Saturday, October 05, 2013

Old Scars, Hardly Forgotten

On opening night of the 2013-14 NHL season, inside the Bell Centre in Montreal, the debate over fighting's place in hockey was fired to the forefront as Colton Orr and George Parros became entangled, fell to the ice, and Parros slammed face-first into the ice, knocking himself momentarily unconscious and sending him to the hospital.

Every time someone is injured during a fight, or during a fight of some epic proportions - such as the pre-season line brawl between Toronto and Buffalo that saw John Scott target Phil Kessel, who then tried to chop Scott down to size with his stick, and saw Jimmy-eyed David Clarkson charge off the bench, resulting in an automatic 10-game suspension - the debate starts anew.  Ironically, the loudest chest-beating and name-calling comes from those that would remove fisticuffs and goonish behaviour entirely from the game, which is what we're here to talk about today.

I weighed in on Twitter long enough to express best wishes to Parros, and point out how the helmet removal rule may be a bit misguided, until I saw someone blaming the Maple Leafs for the continued presence of fighting in hockey.  I won't post the entire conversation, because it went back and forth, and meandered quite a bit, but essentially, it boiled down to:

We were arguing the same point - whether we both knew it - that, while fighting has always been a "part" of hockey, it's disappearance from the sport would not be an awful thing.

But how do you do it?

Surely, it can't be as simple as the Leafs - in their position as one of the biggest two or three hockey markets in the world - simply not icing a lineup consisting of designated fighters, can it?  No, not really.  That's similar to saying that the New York Yankees - as, probably, baseball's biggest market - should rally against the designated by having their pitcher bat in every game, thus causing a cascading effect resulting in baseball banning the designated hitter.1

It seems like nothing now, because so many of us have grown up with players wearing helmets, goalies wearing masks, and skilled players rather than a team of plugs clearing space for two or three stars, but it takes a long time for hockey - and sports mentality - to change.  It took over 60 years from the inception of the NHL for them to make helmets mandatory for the 1979-80, 11 years after Bill Masterton's death resulting from hitting his head on the ice, the oft-referenced motivated factor for helmets.  Not very motivating.

There has been plenty of talk about banning fighting as well.  Well, how do you "ban" something?  You can add things to the game, but you can't really ban anything.  Technically, fighting is "banned" in hockey now, it's banned in the same way that slashing, high-sticking and tripping are "banned" - it results in a penalty.  Fighting's not banned in baseball - the closest rule regarding such an event is probably 9.01(d) that says an umpire can disqualify a player for "unsportsmanlike conduct or language" - yet it's a pretty rare occasion that it actually happens.  It's not "banned" in any other major sport, but the penalties are generally - at least - immediate ejection from the game.

So how do you ban fighting in hockey?  The short answer is that you can't, you can only mitigate and effectively punish the individuals that fight.  And, frankly, that punishment is not a 5-minute penalty (plus two if you take your helmet off), or a 10-minute misconduct, or a game misconduct.  Perhaps it should be what it is in other sports - suspensions.  It would have to be amended to hockey - face-washing and the usually push-and-pull that goes on in front of the net isn't really "fighting" - but when two players square off, they and their teams have to know that they will be suspended (at least) one match.

Part of the delay, too,  is that rule changes like that have to go through the NHLPA, and "banning" fighting would result in lost jobs.  In 2011-12 (the last full season), 319 players had at least one fighting major, 79 players had at least five, 29 players had 10 or more.  That's quite a few lost jobs if the NHL "bans" fighting.

As I said, it's systemic - it's a cultural thing, its a mindset among the players and hockey community, and whether right or wrong, the people arguing for the outright removal of fighting from the game are not the ones that are actually fighting, or benefiting from having a fighter on the team.  When Wayne Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles, he insisted that Marty McSorley be part of the deal.  McSorley proceeded to rack up over 1,500 penalty minutes in the next five seasons, and 172 total points - just four more than Gretzky scored in his first season in California.2

So, no, banning fighting will never happen, because it could never work, not just because it would cost dozens of players their careers.  There needs to be a tangible shift in the way that fighting is viewed in the sport - not by the fans and media, but by the players and coaches.  Even the teams that "don't" fight typically have a prototypical "fighter" on their team, so whereas it may not be a team mentality, it's still something they have in their back pocket.

All told, I would not be crushed if fighting diminished in hockey,3 but I'm not naive or reactionary enough to think that this or the next ugly incident - no matter how serious - will throw the sport into upheaval.

1 - Perhaps a more apt analogy would be not fielding players with ties to steroids to get them out of the game, but the legal ramifications of that make it complicated
2 - Notwithstanding the mitigating factors here, namely Gretzky was one of the most sublimely talented players ever, playing in an incredibly offensive area
3 - Fighting has actually been down the past three season from it's high water mark from 2007-08 to 2009-10, but those seasons came after two very timid, by comparison, years in 2005-06 and 2006-07

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