"Are hockey fights really necessary?"... "What's the point?"... "How can you condone the same type of behavior on the ice that you would be arrested for off the ice?"... If you’re a hockey player, fan, or both, I’m sure that you’ve heard these questions before. Maybe you’ve asked yourself the very same questions. So, how do you respond when you’re confronted by someone who sees hockey fights, or perhaps, even the very sport of hockey as nothing more than barbarians with clubs and blades?
The Roots of Fighting in Hockey
Fisticuffs have been a part of North American hockey since the first leagues were formed in the late 1800’s / early 1900’s. In those days, there weren’t any half-skilled, one dimensional “enforcers” or “goons” taking up roster spots; that trend arose in the 1970’s and thrived in the 1980’s. When the sport of ice hockey was still young, in the pre-expansion era, securing a roster spot on a professional team was no simple task; it was a cut-throat competition that kept every player on his toes, ready to fight for his right to play.
Pride and honor are far too lofty for the hearts of the weak. Desperation and hunger fueled the fire in every player who earned his right to step onto the ice. The game was rough and raw, and the stakes were always high. If you’re a hockey player, you know exactly what I’m talking about. When it’s game time, nothing else matters. And when every player has that mindset, there are bound to be altercations.
As I said before, in the early years goons didn’t make the cut because they didn’t have the skills to compete. So who was dropping the gloves? When someone was fed up with the cheap shots being dished out by an opposing player, they slugged it out and reestablished the terms of engagement. The ref simply can’t and won’t see every stick in the gut or chop on the laces. So if someone was bustin’ your chops, you squared up, dropped the mitts and let him know that you weren’t gonna take it.
It may seem primitive, but what the casual observer doesn’t recognize is that there are several, unspoken, but clearly understood rules that the players subject themselves to when it’s time to dance. “The code” is what keeps a fight from turning into an assault. A few of the fundamental rules would include the prohibition of hair-pulling, eye-gauging, fish-hooking, punching your opponent when he’s down, and many others.
In addition to these seemingly obvious lines in the sand, it’s important to understand that fights rarely break out without a verbal agreement between the players beforehand. This is the first and most important rule. To give a loose analogy, imagine that you’re asking a girl to join you for a dance. If she says no, would you grab her by the arm and drag her out onto the dance floor as she kicks and screams trying to break free? Absolutely not – you would lose the respect of the girl and everyone else who witnessed the incident.
Such is the case when you’re playing hockey and your opponent is primed for a beating. Unless he consents, you do NOT engage. There are many reasons why a player may choose to decline, and that’s his prerogative. Maybe he’s playing with an injury, or his coach has given him specific instructions not to fight in that particular game. If you ask, you might even get a legitimate answer. Or he might just be scared. Whatever the case, no one has the right to assault an unsuspecting player.
Hockey Fights in the 21st Century
Hockey has evolved quite a bit since its humble beginnings. Some changes have been for good, others have not. We all have our own opinions on the subject. With these changes to the rules, equipment, and the overall style of play, fighting has also evolved. Players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before. In fact, the average NHL player today is about 2” taller than the average player in the 1920’s. Modern training methods have also increased the skill level and overall athleticism of the 21st century athlete.
The game has certainly evolved over the last century, but the sole purpose of hockey fights has remained the same – regulation of the players by the players. Now, we can’t be naïve and pretend that fighting isn’t also used as a means of intimidation, swinging the pendulum of momentum in your team’s favor, settling personal vendettas, and pure entertainment value. Those are the natural byproducts of fighting, but at the core we can clearly see that fighting is a way for the players to keep one another in check and protect the scorers, danglers and playmakers who are often the targets of the opposition.
Critics of Hockey Fights
I think we can all agree that it’s a sad sight to see a player fall to the ice unconscious, bloodied, and broken. There’s still something inside us, or at least some of us, that enjoys the raw carnage. But, once again, that’s simply a perverse byproduct of fighting in hockey, and it shouldn’t be dismissed as we consider the motives behind fighting in hockey. Unfortunately, there are goons out there who are hell-bent on breaking the bodies of their opponents. Many critics are quick to point the finger at the men with no mitts, but I would propose that in most cases, the biggest goons on the ice are the hackers, choppers, and ‘bow-throwers – not just the fighters. They’re quick to target the goaltender and they’ll bend the rules when no one is looking, just to piss off you and your ‘mates.
Anyone who spends much of their time watching or playing ice hockey knows that goons don’t target other goons – they go after the star players. They agitate, frustrate, intimidate, and do whatever else they can to get a scorer off his game. If a player is being targeted by an opposing player, it’s the responsibility of the referees to make an assessment of the methods being used and then determine whether or not to penalize the player(s) in question. If the referee fails to handle the situation, the enforcer gets a tap on the shoulder, makes his way onto the ice and confronts the offender. The goon knew all along that his time was coming, so he graciously receives his beating and serves his 5 minutes along with the player who was assigned to the task of restoring civility. Problem solved – in most cases.
Of course, there are times when a player involved in an altercation is injured. Sometimes the injuries are quite severe. Take the Colton Orr vs. Todd Fedoruk fight shown in the video above. Fedoruk is an agitator. As the announcers stated, in the previous meeting between the two teams he was running around hitting everything that moved, wreaking havoc on the ice. So, Colton Orr was sent out to deal with the situation. The result was unfortunate. Fedoruk was knocked unconscious and consequently missed several months of action. It happens, but not much. When it does, we all have the same gut reaction. Does that mean that fighting should be banned? In my opinion, and the opinion of many others, these isolated incidents do not warrant a full-scale ban on an integral part of our game. The majority of hockey fans and players agree that fighting should remain, while those of the general population seem to think they know better.
The Heart of the Fight
I suppose it begs the question, can the anti-fighting proponents see things from a less biased perspective, or are they speaking out of ignorance? And, are we truly holding on to this sacred part of our game for the right reasons? It’s worth thinking about, and I would recommend that you examine your heart and mind on the issue. Our goal ought to be to provide an entertaining game which appeals to as many people as possible. If fighting is the only reason that a fan comes to a hockey game, God bless him, but he’s missing the mark. Most of us love a good scrap, but our sport has so much more to offer.
I still believe that fighting has its place in our game, and I think it always will. But, as a community of fans and players, we need to make sure that the spotlight stays focused on the playmakers, goal scorers, danglers, and soft-handed toe-draggers, not the bare-knuckle boxers. Every player has an important role on his team, but KO’s don’t win games, goals do.
Let’s do our best to remember why we picked up our first hockey stick as a child.