by Chris Bodenner
A reader stresses the importance "enforcers":
Fighting in hockey is not "superfluous"; it's a necessary way of protecting the players on the ice. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but you need to follow hockey to get it. Fighting is a both a threat and a punishment for players who throw dirty hits. The teams that fight, that have players that stand up for one another, rarely see cheap hits against them. (The Bruins and the Rangers are the best example of this.) Because of the nature of hockey, it would be too easy for a fourth-line enforcer to destroy a first-line talent and take him out of the game if the only thing he had to fear was a suspension. Every player going up against the Bruins and the Rangers knows that they will be punished right then and there if they do not make good, clean checks.
Another adds, "Without the fight to settle the matter, I believe there would be a tit-for-tat of dirty and questionable hits that would make the game more dangerous." Another writes:
Actually, the set enforcer is a fading job in the game today.
While it is true that players who can handle themselves in a fight are highly valued by many organizations, there is no longer much room in most lineups for a player whose sole job is to fill that enforcer role as defined by your reader. (Hence Brian Burke's lament about his enforcer Colton Orr this season.) The game has gotten so fast and has put such a premium on skill that if you can't skate and play at both ends of the ice, you're being pushed out of the NHL. And there are teams like my Detroit Red Wings that don't even put a premium on guys who can skate, shoot, hit AND fight. They're more than satisfied with the first three.
One final point to contradict your reader: it's not just refusing to ban fighting that has the NHL's efforts to solve the concussion problem coming up short. The League has also refused to institute a head contact ban. The old guard has argued that it would take hitting out of the game entirely because players will be too afraid to try any hit whatsoever. Yet smart money says that with coaches still demanding the utmost intensity from their team, players would adjust. They'd find a way to be responsible for their bodies in a hit much like they are expected to be responsible for their sticks regardless of the circumstance (even an inadvertent light tap above the shoulders with a stick is a penalty).
The closest we've come to a head contact ban is a rule against blindside hits where the head is the principle point of contact. NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan has interpreted that somewhat loosely at times, to be sure, but nonetheless, needless concussions continue, largely due to the game's elder statesmen leaning hard on outdated thinking. That, coupled with an increased enforcement on boarding (hits from behind into the boards) and charging (mainly enforced as leaving the ice to make a hit), have helped, but there is still plenty of work to be done at the pro level of hockey.
So while the NFL has much more it can do to address the crisis, at least it has banned the obvious hits to the head. Both Leagues will have to address this issue more comprehensively sooner or later. I keep pulling for the NHL to get it on the sooner side, but progress has been slow.
While your reader is correct in noting that the NHL has attempted to deal with head injuries and violence, things are not as rosy as implied. There's a sense that, after starting with tough sanctions, Brendan Shanahan has gotten more lenient over the course of the season and that he's been "gotten to" by general managers and coaches who don't want players suspended for long periods of time.
The best way to move the game to one of more speed and agility and away from brute strength would be to increase the size of the rinks to those used in international play. That, of course, would cost owners money in terms of both construction costs and lost seats.
Another reader takes on Gopnik's analysis:
Anyone who is writing about fighting and hockey and says "No sane argument can be made that fighting contributes anything of value to the sport" and then claims " The proof, definitive, is that both Olympic hockey and women's hockey are played without any fighting at all and delight far more than the NHL's ever more corrupted form of play" can't possible be taken seriously.
There are plenty of arguments to be made that the value of fighting in hockey is negative but to claim there isn't anything of value added is absolutely nuts. It is difficult to compare the Olympics (a short tournament) to the NHL season. If there is a dirty hit in an Olympic game, the teams often won't be facing each other again. In the NHL, teams can face each other as much as 6 times in the regular season, let alone the playoffs where they face each other anywhere from 4 to 7 consecutive games.
Remember the Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore incident where Bertuzzi broke a bone in Moore's neck? I won't get into the debate on that specific incident but it started because Steve Moore, in a previous game, committed a very dirty hit on one of Vancouver's best players, Naslund, and Bertuzzi did that to him because Moore wouldn't fight him. The end result to eliminating fighting will not only likely increase dirty plays but most likely astronomically, as the responses won't be fights but spears, butt-ends, slew foots and slashes.
But the even more ridiculous claim is that women's hockey "delights far more" than the NHL. Give me a fucking break. It's a terribly stupid argument with absolutely zero evidence to support it, unless I'm missing the massive women's professional hockey league that averages filling up buildings with 17,000+ fans a night and massive national TV ratings.
One big solution to fixing the problem of head injuries? Get rid of enforcers. There are plenty of teams that don't have them. My favorite team, the San Jose Sharks, doesn't have one. They have guys that are tough and will fight but they don't have any enforcers playing for them. What the sport should be trying to eliminate is the guys who essentially are only there to fight.