It’s the issue that divides hockey fans, has caused more bitter arguments than your average bad marriage and is the elephant in the corner of hockey’s living room that’s growing bigger and bigger with every assault, every act of idiocy, every sucker punch and every bad hit.
Does hockey really need it?
The issue has been brought into sharp focus again this week with incidents in both the NHL and EIHL. In the NHL, Philadelphia’s Ray Emery managed to somehow get the 3rd star in a 7-0 loss for skating 200ft to give his opposite number Braden Holtby a beating that may have left him concussed. And last night in the EIHL Cardiff’s Andrew Conboy was caught on camera trying to remove Belfast’s Jeff Mason’s eye with his index finger.
Both incidents, in their own way, add further fuel to the growing opinion that say the only non-combat sport on the planet to tacitly allow open fighting during a game should finally, finally, move with the times-and force it out.
Listen-before the pro-fight lobby pile in with their knee-jerk reactions of “GO AND WATCH FIGURE SKATING! and IT’S A CONTACT SPORT!, I’m not some kum-by-yah-singing pacifist moralising who’s never set foot on a rink. I’ve played the game myself for thirteen years, and been involved in a scrum or two myself. I know all the arguments that say that when you have a lot of men flying around a confined space swinging sticks at each other with blades on their feet, occasionally it gets a little heated. Fighting will never be fully eliminated from a game in the same way it’ll never be eliminated from any other sport.
But all the arguments that the pro-fighting lobby use as justification, including those from the players themselves, are being weakened bit by bit to the point where the hockey world has to change-and the Ray Emery & Andrew Conboy incidents are only further examples of this happening.
Firstly-the Emery fight happened and was indeed praised by the commentators on the night as being part of a team “sending a message”. Often in hockey blowouts or when a team is losing you’ll hear talk of teams “making a point” by randomly deciding to drop the gloves, when all it actually is is a bunch of angry sportsmen using a fighting rule and a lack of consequences to take out their frustration at losing by getting a thump in at the opposition. While fighting is still tacitly allowed and the only penalty is likely to be a five minute sit in the box or at most a player missing the rest of a game that’s already lost, the temptation to exact some physical revenge on an opponent for no other reason than some vaguely defended notion of “sending a message” then needless fight will always be at least equal to “defensible” fights.
“But wait!” say the pro-fighting lobby. “if we accept that the “sending a message” reason for fighting is often so much flimsy posturing and can go, we still have the fact that the fact fighting exists stops dirty play, right?”
Let’s look at the UK so far this season. In a league where fighting is supposedly a factor in keeping agitators etc in line, we’ve had suspensions so far for:
Hits from behind
Hits to the head
Slashing (that removed the top of a player’s finger THROUGH A GLOVE.
This weekend alone we’ve had a racism row in the EPL and Andrew Conboy caught on camera trying to start the process of turning Jeff Mason into a pirate with the removal of an eye (an act which by the way didn’t see a Giants player jump in to exact justice in exactly the way we’re told fighting works).
The facts say that fighting as a deterrent simply doesn’t deter enough. The very culture that emphasises responsibility and frontier justice in hockey is making fighting meaningless.
Toronto and former team USA GM Brian Burke defends fighting by claiming that players know what they sign up for and players know that they will be held accountable for on-ice actions and that dirty play likely means physical retribution, and that keeps them in line. But the fact is that most of those who land the dirty hits, swing their sticks etc also know what they’re risking and taking responsibility for-and they don’t care. They’ll take a punch in the face to win a game, no question.
The logic of saying fighting stops these acts is exactly the same as saying “by allowing the odd murder we’ll stop a lot more people being killed”. It’s fallacious. Ken Dryden, one of the most decorated players in the game and also one of its most eloquent and thoughtful writers, makes the point beautifully here, while also pointing out that had hockey held the same backward notice and stubborn resistance to change throughout its history as it does to the fighting culture, we wouldn’t have seen some of the greatest players in history ply their trade.
Oh yeah-and that “fighting is necessary deterrent” argument again…if that’s truly a case then why do the number of fights DROP sharply as the games get more important and why do we see those players who fight the most scratched or given reduced roles in the playoffs, Olympics and World Championships without a corresponding rise in dirty play, bad hits etc-and why are we still seeing incidents like that of Andrew Conboy’s gouge on Sunday even with fighting possible?
It’s because despite the claims of those who have built their careers on it and those unwilling to embrace change, hockey is changing. As Ken Dryden says, the case for people having fights is getting weaker and weaker. With stronger discipline, less ability for “dirty” players to hide with TV coverage everywhere and coaches realising that they’d rather have players who can contribute with their gloves on first rather than off, there has never been a better time to relegate fighting to the marginal status it deserves. I accept that you’ll never eliminate it completely, but let’s make it a minimum of a 5+game penalty in the EIHL as many Euro, junior and NCAA leagues already have. Hockey players just don’t grow up with fighting being as acceptable as it was any more.
If the EIHL follows the lead of Europe and makes fighting a game penalty, the league won’t suffer. It’ll get better.
And anyone who says otherwise is only dropping the gloves with progress, in a fight they’ll hopefully lose.