, he will often defend himself with his stick. This is where fighting comes in. The fear instilled by having to face down an opposing player in a one-on-one fight as a consequence of excessive stick-work acts as a regulating force. It's on an instinctual equal footing to the lashing out with a stick. It's real and visceral in a way that referees and penalties aren't.

To detractors, this is a difficult premise to quantify. The only real way to lend credence to this claim is to look at leagues where fighting is essentially non-existent. European leagues, in general, are relatively free from fighting and many claim that there are also more stick infractions. As a result, European players new to the North American game are more apt to use their sticks to defend themselves. Had they been initiated to the code of conduct that includes the possibility of fighting, they quite possibly would not resort to stick-work as much.

A related argument claims that those who wear helmets and visors are also more likely to be less disciplined regarding the use of their sticks. If a player wears a visor, he has little to fear regarding injury to his face and thus will be more liable to be reckless with his stick. The underlying premise for both arguments is that the fewer real consequences exist for an action in the game, the less likely a player will self-regulate his own activity. The presence of rules, referees and penalties are, of course, the other tools in place to control fighting in the NHL.

The rules and penalties in place lead a person to no other conclusion than fighting is an accepted and condoned part of the game by those who are in charge of the league. But this tacit acceptance of fighting is not a weakness or shortcoming on the part of the league. The policies in place are actually an attempt to manage what is seen as an integral part of the game. It is a recognition of the points already discussed and an admission that fighting is really a natural result of those conditions. Stricter penalties related to fighting in recent years have gone some way to reducing it but it has far from disappeared. Many teams still have enforcers on their roster whose main role is to engage in chippy play and the occasional fight. Teams are still known to add enforcers when divisional rivals have a well-respected player whose fighting abilities have momentum altering effects. The essence of fighting-fear-is in many ways the essence of hockey.

Perhaps more than any other team sport, hockey involves fear. Both the ability to create fear in opponents and the capacity to overcome it are important if a player and a team are to be successful. When a player is able to neutralize angst and anxiety, he has part of the mental game solved. This can be seen in the willingness of a player to head into corners for a puck or his ability to come back from a serious injury and not have his mindset and play negatively affected to a great degree. The collective skill of a team to cow their opponents into a timid style of play through aggression and bullying is an important part of many championship teams in the NHL.

For the reasons mentioned, fighting is a natural offshoot of the inherent aggression and nastiness that exists within the game. The physics of an actual hockey fight are another reason that it continues to exist and retains acceptance amongst players and fans. The logistics of the ice, skates and the necessity of two combatants latching onto each other and exchanging blows, lest they spin out of control and land on their arses (which often happens anyway), results in a localized fight that can be contained. This is unlike other team sports that take place on the field or court.

Comparisons to other team sports are inevitable when a discussion of fighting in hockey arises. Many proponents of fighting will shy away from these comparisons, saying that each sport is unique. However, comparison is the heart of observation and, as has already been shown, the singular aspects of hockey are what validate the existence of fighting within the game. When fights take place in other sports (and almost all team sports have notable examples), a sort of heaving mass of players and refs form and the single brawling entity moves around the field until some order is restored. The lack of codified conduct means those fights are often more disruptive to the game at hand and involve more underhanded tactics than any hockey fight ever could.

Regardless of how many points are brought up in a discussion with someone who is against fighting inevitably they will say that despite numerous examples of brawls, no other sport allows such actions the way hockey does. Even regarding sanctioned fighting, gloves are usually worn, they will say. Perhaps that is all true but what of it? There has to be one sport that is the nastiest and most vicious and in this regard, hockey is it.

In reality, not all hockey fights go according to the idealized version where two opponents lay down gloves and sticks, fight fairly and then are sent off. Not all fights occur as a result of one team trying to teach the other team a lesson about unacceptable stick-work or borderline treatment of a star player. Losing a lopsided game, some teams will send out a goon to start a fight simply to save some face and attempt to set the tone for the following match-up between the 2 sides. Some fights are started with a sucker punch, spiral into line brawls and involve some less than honourable actions. All of these fall under the heading of "fallout." Any situation involving a certain set of rules and subculture will result in certain negative related developments. It all comes down to which type of fallout is more acceptable, reasonable and beneficial towards the overall quality and popularity of the game.

