Fighting Debate Rages On

Earlier this season, in a column entitled Slap Shot Versus Soccer, I addressed a very real concern: that a large percentage of diehard hockey fans have been turned off by the lack of physicality in today’s NHL. The response to the column was quite vociferous, with a huge percentage of readers acknowledging that they were in fact discouraged by the diminished emphasis on hard-nosed, physical play. And for many of those fans, smash-mouth hockey also includes fighting; the more, the better.

“Fighting is part of the NHL game, and always has been,” goes the argument. From Eddie Shore and Gordie Howe to the Big Bad Bruins, and from the Broad Street Bullies to Tie Domi and Bob Probert, fighting has without question played a very significant role in the NHL’s storied history. But some very significant things have changed where fighting is concerned, changes that shouldn’t be ignored when considering its place in today’s game.

In the old days, it was “slash me and I’ll beat the tar out of you… you’ll think twice next time.” Gordie Howe, Maurice “Rocket” Richard, they all fought their own battles. Fighting happened when the emotions boiled over, and the guys engaging in fisticuffs were all critical to their team’s on-ice (goal-scoring, goal-prevention) success. Some might dislike this “eye for an eye” approach, but in a league of only six teams—the players all very familiar with one another—it worked quite well.

Today, a very small minority of players do the lion’s share of the fighting. Known as enforcers, these players came into prominence in the 1970s, in response to the successes of the “Big Bad Bruins” and the “Broad Street Bullies.” Purportedly, these enforcers’ role is to police the game, preventing dirty stick-work and making it possible for the NHL’s stars to shine. And the prime example of how this works came back in the 1980s, when the likes of Marty McSorley and Dave Semenko rode shotgun for Wayne Gretzky, giving the “Great One” the freedom to work his magic on a nightly basis.

Under the current code, it’s “hit our star and our four-minutes-per-night enforcer will try to exact vigilante justice on your team’s four-minutes-per-night enforcer.” And the only time the situation seems to have any justification is like on Wednesday night, when Todd Fedorok (ostensibly supposed to be a “policeman” preventing chippy, dirty stickwork) “got his” for abuse of Jaromir Jagr in a previous game. Fedoruk dropped the gloves with Rangers enforcer Colton Orr just 21 seconds into Wednesday’s Rangers-Flyers game, and left the ice on a stretcher after receiving a devastating knockout punch.

“I’m not afraid now to talk about the fact that we should look at fighting in hockey,” Colin Campbell, the NHL’s Director of Hockey Operations, told the Canadian Press in response to the incident. “I think if you discussed this even three or four years ago you would have got pooh-poohed out of the game. But now I think because of the size of our players, where we’re at in sports and in life, I think we have to look at it. This year we’ve had two players carried out on stretchers because of fair, consenting fights that had taken place… It scares you. I think we, the players and the managers, have to look at this aspect of the game.”

Fedoruk is recovering nicely, though he probably won’t suit up for the Flyers again this season. But the point here is not to feel sorry for Fedoruk, who on Wednesday night died by the sword he’s lived by during his six-year NHL career. Although Fedoruk was fortunate to escape the fight relatively unscathed, Orr’s blow was potentially lethal. And the backlash from an actually lethal blow would probably be more bad PR than the NHL can handle. So the debate worth engaging is this one: do players like Fedoruk and Orr actually belong in today’s NHL?

The Rangers and their fans celebrated Orr’s work as a policeman on Wednesday night, because he effectively stopped Fedoruk from taking liberties with Jagr. Though he was supposedly on the ice to police the game, Fedoruk—like so many other enforcers around the league—was instead perpetrating mayhem. Put simply, Fedoruk—much like Chris Simon and many others—was being a “bad cop.”

At the NHL level, hockey is played at an incredibly fast speed. The athletes get bigger and bigger, and the collisions get harder and harder, yet the rink remains the same exact size. And even with the presence of four officials on the ice, numerous infractions go unpunished, many of them more deserving of penalty than the litany of obstruction calls away from the play that do get called. The crackdown on obstruction and interference has certainly sped up play, but as a result, it’s increased the speed of impact in each collision and it’s made the game even harder for the officials to follow. And it is, at least to a degree, incumbent upon the players to police themselves.

“I worry about what would happen if there wasn’t a way to let out the frustration with a fight,” said Coyotes forward Jeremy Roenick. “Because let’s face it, there is absolutely no respect in the game any more, with the way guys are taking runs at people and with the cheap shots and the late hits. Guys are getting hurt. If you take fighting out all of a sudden these guys are going to take even more liberties because they don’t have to be accountable for themselves. I think somebody is going to get hurt more from a vicious hit from a guy not being worried that he has to drop his gloves and get his ass kicked.”

So if fans don’t want to see star players like Jagr “abused” and pushed around by “bad cops” like Fedoruk, what’s the answer? It doesn’t seem to be “more policemen like Orr,” that’s for certain. Back on December 30, Orr earned a five-game suspension for cross-checking Alex Ovechkin in the face, demonstrating that just like all of the other on-ice policemen, he too is prone to severe lapses in judgment and is occasionally a “bad cop” in his own right.

Indeed, if so many of these cops are “bad,” then the policing system clearly needs a complete overhaul. The NHL changed the rules to eradicate clutching and grabbing that slowed it to a crawl, and all the “old time” hockey fans cried foul, complaining that their game has lost its physicality. Would another round of rule changes actually solve this problem, or would it only serve to further alienate the sport’s core fan base?

This is a very difficult problem Campbell is facing head-on. Without question, many hockey fans cheer louder for fights than for home-team goals. Eliminating fighting from the game will be a costly maneuver, for it will serve to alienate many of these loyal fans. And it will exact a huge consequential price in terms of ticket sales, television ratings, concession receipts, and customized jersey sales.

“I think you’re going to lose fans,” Roenick concurred. “As much as I hate to say it — because you’d like to think everybody comes to see the exciting players do their thing — but there’s a large amount of people who love the physical, tough aspect of our sport. And fighting is a favorite of a lot of people.”

Of course, the contrary argument is that the NHL will open the floodgates for an influx of new fans, sports fans who previously turned away from hockey because of the violence and mayhem. But that fan base would take years, if not decades, to cultivate. Don’t envy Campbell right now, for at least in the short-term, he’s in a no-win situation.

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