Hockey and fighting: they go hand in hand

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

The game of hockey has been evolving for generations, and speculators of the sport are always talking about new developments, including players being required to wear visors, or the shootout being a dreadful way to determine the outcome of a hockey game. One debate in particular has been going on for years: people either love fighting in hockey, or they hate it. “Fighting in ice hockey” actually has its own Wikipedia page – that says something. Some believe that fighting belongs in the game and others find it unnecessary. Hockey is a rough and fast-paced game played by very talented athletes, and many people believe that fighting should be eradicated entirely because the sport is violent enough.

Despite these concerns, I believe that fighting belongs in hockey. If I could, I’d discuss this issue as much as people who try to figure out why the Kardashians are famous, but that’s for another day.

In hockey there’s something called “the code”, so to speak, which is an unwritten rule amongst all players who step foot on the ice. The code is the trifecta of respect, onus and bravery. It lets players know when and why fights occur during a game. In other words, everyone is held accountable for their actions. If a player elects to verbally abuse their opponents, run a guy from behind or mess around with an opposing team’s star player, it is certain that he will be addressed on the ice; sometimes, it leads to punches. The code permits players to patrol the game themselves.

An anonymous NHL source told me that the amount of fighting taking place throughout a standard NHL game was silly.

“People only really liked it for what it represented, which was the style of play when they were growing up,” said the anonymous source. “Back when they ‘actually’ fought, they’d be hacking each other with their sticks, trying to step on guys. Obviously, hockey players would never do that to each other in today’s game – so they were just play fighting to keep up the tradition. It’s pretty sad.”

Although I am “pro-fighting”, I don’t condone staged fighting, another matter in which a bout is pre-arranged between the two parties. Back in early February of 2009, the NHL conducted a research study on fighting and it was determined that 21.6 per cent of fights from the season came straight after the faceoff. According to the NHL, that was a 30 per cent increase in fights off of faceoffs from the previous eight years. This is distressing to me.

In a game that took place in Nov. of 2006, former NHL heavyweights Georges Laraque and Raitis Ivanans exemplified a perfect staged fight. Laraque was wearing a microphone throughout a game against the Los Angeles Kings, the team that Ivanans belonged to for four seasons. In the feed that was picked up from the game, Laraque lined up for a faceoff next to Ivanans and said, “Want to? Okay, good luck, man”. Following the puck drop, they immediately threw off their mitts and went at it. It happened so nonchalantly; they weren’t mad at each other, they simply wanted to do it for the sake of doing it, which is the real problem.

Want to start an intense conversation with your hockey-loving friends? Ask them for their thoughts on goon. Synonymous with a “fighter” or “tough guy”, an enforcer’s job is to deter and respond to dirty or violent play by the opposition, thus earning the label ‘goon’. Prime examples of these players include Tiger Williams and Dale Hunter.

I don’t think they belong. I’m not entirely against the role of the enforcer. If the guy can actually play, then by all means, drop the gloves from time to time, but players shouldn’t earn a paycheque just for throwing punches. A lot of these players go on to suffer from mental illness due to constant blows to the head and the hardships of the role. Wade Belak and Rick Rypien, two of hockey’s former enforcers from the past decade, were both victims of that, each of them taking their own lives. Derek Boogaard, another former enforcer, also passed away from an accidental overdose of alcohol and oxycodone – but it was revealed that he also suffered from depression, and after doctors studied his brain post-mortem, it was determined that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE as a result of injuries sustained as a goon.

In today’s game, the most prevalent enforcer would be John Scott, who currently plays for the San Jose Sharks and boasts a 6’8”, 260-pound build. The Toronto Maple Leafs had a couple of these players of their own, such as Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr. In McLaren’s 62 games played with the Leafs, he had a total of three goals, two assists and 179 penalty minutes (PIM), which averaged around 2.89 PIM per game. In Colton Orr’s 231 games played with the Leafs, he had a total of eight goals, five assists and 637 penalty minutes, which averaged to 2.76 PIM per game. These two players were not only irrelevant, but also liabilities whenever they made their presence known on the ice. The fact that they were both waived by Toronto last year shows the direction many NHL teams are heading.

Brandon Prust, a forward for the Montreal Canadiens, emulates what it is to be a valuable enforcer. He can score goals, set up big plays and make sure that no one messes with his line mates. Marty McSorley, a former 19-year NHL enforcer, was able to bruise his opponents easily. While being a member of the Los Angeles Kings, his main job was to protect Wayne Gretzky from opponents who targeted him. The thing is, McSorley also prospered offensively, scoring 15 goals and 36 points in the 1989-90 season. In the 1990-91 season, McSorley tied Theo Fleury with a +48 rating overall, which topped the NHL that year. He even recorded a six-point game against the Canucks. Unfortunately, McSorley will mostly be remembered for his physical attack against Donald Brashear when he whacked him in the side of the head, something that should never have been tolerated.

In Feb. 28’s edition of Coach’s Corner, several minutes of the segment focused on an important area of the fighting debate. Don Cherry said that, “When the big dogs are gone, the rats will come out.” He’s 100 per cent right, and Brandon Prust is on the same page.

“Rats are the guys who show zero respect for opponents,” said Prust in the Players’ Tribune. “They’ll go after the top skill player and take runs at goalies and then won’t answer the bell when it comes time to fight. They’ll act tough, but when a tough guy comes knocking on the door, they skate away.”

Players like this are very active in the NHL today. Modern-day examples of “rats” would include Steve Downie and Patrick Kaleta.