The argument that fighting is not true part of the game, as supposedly evidenced by the fact that it is penalized, is false. Fighting is accepted by players and condoned by the league. There are no 2 ways about it. Similarly, 2 players who fight will normally be mutually consensual combatants (with notable exceptions of course). With a nastiness that is inherently part of the game, retaliation is inbuilt. Many arguments against fighting discount the exceptional importance of gaining the upper hand regarding intimidation in hockey. With this uniqueness goes an altogether different set of parameters regarding acceptable conduct.

If a concerted effort were made, could fighting be eliminated altogether in the NHL? Quite possibly. By doing so, it would likely attract a small number of new fans while turning off a small core of current enthusiasts. Most lovers of the game would adjust and still follow the sport. However, there is no doubt that hockey would be fundamentally altered in some ways and not just in the disappearance of those instances when 2 players grab a hold of each other and start flailing. It is what it is and many fans enjoy it as part of the game.

It is somehow fitting within the gladiatorial-like confines of a hockey rink when 2 players square off in an otherwise evenly matched game. The fans go wild. It's as if the players are almost outside themselves and spurred on the energy of the crowd...

"This game has been rough. Neither side is giving an inch.ohh and here we go.2 heavy weights are going to go at it near centre ice.the gloves are off and the crowd is on its feet!!"

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Fighting in the NHL: A 2 Part Series

Part 1: The Argument Against

July 29, 2007

The artificial boundaries that exist around sports allow us to engage in an other-worldly existence free from the constraints that bind us in real life. The narrow set of rules test our abilities to adapt. The absence of other rankist devices that exist in society means the only measure is our ability to compete and win. That is why a prison inmate can square off against someone from a more privileged background in a boxing match and compete in a ring where other societal determiners don't play a part.

Aside from the essence of competition distilled into its purest form and the desire to win, there is another aspect of sports that has always been part of the most honourable games we play. Just as the rules and literal confinements of the playing field provide us with an escape from reality, so too it should, and often does, provide us with the opportunity to be free from the incivility and disrespect that is part of everyday life.

To compete aggressively and with disdain for your opponent, to knock him down and THEN to help him up, shake hands after the game and go out for a drink together is part of the glory of sports.

This is nothing more than a powerful narrative that has been introduced into many sports and taken hold to the point of well entrenched tradition. To such a degree that to do otherwise results in the well-deserved derision of others in the game: opponents, team-mates and fans when it is the professional variety.

This is why the absurdity of condoned fighting in the NHL (and other hockey leagues that try to emulate them) continues to poison and make ridiculous such an otherwise great game.

The indefensible nature of mutually agreed upon, bare-knuckled, aggravated assaults is proven by the inane, non-arguments offered up by those who support such antics. Inevitably, anyone who enjoys this nasty blood-lust aspect of the game will attack others for daring to take an opposite view, insulting them and calling into question their character, "toughness," etc.

Other meaningless arguments in favour include the unique aspects of hockey, such as the fact that skates and sticks are used and the game is played on ice. All patently without merit of course since the game is played relatively free of the same violence in Europe. More to the point, it is an absurd non-sequitur that is never really articulated beyond the initial claim.

Another weak argument is that the absence of fighting will result in an increase of other types of penalties. The thinking on this is that fighting has a regulating effect that decreases other types of dangerous fouls. In other words, if you know that cross-checking a star player may result in being assaulted, you won't do it. This is absurd and only speaks to the lack of consistent officiating in the NHL. Apply a strict and never-changing enforcement policy together with appropriate suspensions and this becomes a moot point.

Aside from the absurdity issue and the fact that these are the types of assaults usually seen in prison yards and main street boozers, the occurrence of a fight breaks up the flow of game. The majority of hockey fights are ridiculous affairs with a lot of clutching, grabbing, snarling and one or two direct punches to the face. A player who starts a fight tries to help his less talented team gain a breather by throwing a damper on the opposing team's momentum. After the grappling match is finished and the (usually) talent-less fools are sent off, the game finally resumes after 10 or 15 minutes and the flow of the game has been lost. While many fights involve few clean punches, that still doesn't eliminate the basic danger it represents.

