As a pre-pubescent boy, I thought fighting was cool. I watched violent action movies, and the thing I liked best about hockey was the fighting – especially when NHL ’98 entered a Mortal Kombat-style mini-game every time players engaged in a scuffle. But as I have aged and matured, my opinions have changed: I cringe at every episode of Dexter, and I now view fighting in hockey as unnecessary barbarism rather than entertaining fodder.
I don’t pretend to be a hockey expert – my remote interest in the sport was lost with the 2004 lockout – but I do have a problem with how the NHL carries out its business. No other professional sport allows fighting. Though fighting garners a penalty in hockey, one could see this as a slap on the wrist compared to the punishments doled out by other leagues. In the NFL, an errant punch is grounds for throwing a player out of the game, and in the MLB the suspicion that a pitcher might be throwing at a batter may send the pitcher to the clubhouse. The ejection for fighting in most other sports is often accompanied by a suspension. Meanwhile, NHL players only get five minutes in the penalty box.
In February, an article written by The Daily’s Sports editor Michael Lee-Murphy cited a recent retaliatory fight between David Booth and Mike Richards, who came to blows in a March game over an October incident in which Richards hit Booth and gave him a serious concussion. “Any skeptics looking for the justification of fighting in the NHL need only look to the Booth-Richards fight for a demonstration of hockey’s complex psychodrama of which fighting plays an indispensable role,” Lee-Murphy wrote. Despite his efforts, I am not convinced.
A friend who is a far more enthusiastic hockey fan than I am once disparaged a team for “not having anyone willing to fight.” The fact that general managers often sign enforcers – colloquially known as “goons” – mainly for the purpose of fighting, rather than their athletic ability, makes me less willing to engage with the sport. My friend also said that fighting is informally institutionalized in part because referees do not do enough to protect players. Despite this rationale, players should not have to police their own game in order to protect themselves and their teammates. If this is the case, there is a fundamental flaw in the way the league works. Fighting is embedded in the culture of North American hockey, and the league’s lack of action only enables this violence. In the NFL, penalties and fines for dirty hits are issued during and after the game, respectively, in an effort to curb the risk of injury. Booth’s desire to retaliate against Richards is an unfortunate product of this violent culture.
Recently, the NHL implemented a new rule prohibiting blindside hits in order to protect players. But even if the NHL is finally getting serious about its players’ health, the practice of fighting in the NHL is unlikely to go, as it is a popular aspect of the game and a means for players to police their own game and to defend their honour.
Nothing makes a statement better than the crisp remarks of a clenched fist. But ultimately, fighting contributes little to the game besides a way for players to vent their pent-up aggression and for fans to watch people duke it out without going to a boxing match. While fighting has become entrenched in North America, the European leagues and amateur North American ones are still functional and viable without it.
That is not to say fighting is a phenomenon strictly present in the NHL. In most professional sports, fights break out when tension and testosterone run high. However, hockey is the only sport that encourages this kind of behaviour, and in doing so, puts the safety of its players on the line and allows a culture of violence to persist that turns away prospective fans.