In the OHL, once a player hits a certain number of fights in a season, they receive an immediate two-game suspension for every fight following the maximum limit. If the player also happens to be the instigator of the fight, it then escalates to four games. I support the efforts of the OHL. It would be very aggravating to watch a goon play in junior hockey. The OHL has started increasing the severity of the ramifications regarding chronic offenders. The next step should be the immediate ejection of players who engage in staged fights in junior hockey.

The Globe and Mail featured an excerpt written by legendary defenseman Bobby Orr from his 2013 book, Orr: My Story, which talks about fighting in hockey and why it belongs in the game.

“It is a tough sport, a sport that requires physical play, and sometimes that can lead to frustration,” wrote Orr. “Speaking as a former player, whenever those situations occur on the ice I would much rather face an opponent man to man in a fight than have to deal with sticks to the face as well as spearing to other areas of the body.”

A rebuttal to this point would be that the NHL should obligate all players to have protection to cover the entirety of their faces, similar to what the NFL does, considering it is a historically violent sport as well. If this were employed, eye injuries would be substantially reduced, hockey players would no longer carry the stereotype of lost teeth. Another argument would be to harshly reprimand stick and head infringements to the point that players can’t bear to knowingly break the rules, being conscious that the consequence would be severe.

There has to be some type of violence permitted in the game. It serves as a major deterrent on the ice to dirty play, and with talented enforcers in the game, they are constant reminders that they’ll be monitoring every situation that transpires, which includes holding other players accountable for their actions. The fear of a fight or an event that may initiate vengeance from an enforcer will always be a commanding warning to players on the ice.

The topic of fighting hadn’t really come up for about a year. That changed a few months ago, but only after Connor McDavid broke a bone in his right hand following a fight with Mississauga Steelheads forward Bryson Cianfrone. The fight was anything but staged, full of fury and intensity, two qualities that all coaches want to see in their players.

“I’m not just going to sit there and take punches,” McDavid told the Erie Times-News. “I probably wouldn’t change a whole lot thinking about it now. I think it was the right thing to do (at the time) and I’d rather fight than turtle or anything like that. There’s not a whole lot you can do in that situation.”

The problem with that is that he had no one on his line that would protect him. This caused him to have to stick up for himself and he paid the price after accidentally punching the boards. McDavid should’ve had a player on his line to protect him, similar to how McSorley protected Gretzky, or how John “Fergy” Ferguson Sr. protected Jean Beliveau while playing for Montreal. Following the McDavid incident, Don Cherry related the situation back to his coaching days with the Boston Bruins on Global television, when he had to manage players including Bobby Orr and Brad Park, two all-stars.

“It’s hard to say, ‘Don’t fight,’” Cherry told the show. “I really did not want my stars fighting. Bobby Orr, I couldn’t keep him from fighting. But I had a guy named Brad Park — who was an all-star — and I forbid him to fight.”

Look at it this way – even if your star player miraculously avoided any type of injury to any of his body parts, he is still being penalized for five minutes, which is why Cherry enjoyed having strong enforcers on the ice to handle it themselves. It didn’t really matter if they weren’t playing. The enforcers that Cherry spoke about earlier are the goons, not the talented enforcers. The goons are disappearing, and unfortunately, fighting may ultimately follow suit one day if the argument is vast enough.

McDavid was not forced into fighting Bryson Cianfrone. He personally elected to drop the gloves, and in the heat of the moment, sometimes that’s what needs to happen. Superstar or not, it was his personal assessment at that point in time that he should be fighting, and what bothers me is just because it was Connor McDavid that got hurt in a fight, everyone started arguing whether or not fighting should be endorsed at all. McDavid’s frustration was just at an all-time high, and sometimes, things happen when you’re genuinely upset. The fight wasn’t forged; it was raw emotion, and that’s what I love most in a tussle. It’s a shame that he hurt himself, but if this were a player that wasn’t breaking all sorts of records, it wouldn’t be spoken about. People used McDavid’s celebrity status to their advantage.

Let’s say fighting does happen to get banned one day. People need to fathom that the action of throwing punches will still take place regardless of any changes in the rulebook that may appear in the coming months, or even years. Fighting is also constantly progressing in the ever-changing game of hockey, and its overall advancement over the past few years is making a ton of people, including myself, feel better about the future of the game. The tough bruisers that you used to see on the ice are slowly being replaced by modern-day haymaker throwers. These players may not necessarily notch goals frequently, but have the aptitude to provide their skill in other areas of the game, comprising of the continuous skirmishing in all four corners of the ice, or even posting a point every few games. Of course, they’ll also punch an antagonist’s face in when it’s necessary to defend an all-star teammate. As far as staged fights are concerned, I’d be perfectly fine with both parties being ejected from the game immediately, and even throwing in a suspension for the following game into the bargain.

A smaller amount of “rats” and “goons” are going to want to mess around with a superstar if they have to fear facing the rival team’s enforcer on the subsequent shift. It keeps the cheap shots at seldom occurrence and brings raw emotion to the game, which is unique compared to any other sport. It can change a game in a matter of seconds.

Star players should not be fighting. Players should not be hired specifically to fight. A talented enforcer must have other qualities in his game where he can contribute both offensively and defensively. When guys are playing with passion, all spectators are lucky to be witnessing what the game is really about, and we should keep it that way.

Eradicate the utilization of goons and staged fights. Escalate the practice of modern-day enforcers who can contribute both offensively and defensively, as well as serve to protect. These are the guys that everyone wants on their team and would hate to play against. They’re essential to the game, whether you like it or not.

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