Opportunism and Fighting

With so many divides in the world the differences are purposely made to seem much starker than they are in reality. Politicians are the most prone to creating these artificial choices: "You want to keep Gitmo open or you want to release terrorists", "You support the government or you are a traitor", and "You want to get rid of fighting or you are a knuckle dragger". The opposite of the last one of course is "You want to keep fighting or you're not a man" but the point remains: it is made to seem that there is no middle ground.

As much as The Omen would like to pretend otherwise, it might be close but it's usually the proponents of eliminating fighting completely that are the first to react. Such was the case with Steve Dangle's post about Garrett Klotz's injury in a fight in the AHL. Now, the arguments that Steve presents are those that supporters of fighting will use. Whether he meant to misunderstand and misrepresent them on purpose is one question but let's take a look at the arguments as presented.

1. 'It was a freak accident"

I am not entirely sure what the minimum frequency of occurance an event has to hit before it can be considered a freak accident but if you head over to Hockey Fights you'll see the following numbers for fighting majors per season:

Season # of fighting majors # of fights*
2007-2008

1316

 658

2006-2007

987

 493.5

2005-2006

918

 459

2003-2004

1562

 781

*I just divided fighting majors by 2 which isn't perfect
but good enough for the purposes of this illustration

How many of these fights have not only actually ended badly (not many at all) but how many of these fights have been the kind that most fighting supporters actually want to see? That's one subtlety that is often overlooked or exaggerated. In this piece yesterday made the distinction between the fights that fans actually want to see and the fights that the anti-fight supporters try to say that we want to see. Supporters of fighting don't want to see Boogaard fighting Paul Kariya. They want it used to police the rats or to be between heavyweights but not pre-staged.

2. "It gets the fans into the game."

This is one of the responses that seems to be willfully ignorant of the reality of the NHL and human nature:

Are you sure? The fans didn't have a whole lot to say when they brought out the stretcher. We're allowing THIS for entertainment purposes? Disgusting.

Are you sure fans love hitting? The fans didn't have a whole lot to say when they brought out the stretcher. We're allowing THIS for entertainment purposes? Disgusting.

Hitting also doesn't necessarily create or disrupt a scoring chance and more players get hurt by bodychecks. Not to mention that body contact (rubbing players out of the play) is much more a part of the game than trying to crush someone's rib cage with a huge open ice hit. It also disappears in international play and at a variety of levels for the most part. Let's get rid of hitting next!

You can put your head in the sand and pretend that fans don't like fighting but eventually you'll suffocate. Take a look at one example of the fans approval of a fight:


What's that weird sound? Is that the crowd not only cheering but chanting Belak's name? Did they end the game chanting "BE-LAK! BE-LAK!" and "WE WANT BE-LAK!"? Yes, all of that is true, irrefutable proof that fans hate fighting. There is clearly no entertainment value

Should fans like fighting? It's bred into our DNA which is why there have always been gladitorial games throughout history whether it was actual gladiatorial games to medieval competitions to boxing to MMA. Something in us get a rush of adrenaline when two guys are going at it. Wait, I meant when two guys are fighting!

Anyway, I guess you could amend that to say the 'majority of fans' but the point remains that fighting does in fact get fans into the game.

3. "It's part of the game."

This is another one that should be amended. I don't think that fighting is so much a part of the game as it is part of the NHL version of the game. There is a big difference. There are fighting bans in all kinds of non-NHL leagues from the NCAA to minor hockey to the Ontario senior league in which Don Sanderson played. When fights do occur they tend to be of the kind that I noted previously, the heat of the moment fights.

It doesn't exist in the international game for the most part for a variety of reasons but mostly because, as I said yesterday, the coutry's that challenge Canada for hockey supremacy don't tend to be very physical. I would venture that it's because of the fact that North Americans grow up watching fighting in the NHL while Europeans have not done the same as their main exposure would be to different kinds of hockey.