It's a miracle that someone hasn't been killed in a fight to this point. One well placed punch to the throat is all it takes. You could easily argue that someone could be killed in any professional sport. The difference is that it would likely be within the normal flow of the game whereas fighting is technically not allowed in the NHL. Anyone who follows the game knows that in the bizarre nether-world regarding fighting, the ineffectual penalties mean that a person can only objectively accept that it is condoned by the NHL.

As the popularity of ice hockey remains static at best and the statistical probability becomes ever greater as time passes that someone will be killed in an on-ice fight, the NHL does nothing to address this problem. They are bullied by a handful of proponents who claim it is "part of the game" and adds to its popularity. In the same way that inducing prison-yard riots and televising them would attract a kind of deviant-sociopathic crowd of aficionados, they have a point. This is the narrative that has been fed to hockey fans for decades. Most young boys who play the game and are fans are naturally intrigued by this aspect of the game only because it is validated and encouraged. They go on to become the next generation of adult fans who will claim it is an important part of the game.

The end point of any attempt to argue the issue with someone who supports the sanctioned, absurd little dances that occur within games is the claim that "you just don't understand." In this they are right. That those same people and more importantly, the ones in charge, can't see how it is ultimately damaging the game is something that anyone who loves the game truly can't understand.

Other People's Games

July 23, 2007

Sports I have never participated in nor watched as a fan have always intrigued me. To a degree. I witnessed the traditions and passions of cricket players as expats from Britain, India and other locations played in public parks on Sundays in my home town in Canada. I naturally applied the baseball template to my brief observations, failed to grasp the essence and rules of the game and moved on.

I've found that most sports fans rarely show even that much interest. They're happy with their own games and have little curiosity about those played by others and in other parts of the world. It all comes down to habit and conditioning. Which is why ice hockey will probably never take off to a great extent in the southern US, cricket will remain puzzling to most of North America, and American football will remain a novelty sport in places like Asia and Europe.

The rituals, jargon and closed ranks of the sport in question can play a big role in such aversions to other people's sports as well. A game such as cricket, for example, has no need to seek out new fans simply because of its rabid popularity in those places where it has always been played. Just like with many cultures, the traditions have a way of strengthening the bonds of those on the inside while keeping others out.

Being exposed to the culture of a sport while living in another country or having a go at the game can change all that. Years ago while traveling through South Africa I stopped for an extended stay at a backpacker's lodge in Johannesburg. There were a few cricket bats laying around in the common room and on a few occasions we got together some people and organized an impromptu session on the large grass field in front of the lodge. It wasn't a proper game in any sense of the word. We took turns batting and pitching with the players from cricket-friendly countries instructing the rest of us. I quickly discovered the batting motion is completely different from baseball and gained an instant appreciation for the difficulty of the skills involved.

Similarly, while living in London for a few years, the collective passion and insanity surrounding football (soccer) piqued my interest in the sport and I've been a follower of the English Premier league ever since.

Wanting to get in on the ground floor of a burgeoning sport has its appeal as well. Having come to something new, early on in its existence, has cachet. For example, this article alone makes the sport of disc golf sound appealing though I'm sure too much popularity would spoil some of the magic.

Living in a foreign country provides the opportunity to explore some interesting and relatively obscure games that aren't popular in the rest of the world. In the coming weeks and months I will be highlighting different sports and games that are popular in Thailand in the "Other People's Games" series.

Despite that that renewed burst of interest of cricket that resulted from that pick-up game years ago in South Africa, I still haven't quite figured it

The Borderline Sociopath Sports Fan

July 21, 2007

Amongst sports fans, there is a certain element that appears sociopathic. Or at least, this is apparently what they would like others to think of them. These fans can usually only be witnessed at live events, mainly of the team sport variety. Their deranged behaviour is marked by apoplectic displays and the spewing of acidic verbiage towards the opposing team's players and coaches. As the verbal ammunition becomes more base and disconnected from the actual game being played, the sociopath becomes more florid and animated, reveling in the nastiness of his own display and feeding off the revulsion of others around him.

