Sunday, January 25, 2009

Why I'm not ashamed to like fighting

I tried. I really did.

I tried to stay out of the recent fighting debate, which predictably re-ignited after the Don Sanderson tragedy and seems to have its second wind after Friday's scary Garrett Klotz injury.

I think most of the back-and-forth over fighting is disingenuous, an example of media (and some bloggers) jumping on a controversial subject just to get some attention. And I've also come to learn that people generally visit this blog for OCD-level nostalgia and Kyle Wellwood fat jokes, not serious hockey talk. Which is fine.

But I have a problem. My side of the argument doesn't seem to be represented in the debate.

So here's my stance on fighting:

  1. I find it entertaining.
  2. I think the reduction in fighting during the Bettman era has contributed to a less interesting product.
  3. I'm not ashamed of #1 and 2.
Apparently I'm not supposed to say that. No, if I want to support fighting, I'm supposed to frame the argument as a safety issue (players must police themselves, they need an outlet, there must be accountability for cheap shots, etc).

Well, all of that may be true, or it may not. I don't play in the NHL, so I don't think I'm really qualified to say.

But I am a fan of the NHL, and I think that fans should be able to talk about what they do or don't find entertaining about a sport. And I thought the NHL was a lot more fun to watch when there was more fighting.

Is it insensitive to talk about entertainment value when we're dealing with the possibility of players being injured or even killed? Probably. But the NHL is an entertainment product. The league will grow or fade based on whether people think its product is more or less entertaining than any of the many alternatives.

Any discussion of a major rules change that ignore the impact on the entertainment value of the games is a meaningless exercise. It's fine as a philosophical argument, but not a real world one.

And before the anti-fighting folks feign their well-rehearsed outrage that we're even talking about entertainment, let's not forget that it used to be them who were banging that drum. Remember when the NHL just had to reduce fighting to help grow the game in the US, especially in non-traditional markets? Now that that strategy has been shown to be a failure, we're supposed to pretend that it was never about ratings in the first place.

Well frankly, I'm getting a little tired of hearing reporters who haven't bought a ticket in 20 years dismiss the feelings of fans. I'm getting a little tired of the holier-than-thou lectures -- all delivered over endless highlight reels of fights, of course. Got to grab those viewers, after all.

I think Don Sanderson's death was a tragedy, but I don't think it changes anything about the fighting debate. We always knew that a player could die in a fight. We also knew that it was extraordinarily unlikely. Both are still true.

But apparently only those who want fighting banned get to mourn Sanderson. Here's how one blogger put the argument: "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."

Bull. I can mourn Sanderson and I can cringe when a player gets hurt, and I can still believe that fighting has a place in the game. Hockey is a dangerous sport. Players take risks every time they take a hit, block a shot, or go into a corner. We've seen some horrible injuries over the years thanks to headshots, slapshots and stray skate blades. Accepting that a high-speed contact sport will carry a certain level of risk doesn't make me a caveman.

Look, I like fighting and want it to stay in the NHL, but I can also recognize that there are good arguments against it. I find it painful to have to listen to a guy like Mike Milbury talk about fighting's opponents as pansies and granola-crunchers.

Maybe the players are just too big and strong these days. Maybe our better understanding of concussions should change the discussion. Maybe something needs to be done about meaningless fights that don't seem to have any point beyond padding PIM totals.

Personally, I think the NHL should enforce better rules about helmets and chin straps. I think that a rule against slewfoot take-downs during fights sounds like a good idea.

I think there are lots of folks who want to see the NHL go even further who have their hearts in the right place. I just don't agree.

And I'd appreciate a little respect from the other side. It should be possible to like fighting -- not just support it or tolerate it, but actually like it -- without being dismissed as a knuckle-dragging thug.

Or at least it should. So save your lectures, media stars. I'm a fan. My voice counts too.


  1. Well freakin' said. E-mail this to Milbury.

  2. You think Milbury can read?

  3. Hockey fighting is like the monarchy in Canada. I don't mind it, it is part of our history but I wont stand in the way of it being abolished when that happens, and both will, one day.

    It just might take a death, Queen Elizabeth's natural passing in the monarchy's case, in hockey it might be something more serious.

    But I would rather see serious suspensions first for head shots, letting both feet leave the ice when hitting, or hitting from behind.

    Fighting is unecessary, it is in other sports, it doesnt NEED to be part of hockey, look at how great Olympic hockey is now, or the old Canada cup games. Thats hockey, and it doesnt need fighting.

    Milbury has trouble speaking with Cherry's hand up his spine anyway.

  4. I don't necessarily find hockey more entertaining with the fights and I think maybe the players have become too big and too strong and the injuries are going to start piling up and fighting will have to go. However what I find interesting about fighting in hockey and what makes it original among fighting in other sports it that it's so closely connected with the flow of the game.

    A hockey fight is rarely about individual pride or trying to seriously hurt the other guy but rather it's about trying to change the momentum of the game or protecting a star player or your teams self respect and that I think is an interesting phenomenon even if it is one that needs to go.

  5. I'm with you. I like a good punch up.

  6. The day I get on the "ban fighting" bandwagon is the day the NHL eliminates cheap shots by guys who do it because they know there won't be any retribution.

    In other words, it'll never happen.

  7. I agree for the most part. Check out "The Hockey Fight Manifesto":