Again, as much as you want to deny it fighting has always been a part of the NHL game. The standard response is usually either "We've evolved!" or "Yeah, and slavery was just a way of life before too!" which are fair enough although getting as worked up over fighting as one would over slavery seems a bit much.

Fighting is part of the history of the league. Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard, among others, used fighting to give themselves some room to use their skills. The Flyers used it to intimidate their opposition on their way to two Stanley Cups. The Anaheim Ducks won a Cup using fighting in a similar fashion.

The push to get rid of fighting has only really picked up steam during this ridiculous age of political correctness. I think that that is one of the reasons that the pushback is so strong. People are sick and tired of being controlled by the sensibilities of the minority. There are definitely some great things that have come from being politically correct but it's gotten to the point that (I can't remember where) plumbers couldn't call stop cocks by their proper name because someone might get offended.

4. "It's to protect our star players."

This one certainly sounds ridiculous in light of the current state of the NHL where the rats are never actually held to account for their actions. Yesterday DGB highlighted the fact that the NHL has actually done a lot to curb one of the more popular aspects of their game in an attempt to attract the casual fan. In the 80s they brought in rules against bench clearing brawls and the third-man-in as well as the instigator rule.

Now, I am not sure whether there is any empirical proof that fighting does in fact deter dirty hits (or that it doesn't) but there is at least some anecdotal proof that it does in fact do so. There must be a reason why old-timers mention that there used to be a lot more respect in the game when they played beyond the usual rose-tinted view of the past. Or the fact that Gretzky did pretty well with Semenko policing the opposition. Or take the classic tale of Wendel Clark telling Pavel Bure that if Gino Odjick touched Doug Gilmour one more time that Wendel would take Pavel's head off. Predictably Odjick left Gilmour alone for the rest of the game.

Dangle is right in saying that there are much better ways to protect all of the players in the league. Perhaps demonstrating some commitment to dishing out actual justice regardless of status. The idea being that when a guy like Kostopoulos gets suspended 30 games for his vicious attack on van Ryn fans know that when Corey Perry throws a dirty elbow that he'll get at least 15 games. Those are the kinds of penalties that deter dirty plays.

Conclusion

It's an unfortunate reality that public dialogue has descended to "us v. them" on every topic. People like to see one of the two, usually false, choices in most debates and decide that their way is the only way that things can be done. Things do not have to be that way but in a world where the illusion of 'fair and balanced' leads people to believe that every wrongheaded extreme opinion deserves equal weighting and time as the moderate voice the fallout is a lack of proper debate.

Of course, the ones making the black-and-white arguments never pass up an opportunity to take potshots at their opponents:

People who defend fighting in hockey need to stop acting like they think every incident is a huge tragedy. If you really thought that, you'd ban it.

Oh those evil people that defend fighting. See how they pretend to be upset that a vibrant 21 year old was killed during a meaningless hockey game. I mean, they can't possibly have any real emotions because they support fighting.

A quick note to clarify what seems to be a confusing situation but fighting is banned in the league in which Don Sanderson played so it is both a tragic situation and a nonsensical one for the proponents of banning fighting to hold as an example of what could happen in the NHL. Maybe Steve wasn't aware of that fact.

Unfortunately, the reaction to these, yes, tragic and rare events is similar to that of Tim Mulcahy. His son and three friends drank themselves retarded, he decided to drive home in contravention of the law, and he killed two of his friends. Rather than rail at his son's failure he decided to try to pressure the Ontario government into making ridiculous changes to the teenage driving laws without taking into account that there are other ways to combat drunk driving among teens and that there would be unintended repercussions to the move. Luckily, the public saved the government from making a big mistake.

So what's my point? Basically, it's this: the issue of fighting is much more nuanced that anyone likes to admit. The real shame in this world is that there is no such thing as the middle ground. It's the same reason why any move by the Leafs that doesn't bring in a draft pick will find a huge amount of resistance. It's either a move that clears out veterans for picks and prospects or it's stupid. In this case it's ban fighting or you're a heartless idiot. I beg to differ.

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