by Chris Bodenner
A reader writes:
The most sensible explanation I've heard for why fighting is sanctioned in hockey is because the players are all wielding potential murder weapons – their sticks. By allowing players to sort out their grievances over dirty hits with bare-knuckle fights (and even instilling in players the idea that this is acceptable from a young age, which is what watching the NHL does) you make it less likely that a player will take a hard swipe at another player with his hockey stick in a moment of rage. They are conditioned, by ritual, to drop the stick and the gloves and start throwing punches.
I'm not sure I totally buy that explanation (or that other remedies aren't available) but you can kind of imagine an immature kid in a peewee hockey league lashing out in a moment of frustration using the object most handy, his stick.
One of your commenters wrote: "Professional basketball, particularly during the playoffs, is every bit as physical, especially under the basket, as hockey." If I had been drinking anything when I read that I would have spit it all over my screen. I can only assume that this person has never watched a professional hockey game in their entire life.
This is a foul in basketball. Not just a foul, but a flagrant foul that resulted in the ejection of the player from the game. Hardly a nightly occurrence in the NBA. What was the terrible offense? He bumped a guy with his shoulder and that guy almost (gasp!!!) … almost fell down! He like, had to put a hand down to catch himself and everything!
This is the official video guidance from the NHL rules enforcement department on both illegal and legal hits under rule 48 (hits to the head). Check the legal hits starting at 2:20 of the video. The first one, and then the one at 2:53, are particularly instructive. Those by themselves make your reader's comment absurd; those players get leveled, beyond anything any NBA player has ever experienced in their entire career foul or no foul. And that’s what's permitted! Hits that go beyond that, sometimes well beyond that, and draw penalties are nightly occurrences and NHL players have to operate in that physical reality as well.
I remember watching Trevor Linden put a guy through a plate of plexi-glass and into the stands during the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs. That was a legal hit too. No penalty called. So claiming that the NHL and NBA have comparable levels of physicality is like saying the same of the NFL and your neighborhood flag football game.
Here it is important to make a distinction between watching pro sports and participating in sports. I hear people say all the time that sports teaches you the value of hard work and dedication and other wonderful things. Yeah, participating in sport does. Watching pro sports teaches you none of that. It's like expecting to gain values from watching someone do math. It's laughable. You might gain some technical know-how, but without doing the thing for yourself, you will not learn values or gain meaning from the experience because it was vicarious.
Pro sports is just entertainment, and grafting arbitrary values onto them in the hopes of bettering ourselves does not, in my opinion, work. This doesn't mean that we can't have a morally accepted standard for what is viewable on TV. But if networks can air boxing and MMA, then hockey should be allowed to have fighting, if enough fans find it entertaining, and they get the ratings they want. It's not about values, and if you're worried about the example that hockey sets for kids, well, there are far better role models for kids in the first place.
Then the argument rests on whether we're willing to risk athletes' health for the sake of entertainment. Well, I have trouble telling lavishly compensated, consenting, professional athletes, who make up a minuscule fraction of our population, what level of risk they find acceptable. They have powerful unions that negotiate in their interests; they are not disenfranchised workers. And yet so much media attention is paid to their health, mental and otherwise. Even an NHL player making league minimum will make well over 15 to 20 times as much in a year as an EMS worker, and there are probably a lot more EMS workers in this country than professional hockey players. Where is the national outcry about their working conditions and mental health?
Finally, there is the attitude towards fighting in general. This is a subjective thing. Just because you cannot conceive of fighting as a meaningful experience, doesn't mean it isn't. There is something primal and human about the need to duke it out, and I think a lot of the players that grow up in the culture of hockey understand how a good fight puts you in touch with your humanity in ways that art, science and math cannot.
Another sends the above trailer:
A movie came out this winter called Goon. It's about a hockey enforcer. I've been following the posts regarding this topic but missed how the conversation was started.