An already hot button topic in the past, following a dreadful summer, fighting has become the holy grail of issues in the game of hockey. The main arguing point, however, is if it is truly an issue to begin with.
The Good Point writers Anthony Petrielli and Jeff Blay have teamed up with The Hockey News columnist/writer Adam Proteau as well as Jeff Marek of Rogers Sportsnet to offer in-depth commentary on the increasingly controversial facet of the game.
Enforcers aren’t police officers; they often end up inflicting the most of the damage (i.e. Chris Simon taking a swing at Ryan Hollweg, Trevor Gillies on Eric Tangradi last year).
Proteau: “If you look at some of the most heinous stuff that’s been done on the ice in the past 15 or 20 years, it’s often done by the guys that are supposed to be the so-called policemen of the game. To me, the way that you police a game is through the management of the sport, the administration that sets out punishment and suspensions and fines. This idea that players can somehow be subjective and put emotions aside is never the case, they’re always getting themselves worked up emotionally.”
Marek: “I don’t know that they necessarily do more damage than other players, I’ve seen Alex Ovechkin hurt a lot of players and last time I checked we consider him in the same breath as we do Sidney Crosby, but I just think it’s more obvious and punctuated when there’s that disparity of skillset like there is with enforcers.”
Blay: “There’s no doubt that, as the governing body, the NHL should be the so-called ‘policemen’ of the game and set the standards as far as what’s tolerable and what isn’t. At the same time, the league officials aren’t the ones on the ice in the heat of play, so it’s impossible for them to act promptly and handle the situation as it unfolds.”
It’s been proven teams can succeed without an enforcer (i.e. Detroit, Carolina).
Proteau: “The game is mainly based around skill and talent, so the idea that some teams need to have an enforcer to succeed, I just don’t buy it. You can succeed any way you want to. You can put out a product that addresses your fan base without catering to their lowest common denominator. I think they’ve done that well in Detroit, they’ve showed that if you draft well and develop players properly, you can beat any other team as you should based on goals scored and the fewest goals allowed.”
Marek: “This idea that Ken Holland has never had toughness on his team is misleading. Brad May played on that team not too long ago, Darren McCarty was a major key to Detroit winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in the late 90s and again in the 2000s. I don’t see any two teams in the NHL being exact. The fact that the Red Wings don’t employ an ‘enforcer’ doesn’t mean other teams shouldn’t. I see every team comprised and constructed in a profoundly different way, and what a boring league it would be if every team was constructed in the exact same way.”
Petrielli: “At the end of the day, you can win a lot of ways. The Bruins won the Cup this year without a franchise forward and Detroit’s won numerous Cups without a franchise goalie. How people build their teams are in the eye of the beholder. The only two post-lockout teams who have won without a true enforcer were the ‘Canes and Wings. That being said, it is worth noting the last three champions all employed enforcers who all played pretty consistently (Boston: Shawn Thornton, Chicago: Ben Eager, Pittsburgh: Eric Godard).”
Fights are occurring far too often after clean hits.
Proteau: “You can’t have a check on any player anymore without having five minutes of scrums, face-washes, and guys barking at each other, and that’s the root of the problem. Everyone says that fighting is there to protect the Gretzky’s of the game, but nowadays you can’t even make a clean hit on a guy on the fourth line without someone rushing to his defense. The fact you can’t level a clean hit without somebody thinking it’s dirty shows you that the players just have too much control.”
Marek: “The fight itself after a big hit doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the hit itself, but has everything to do with momentum. When a big hit occurs, you can almost feel that momentum shift, and what the subsequent fight does, rightly or wrongly, is try to neutralize the effects of that momentum. There’s no rule that says players have to drop their gloves either. There’s such thing as an instigator penalty, and if a player doesn’t want to fight after landing a clean hit, he doesn’t have to.”
Petrielli: “If you even looked at Wayne Gretzky the wrong way in the 80s and 90s, you were going to be pounded by someone. Many may not like a fight after a clean hit, but you have to understand why it happens and put it into context. If you see a teammate struggling to get up, or even worse, lying on the ice, you have to do something, that’s what being a team is all about. I rarely see any fights after a clean hit where the guy gets up right away; it’s usually an injury inducing hit or something that’s crossed the proverbial line that does the trick and I’m okay with a fight after that. You should be too.”
It’s a choice to take on a role.
Proteau: “That’s an easy rationalization for people to make who aren’t doing the job. This idea that all guys who fight somehow look forward to doing it, or the fact they make good money doing it so we should allow them to sacrifice their brains and bodies is just preposterous to me. I think if you’re a true fan of hockey, and a fan of the players who play the game, you want them to have a long a productive life after they hang up the skates.”
Marek: “Many of these players not only endorse fighting, but understand that their role is a respected one among other players. There are plenty of guys who retire and live good, healthy lives after hockey and even continue working in the game. Look at guys who run the Windsor Spitfires; Bob Boughner and Warren Rychel, two pretty tough guys that can not only function in society but come back to the game that everyone is saying is too tough on its players.”
