To fight, or not to fight

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Now that I live in Philly there is no shortage of people to talk hockey with, but even after Sunday night’s WWF matchup hockey game between the deplorable Penguins and the Flyers, most have either been content to shrug and say “that’s playoff hockey” or are still foaming at the mouth from all the excitement.

All the shop talk has made me realize that I’m leaning towards a pretty unpopular argument: I think fighting should be banned in the NHL.

Even Grantland’s Katie Baker has danced the question, although the possibility of a ban seems to carry more weight than usual right now with more vicious playoff fighting this year than most people have ever seen.

I don’t think I’m ready to write an impassioned 800-word op-ed arguing for a fighting ban just yet, but I do think taking a thorough look at the pros and cons on each side of the coin might be a good starting place.

At the very least, it’s fair to say we can’t accept, “it’ll take away from the spirit of the game,” (or some version of that) as an excuse for avoiding this debate.

Argument: For allowing fighting in the NHL

PROS

1)   It’s tradition: fighting has always been part of the game (i.e., frontier justice, etc.)
2)   Allows to players to police themselves, especially if a ref misses a call
3)   Fighting is an outlet for frustration that prevents bigger, more dangerous hits
4)   Attracts fans
5)   Raises TV ratings

CONS

1)   Players try to control the game with fighting
2)   More injuries, especially to the head where most players tend to punch
3)   Feeds tempers and violence, especially when players that typically don’t fight get involved
4)   Could lead to more wild checks and dangerous behavior in the wake of a bad fight
5)   Fighting makes hockey players seem like goons instead of like athletes

Argument: For a ban on fighting in the NHL

PROS

1)   Fewer injuries from fighting and probably fewer missing teeth
2)   Junior hockey players wouldn’t feel compelled to fight in order to make it in the NHL
3)   Fewer distractions from regular play
4)   Fewer roster spots allocated to bruisers i.e., guys who can punch, but can’t actually skate
5)   Less rage, more strategy
6)   Potentially less damage, in the aggregate, to individual players’ heads
7)   Fewer players feeling obligated to fight because it’s their “job”

CONS

1)   Limited on-ice outlets for intense emotion or mutual dislike between opposing players
2)   TV ratings go down the tubes
3)   Loss of fans who like watching hockey for the fighting
4)   Fewer “bruiser” type players drafted to NHL
5)   Loss of frequently referenced “frontier justice”
6)   Lord Stanley turns over in his grave

Ok, ok, so that last one is not 100 percent rigorous.

What’s immediately interesting when you look over these lists is how different the pros and cons look depending on how you approach the argument — especially the pros.

The takeaway, so far, is there are a few issues that must be addressed in order to answer the question of whether fighting should be allowed in hockey: appeal of the game to fans and casual viewers, player welfare, player training from mites to pro, financial consequences for the league, and NHL playing style.

Like I said, I’m leaning towards the cut-the-crap-and-ban-fighting camp, though it’s a small one. But if there are pieces of this debate you think I’m missing, shoot me a note.

The controversy over fighting in the NHL is defining the way we play, watch, and talk about hockey today.

And, if we really care about the spirit of the game, it’s one that shouldn’t be dismissed for too much longer.

Yael Borofsky is a writer, editor, and Philadelphia sports fan. Follow her on Twitter @yaelborofsky.

Comments
4 Responses to “To fight, or not to fight”
  1. Paul Busch says:

    Some facts from someone who has been playing and watching hockey for almost 50 years,

    Although the NHL has always allowed fighting, it is not a tradition. In fact prior to the 70′s fights were rare, and fought by the stars themselves. When the Flyers became the Broadstreet Bullies the game changed for the worse. In 1974-75 the players association asked the NHL to ban fighting but the league refused. By the end of the 70′s all of the teams were adding enforcers and the fighting culture grew. Today everyone who plays, coaches, manages or owns a team, and most NHL executives, all grew up in that culture.

    Players do not police themselves, they exact revenge. Fighting peaked in the 80′s and 90′s and it was also some of the dirtiest hockey in history, with spearing, slashing, slew foots and finishing your check with an elbow to the head. There was no policing. I have stats from the past 12 seasons on my blog that show when fighting goes down, non-fighting penalties also are reduced. Teams that fight the most also incur more non-fighting penalties. Enforcers contribute to the violence, not control it. Artic Ice Hockey recently published some stats that show an enforcer gets 3-4 times more ice time late in the game when their team is down by 4 or more goals. That’s sending a message, not policing.

    Saying that fighting is an outlet for emotions is an insult to any dedicated sports professional who has show discipline to get to the NHL. They fight because it’s tolerated, not because they need to.

    It does attract fans, no question. But are they fans of hockey – fast paced action, the hard hitting and the artistry of the players. And how many fans are turned off by the violence because they think it’s wrestling on ice.

    The fighting does raise TV ratings but it also impacts the leagues ability to attract sponsors. The NHL has been getting daily calls from current partners and sponsors asking about this year’s playoffs. McDonalds, a relatively new advertisor with the NHL, can’t be too happy with the media attention.

    More info can be found on my blog at http://itsnotpartofthegame.blogspot.ca/

    • Yael Borofsky says:

      Paul, Thanks for the interesting comment and insight on some of the pros and cons I listed. I think you make some really excellent points. I’ll be checking out your blog, particularly the stats on fighting and penalties that you mentioned, so you may be fielding some questions from me soon. -yb

  2. I have never understood why fighting has the place it does in hockey. In no other sport are players allowed to “police themselves” or granted a free outlet to vent frustrations on the opposition outside of the game itself. Which has no shortage of opportunities for legal physical retribution. And while I don’t have Mr. Busch’s credentials nor stats to back it up, I certainly share his disbelief that fighting could do anything but breed more penalties and aggressive/dangerous play later on.

    NFL players miss games and weeks for fighting, yet in hockey it seems almost meaningless. Unless the referees determine that one player or the other is clearly “more responsible” than the other, there’s essentially no penalty (on their teams). Each player sits in the box for the same amount of time, and it’s a wash.

    I have never played hockey, but have participated in contact sports most of my life including football and rugby. I love aggression and physical play, but something turns my stomach when hockey players get a free pass to bare knuckle pummel each other. If they are having a bad day they should suck it up and retaliate with the next legal hit the same way athletes in every other contact sport do.

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  1. [...] 12.) Borofysky, Yael (2012). “To Fight or Not to Fight”. WordPress. Retrieved 11 March. 2013 from http://idlermag.com/2012/04/19/to-fight-or-not-to-fight/ [...]



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