Years ago I remember watching National Hockey League games between the hometown Winnipeg Jets and the visiting Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers had a player by the name of Craig MacTavish (now the Oilers head coach) who had an unfortunate event in his past, the kind of fodder on which sociopathic sports fans thrive. MacTavish was involved in a drunken car crash that resulted in the death of a young woman. MacTavish served a year in jail and then restarted his career in Edmonton. I've written about such life-altering events before. The "with-you-for-the-rest-of-your-life" happenings that force you to permanently rearrange your mind, say goodbye to the person you were and try to do the best to salvage something from the wreckage. The alternatives are suicide or a slow self-destruction.

No one would condone what MacTavish did and many would call for a longer sentence. But he served what was handed down. And I've no doubt he still suffers from the anguish he brought onto others.

Nothing but the heavy artillery for the sociopaths however, as their framing of the professional sports world as full of allegiances worthy of ...well, not dying for.they would never get involved in personal sacrifice in such a personal way. But worthy of at least the most degrading and vile verbal attacks on opposing players using absolutely anything that is available

It's kind of a sickly, surreal feeling as you realize the waves of verbal assaults coursing down from the bleachers include such venomous nastiness as "murderer" "you outta be in prison you scum!!" A swath of uneasiness is carved out in the area surrounding the sociopath as others do a double-take regarding what he is saying. For some, it adds to the spectacle on the ice. The brittle sound of the sociopath's assault turns the guts of others, yet rarely does anyone intervene. After all, he's only a "hardcore" fan. I have no doubt that Dany Heatley is also subjected to these kinds of attacks on occasion.

Other areas considered taboo by most fans with a semblance of perspective and decency yet gleefully mined by the sociopath, are race, ethnicity and family members (especially wives) of players. In some rare cases, sociopaths will go after a player for a physical deformity or handicap (rare because such conditions would usually prevent a player from reaching such a level.) I remember a Sports Illustrated article from years ago that profiled then Winnipeg Jets defenceman Jim Kyte. Kyte was born with hearing loss that qualified him as being legally deaf. Despite overcoming this obstacle and making a career for himself in the NHL, the Sports Illustrated piece detailed, among other things, the nasty taunts and signs he occasionally faced in opposing teams' rinks.

The borderline sociopathic fan is different than the flat out criminal element that is part of many sports (see "firms" in British football) in that he returns to a seemingly normal life once the game ends. He then builds up a storehouse of rage, frustrations and murderous contempt that will be expelled onto the ice during his next trip to a game.

Regardless of whether the sociopath is even aware of it, his orgasmic rages have little to do with the game he follows and everything to do with his pathological tendencies. Just as much of the behaviour on the ice or playing field would result in criminal charges on the street, by association the sociopathic fan latches onto the strange netherworld of professional sports as an outlet for his antisocial behaviour that wouldn't be tolerated elsewhere. There is plenty of cover for the sociopath. Players have long earned a societal exemption from being held to the same standards as others and there are plenty of narratives laced with war analogies that embrace the kind of fanatical and extreme pronouncements the sociopaths thrive on.

The rabid kind of "out of yourself" escape that cheering for a pro sports team and especially attending a game in person provides, is a big part of the attraction of being a fan. Is labeling these types of fans as "sociopaths" going overboard? Perhaps, but in a world where many people, if not all, have traces of some psychological deficiency in their personalities, the borderline sociopathic sports fan is just one of many functioning lunatics in society. What sets the sociopathic sports fan apart from others is his apparent thrill in advertising his partial insanity for all to see during his shameless tirades.

Clean Language, Sobriety and Correct Dress Not Allowed

June 25, 2007

Public golf courses in Canada 20 years ago were something altogether different than the ones that exist today. There was nothing of the elitism or expensive greens fees that keep the riff-raff away. Those courses were built for riff-raff.

Wild, drunken, loutish behaviour was commonplace when heading out for a round at Bloomberg golf course located on the outskirts of Winnipeg. Regardless of what time we were teeing off, we would bring along bags of ice and cans of beer. The ice and beer would be stuffed into the side pouches on the bags of the rented clubs. A can for every hole was the usual pace of consumption. Together with the heat and exertion we were usually baked into a bleary-eyed, inebriated state of delirium by the 9th hole, bashing balls every which way but towards the hole and breaking up with mad laughter at each subsequent screwed-up shot.

