Hockey Fighting

A Twitter screen shot from Hockey writer Sean McIndoe last night.

A Twitter screen shot from Hockey writer Sean McIndoe last night.

Editor’s note: This column was slated for publishing tomorrow because I wanted to give adequate time to publicize the previous article. However, after Montreal Canadien George Parros was carted off the ice on a stretcher after a fight, I felt it apropos to respond to McIndoe’s question as soon as I could.  My immediate response:

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Here is the entirety of my column, not to get a high five from those who already agree with me, but, as I said, authentic curiosity on the topic.  My stance has/is evolving. I’m curious how often people think about this.  

With less than five minutes remaining in the first period of Boston’s September 23rd preseason win over the Washington Capitols, Bruins play-by-play announcer Jack Edward declared, during a fight between Boston winger Milan Lucic and Washington’s Joel Rechlicz, that the latter was “assaulting Lucic’s knuckles with his nose.”  Clever use of the English language that I can appreciate in the same way I remember laughing when I once heard Steve Kerr say that he hit Michael Jordan in the fist with his face.

On a popular Boston blog that I visit daily (whose writers and posters would probably lambaste me for what will ultimately be my thesis here), it referred to both Edwards and Lucic being in midseason form, Edwards with the turns of phrase, Lucic with his fists.  And I’d probably agree with both statements.

Back when I was teaching a class in sports literature, I took it upon myself to divert from the curriculum to address what was becoming a significant issue in contact sports: concussions.  Former San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau had just killed himself, prompting yet another conversation as to what the price is for continuous hits to the head.  It was then that I came across a three-part New York Times article on former NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard – a.k.a. The “Boogeyman” – a feared fighter who’d died of a lethal overdoes in a Minnesota hotel room in 2011.  I’d heard the story, but hadn’t given it much thought in regard to head injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and definitely hadn’t thought about the correlation to fighting in the NHL.

I should admit here that I’m not a casual NHL fan.  I’m a very passionate NHL fan.  I’ve been watching the Boston Bruins play for a very long time, from the front of a crummy 20-inch screen in my parents living room listening to Dale Arnold to watching it from the luxury of a gigantic HD television.  And I will also admit that, for a very long time, a huge draw for me as a fan was the fighting, which I would – and many people still would – define as a way to enforce and police the gray areas of the sport that the referee’s could not.  Fighting is a way to galvanize a team.  Win or lose, the players on the bench tap their sticks on the boards to show their respects, fans in the crowd stand, still clapping and whistling, some re-creating the fight with their buddies while holding onto a 16 oz. beer.

Fighting in the NHL – or, if you’re particularly keen on watching brawls on skates, leagues across the world – has given relevancy to casual fans of a sport in the same way crashes in NASCAR have made casual fans more interested in cars making four left turns over and over and over for 500 miles.  I’m not trying to isolate or marginalize fans, but I’ve heard – as I think most people have – that the only reason to watch hockey is for the fights, to watch NASCAR for the crashes.  In a way, it’s essentially the same thing: watching athletes hurt themselves and others for entertainment (which is also an age-old practice.  We’ve been doing this for thousands of years).

I think I'm not alone when I say I used to be the first one out of my seat for a hockey fight.  Now, I kind of hate that person.

I think I’m not alone when I say I used to be the first one out of my seat for a hockey fight. Now, I kind of hate that person.

That being said, I’m certain that there are hockey purists who consider fighting somewhere outside of the top ten things they love about hockey.  There are people who watch the sport – and have been watching the sport for many years – that watch for reasons besides fighting.  These people, I believe, are in the majority.  They have strong opinions on rule changes, expansion teams, Gary Bettman.  They probably have a team that they hate with more passion than they hate anything in the entire world.  But I also believe that many of these people are the same people who ardently defend fightings spot within the sport.  There are a dozen different defenses for fighting.  We know them by heart, so that we can use them when we’re confronted with the barbarism that some blogger or hockey writer will claim exists within the sport.

It was somewhere within the reading and discussion with my class about Derek Boogaard that my brain clicked and decided that we shouldn’t be fighting in professional hockey anymore.  The unwritten code of conduct for players allows for fighting, the refs circling to break the fight up at inactivity or a knock-down; there’s an etiquette to fighting, a guy doesn’t want to fight, you don’t fight.  These are elements of the topic that I understand.  I’m not sure, though, anyone would argue that getting punched in the face a bunch of times doesn’t do significant damage to our brains.

And we’re just beginning to learn of how severe those effects are.

Ridding the sport of fighting might not get rid of all the problems regarding head injuries.  There will still be violent checks that take place mid-ice, a young forward skating through the neutral zone in the crosshairs of a defender who has a chip on his shoulder; It won’t stop the bone-crushing checks in the boards while chasing a puck.  Rule changes and safety equipment can help in a small way with this.  There’s only one rule change that can be made to prevent a fist from hitting someone’s face: get rid of fighting.

My stance is an unpopular one. And it’s an evolving one.

The one argument that my students always used – “It’s their choice to play hockey, to fight” – might be rendered moot.  They’re right: fighting is a choice, albeit sometimes not a very difficult one to make.  You do it for your team, your dignity, your very large paycheck.  Eliminating fighting would eliminate a choice that has to be made.

I’m fortunate to live in an area that has wildly successful college hockey and the best college hockey conference in the country: Hockey East.  Five of the last six NCAA Frozen Four Champions call New England home.  There’s a surplus of good hockey – live and on TV – available to people in my area.

The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver held one of the greatest hockey games I’ve ever watched, the gold medal game between the United States and Canada.  Red, white and blue apparel on, my brother and I’s voice echoed through the neighborhood as Zach Parise netted the tying goal with 25 seconds remaining in regulation. The Canadians won 3-2 on a Sidney Crosby OT goal.

NHL playoff hockey is considered the best postseason tournament in professional sports.  The Bruins, after having blown a 3-1 series lead to the Toronto Maple Leafs, were down three goals with ten minutes left in game seven, and came back to win in OT; The same Bruins, up 2-1 with just over a minute left in game six of the Stanley Cup gave up two goals in 17 seconds.  These heart-pounding, heart-breaking scenarios won’t happen again individually for a long time, never mind within the same four week span.

The common thread in all of this: there’s little to no fighting in any of these games.  It’s hockey at it’s highest level, almost completely devoid of fighting.

When the videos of the four fights during the Bruins-Capitols preseason game came available on the blog, I had no heart to watch them.  I feel an odd sense of disapproval and discomfort when, in the midst of a game, two combatants drop their gloves and circle one another.  “I was at a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out,” was what Rodney Dangerfield once said, presumably to laughter.  I feel hypocritical when I watch a hockey fight more due to simply having the game on in front of me than seeking out video clips online.  I feel hypocritical in the same way I enjoy boxing or MMA.  The difference, though, is that I strongly believe that it’s an unnecessary evil.  Boxing and MMA are sports in which people fight.  Eliminating fighting in those sports is turning it into ballroom dancing.

I’m asking, as a writer/hockey fan/curious person, how – knowing now how brain injuries affect a person’s short- and long-term health, from physical, mental and emotional standpoints – a person can reconcile advocating fighting in hockey.  How do we morally justify placing a stranger’s well-being behind our own desire for gladiatorial entertainment?  Do you think about the suffering of either combatant?  If you do, what ethical convictions have you worked out that permit you to not just watch, but enjoy these battles?  If the suffering of these men is not something you think about, why not?  Is your non-thinking about this a conscious or unconscious decision?  I’m asking not because I have the answers myself and wish to moralize on anyone.  I’m asking because I’m genuinely curious.

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