My Love/Hate Relationship With Fighting In Hockey
I love fighting in hockey. I also hate fighting in hockey. For me, it’s one of the most entertaining parts of a game (provided it’s not horribly staged COUGHGOOSEVSLUCICCOUGH), but it’s also the one facet of the sport that I wouldn’t have any problem seeing eliminated.
A fight in hockey is a beast unlike any other in professional sports (pipe down, box lacrosse fans. I’m one of you, too). A star player is decked, or the home team is taunted, or the game is swinging in favor of one team, and the gloves come off. It’s a camaraderie kind of thing (Ellis vs Bourdon after the latter boarded Gerbe badly), or it’s a spark plug kind of thing (McCormick challenged by Getzlaf in 10/11), or it’s a respect kind of thing (last night’s shenanigans involving Anisimov mock-sniping Garon with his rifle and the brouhaha that followed). It brings teammates closer knowing they’ve got each other’s backs, and it brings fans out of the seats with a howl. I can’t count the number of times I’ve turned into a cheering animal at the sight of seeing a Sabres thrown down and tee up his opponent. One of the custom graphics I had designed for BBG was a caricature of Patrick Kaleta delivering a punch to Zack Smith’s head. I have Hockey Fights both bookmarked and added to my RSS reader. I love watching the violence and power of a hockey fight, especially old-school scraps like Zack Kassian’s very first NHL versus Matt Martin, or the unexpected coming-to of blows between unusual opponents, like Drew Stafford vs Ilya Kovalchuk or Corey Perry vs Pavel Datsyuk. When a pair of opponents create history between themselves, a la Rob Ray and Tie Domi, it makes for an entertaining spectacle sure to last years (Corey Tropp and Zac Rinaldo are nemeses stretching back to the 10/11 AHL season). Fighting in hockey is one helluva thing.
But it leaves the combatants’ bodies broken and their minds muddled. Former enforcers have recently opened up about the gnawing anxiety the role caused, the many sleepless nights questioning one’s desire to stay in the game in such a fashion. They’ve talked about how they have memory lapses, black outs, and confusing stretches of time day after day. And, when they’ve passed, their brains revealed the devastating final truth of their calling. In a recent, heart-rending three-part story from the New York Times, it was revealed that Derek Boogaard had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) more developed at 28 than legendary enforcer Bob Probert did at 45. Probert’s hockey career was three times the length of Boogaard’s and featured some of the most head-crunching fights in NHL history. Sit back and think about the following phrase for a while – Derek Boogaard dying of an accidental overdose was almost certainly a better fate than living through the dementia that was likely to begin in earnest in his mid-thirties. Think about that. Heart-breaking.
It’s time to get ranty, kids. NSFW (language) after the jump.
Where the fuck does the NHL get off saying they’re in the business of avoiding head injuries when a spectacle featuring two grown men throwing punches at each other’s skulls is marketed and back-handedly endorsed by top brass? Gary goddamned Bettman tells microphones shoved in his face about eliminating head hits but then shoves aside questions about fighting with a glib “They’re already penalized, so yeah whatever” comment? Get the fuck out of Dodge, Gary. I don’t care if head hits are being penalized with suspensions not nearly harsh enough to send a message to the offending players and players on teams around the league (side note: I wrote recently Shanahan deserves the season to get his bearings as principal. Screw that – bring in someone who gives a shit about injuries, like a battered former offensive star instead of one who punched the poop out of people his entire career) because head hits via fists delivered by willing combatants who are allowed to proceed as on-ice officals – ON-FUCKING-ICE OFFICIALS – wait to break it up until the gladiators du jour are too gassed to continue.
I get the arguments for fighting. It’s a tradition, it’s a part of the game, it’s important now more than ever because of the instigator, blah blah blah. The league props up fighting with highlights on the front page of NHL.com whilst simultaneously condemning head hits with videos from Shanahan reading from cue cards with about as much life in his eyes as a porn star trying out for a soap opera. Cut the shit, NHL. Cut the shit. If you really care about the players’ safety, you go that extra step to eliminate a seemingly-sanctioned method of delivering head hits and ban fighting. No more horror stories like Todd Fedoruk’s misshapen titanium face. No more summers like this last one, with three fighters all passing in far too short of a timeframe.
Am I entertained by fighting in hockey. Hell yes I am. I’ve screamed for blood when the game stops so the battle can be fought. I’ve reacted with oohs and ahhs in wonderment of particularly-terrifying hooks landed cleanly. But I also hate – fucking HATE – reading about the psychological effects that part of the game has on guys and the toll it’s taken on them. I don’t ever want to see a story again about how a man who died at age 28 – only two years older than myself at the time of this writing – would have had the debilitating of dementia around forty years earlier than he should have, if ever. The closing line of that story – “For months, he could not bear the thought of his son’s death. Suddenly, he was forced to imagine the life his son might have been left to live.” – is one of the most tragic things I’ve ever read. Don’t even get me started on trying to explain fighting to my son, who is a second-year hockey player with an overdeveloped sense of justice at seven years old. Long story short, I forbade him from ever fighting while he plays the game. It’s easy for one parent to look his child in the eyes and say that. Amid all the cries defending it, league executives should be able to do the same.
The league-sanctioned head shots have to stop, NHL brass. Stop dicking around and do the right thing.
I intentionally led this post with an embedded video of Tropp and Rinaldo trading blows. That was a damn good fight, but it featured Tropp throwing hurtin’ bombs at the exposed side of Rinaldo’s head. Amazing and ugly all at once.