A dress code was unheard of at Bloomberg. Bloated shirtless oafs with blazing sunburns and mulleted heads covered in baseball caps were in the majority, with cutoff shorts and a seedy pair of worn athletic trainers rounding out the standard get-up.

There was a definite lack of shame connected to poor, nay, at times down-right dangerous play, that existed on the links. The wide fairways were often forgiving but continuing to play a ball that had gone out of bounds was standard. At that time I was fully ignorant of most rules of golf and would casually stride 2 or 3 fairways over after a horrendous hook or slice. Passing someone walking in the opposite direction on the same fairway was not an uncommon occurrence.

Usually there was a good-natured nod or the exchange of knowing comments about the frustration of the game. Rarely were there any condescending or snide comments made.

One day we strode up to the 5th hole, a long par 5 that stretched out along the highway. As we approached the tee, we witnessed a strange scene that was playing out. A large RV with a shattered windshield was parked on the shoulder. It was clear that a golfer, who happened to be wearing the coveralls from his repair-shop job, had teed off and sent the missile sailing towards a good old boy in the RV, rattling him out of his country-music-accompanied peaceful reverie as he drove back into the city.

It seemed like a fairly clear-cut case of guilt but the grease monkey was waving his club and insisting "this is a golf course, what d'hell d'you expect!"

We could barely contain ourselves as we teed up and left the surreal situation behind us. As we reconvened on the green after heading off in different directions from our tee shots, we contemplated the insanity and each shot-gunned a can of beer.

While a kind of blundering camaraderie mostly prevailed amongst the fellow golfers on the course, there were instances when bunker rage and other forms of dysfunctional behaviour flared out of control. Winnipeg is a strange isolated city with a nasty, soul-destroying winter and a repressed rage that builds up in a good 98% of its inhabitants. Impromptu brawls are known to erupt at street lights as two sociopaths in a pair of cars waiting alongside or in front of each other lock eyes, get out and start throwing punches for some inexplicably pathetic reason. So the possibility for the same absurdity existed on the golf course as well. Maybe for some the ability to laugh off their own incompetence didn't come quite as easy and resulted in confrontations. On the other hand, some of the eruptions were fully justified.

Returning from the club house to start the back 9 one day, we saw a group of enraged, hopped up geezers striding towards no one in particular with revenge in their eyes and clubs in their hands. "Who the hell did it? Who's responsible?" they were shouting.

We approached them to find out what had induced their rage. Apparently a line drive had been blasted into the chest of one of their mates who now lay gasping on the fairway behind them. They were bent on finding the culprits.

Two individuals approaching the same ball while glaring at each other and shouting assurances that it in fact belonged to them was a standard vignette that repeatedly played out on the links at Bloomberg. Despite the ease with which such a looming dispute could be settled, i.e. checking the name emblazoned on the ball, this little charade provided at least for some a brief opportunity to try and stake out territory and forget how lousy they were at the game of golf.

I had acquired a practiced ease in blaring out "FORE!" at the slightest possibility that a shot was veering towards another group. Many others, for whatever reason, could never bring themselves to invoke that most useful of cries. The resulting anger sometimes boiled over into bizarre confrontations that usually simmered down when the absurdity of the situation dawned on all involved and they got back to the task of hammering balls with every ounce of rage they could muster.

You were always certain to see acquaintances from the neighbourhood when you went for a round. I remember encountering a pair of local wackos one day. They had each taken only one club with them and played the whole round for the sheer absurdity of it and the fact that they knew it would provide something to talk about for the next week of drunken evenings at the local pub.

Rusted out jalopies and muscle cars were more likely to be seen in the parking lot at Bloomberg as opposed to the BMW's and Mercedes at swank private joints. The greens fees back then were affordable even for university students with part-time jobs. Prices have undoubtedly gone up considerably in recent years. Someone may have even been killed in a brawl, resulting in a tightening of rules and decreasing tolerance for out of control intoxicated players. However, like then, it is still probably little more than an afternoon out, something that doesn't matter all that much beyond the memories that are created.