Blay: For many players, fighting is a ticket into the big leagues when their base hockey skills aren’t quite elite enough. If taking on the role of an enforcer to make it to the next level and earn the big bucks isn’t a choice, who is forcing these players to take that role on? Like many others, I want all players to have healthy lives post-career, and believe they can do so. The minute fighting begins putting one’s health at risk, step away from the game and take the millions of dollars earned while playing to invest in something that can carry them through the remainder of their lives.
Enforcers are there to protect skilled players; without them, cheap shots would see an increase.
Proteau: “If it did, I think it would be up to the NHL to police that too. If you got rid of enforcers and guys started to up the stick work or get sloppy then you just increase the suspensions or fines for those who disobey the rules. Other sports don’t have fighters, and they also don’t have players taking cheap shots at each other because they understand if they do, they will face consequences.”
Marek: “Steve Yzerman has made this point countless times. He says that as we try to eliminate the fourth line enforcer, what we’re seeing more of in the game is cheap shots and divers. I agree with his point and I think that if you get rid of fighting, you’re opening the door for more trouble.”
Blay: “If the NHL decided to eliminate the role of the enforcer from the game and cheap shots increased, it would be on the league to properly handle and dole out consequences to those disobeying the rules. That said, if enforcers were waded out of the sport, but fighting between skilled players remained legal, there’s no reason Ryane Clowe, for instance, couldn’t still stick up for his teammates by dropping the gloves while still producing on the second line.”
Fights bring more fans to the game than they keep away. The NHL is a business and the players need it to have financial success.
Proteau: “There’s zero scientific proof that people would actually leave an NHL game or would not watch an NHL game if there was no fighting involved. It’s all anecdotal. My overall point has always been that if fans are really that devoted to fights, what happens in the playoffs or Olympics when they don’t see any fights? I’ve yet to see people lining up at the box office and demanding a refund.”
Marek: “I don’t know if it attracts more people to the game, because the game of hockey itself is the main attraction. That said, it does provide an element of excitement for the fans that a fight could happen at any time. When you go out to eat, you season your food, and you’re not going to the restaurant for the seasoning, but the seasoning makes it that much better.”
Petrielli: “I can’t think of anyone I know who does not like fighting and thus won’t watch hockey. At the same time, nobody I know of turns the channel when a fight breaks out, either. I’m not saying safety isn’t important, because it is, but the NHL is in the entertainment business and in an 82-game season, things can get stale once and awhile. When a fight breaks out, look at the stands; everyone is standing, cheering, yelling and lending their undivided attention. Does that mean we should encourage even more fighting? Definitely not. But, we should still keep fighting intact and allow it to happen as it does. Fans genuinely enjoy it and this is a business.”
Fighting can be a proven asset to the outcome of a game when pursued at the appropriate time.
Proteau: “It can be, but I just think it’s so cynical; when you look at how beautiful the game really is, and that’s with physicality. I’m not saying ban fighting all together, but I certainly think you can curb the goonery, punish it more appropriately, and give parents who are about to enroll their kids into the sport piece of mind that they will be relatively safe. The biggest irony for me right now in the game of hockey is the better you get at it, the more risk you put yourself at, and I don’t know too many other sports where that’s true.”
Marek: “Fighters are some of the most loved guys in the game by their fellow teammates, and that’s because they go out there and essentially say, ‘I’m going to put my health in the wave of danger for the benefit of this hockey club’. The other players know this, and that’s why they get motivated and gain momentum to play at a higher level than they were before the fight, so it absolutely can have a positive affect on the outcome of a game.”
Blay: “It’s obvious that when a fight occurs, the fans go nuts and the players stand up off the bench to get a better view at the altercation, so whether it’s right or not, people do feed off fights and it can swing a game’s momentum. Then again, like everything else, it’s okay in moderation; some fights are definitely irresponsible and unnecessary and could in fact have a negative affect on the game, team, or player’s reputation.”
Did being an enforcer play a factor in the recent passing of NHL players over the summer?
Proteau: “You can’t prove causation, but to imagine that it just happened randomly to these three guys is pretty hard to grasp. I think it absolutely had an affect on them. You can’t ask athletes, or any person for that matter, to put themselves in that type of danger for potentially 82 games a year. The whole idea that these hockey players are so tough is a romanticized thought, and I think the reality we’re now seeing quite clearly is that’s not always the case.”
Marek: “Hockey is a microcosm for society, so I think it’s lazy journalism and lazy observation to just isolate these three players and say they’re all fighters in the NHL who died in controversial ways, therefore it must have been fighting that fueled these players to end their lives. At the end of the day, we have to look at these situations individually because depression and mental illness does not discriminate who it decides to walk with. It can affect anyone across any lifestyle, so I think the fact they happened to all be fighters was a coincidence more than anything else.”
Petrielli: “Until it is proven without a doubt, it’s just silly for us to sit here and point fingers at fighting and say, ‘Because these guys were enforcers that’s why they died.’ How many years has hockey been going on and finally now it’s brought to fruition? Call it a crazy coincidence more than anything. We should also keep in mind that it’s disrespectful to those who have died.”
Blay: “Before the NHL does anything irrational in regards to fighting, maybe they should address how they educate their players on mental illness and discussing their feelings, and put in place better programs to provide and encourage players to seek counseling or medical help if they reach a rough patch in their lives.”