Violence in Hockey Getting Headlines

When Todd Fedoruk was knocked out in a fight Wednesday night and taken off the ice on a stretcher, the number of recent images of NHL hockey players injured in violent acts hit a tipping point, causing NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell to say it is time to question the place of fighting in hockey.

Reaction to Campbell’s statement had supporters and naysayers. Interestingly, the players who support fighting’s role in hockey as “… ingrained in the roots of hockey” are all enforcers themselves. They cite fighting as keeping the chippyness out of the game and providing protection for the star players. Fedoruk even believes the issue for safety involves allowing fighters to wear padded gloves on their hands like fighters in the United Fighting Championship.

This may have been the case in years past, but these are old arguments that do not stand up to scrutiny today. Fighting does nothing to prevent players from running other players from behind, spearing players or otherwise taking liberties with their opponent’s safety as we have seen in recent incidents and older ones as well. The fact that the offending players were challenged (jumped) afterwards is inconsequential; the players did it anyway and their reactions afterwards were that they knew what was coming. With fighting gone and the large enforcers with it, there would be more room on rosters for skilled players, perhaps smaller ones who would not have had a chance previously. Does this increase the number of violent high-sticking incidents or careless use of the stick? I do not think so. However, what happens if there is a player, an agitator type that takes it too far, goes after a star player, and takes him out of the game? Who is going to enforce then and take the pound of flesh in retribution? I say let the NHL take care of it. The NHL would have to be much tougher, giving long and lifetime suspensions to set the tone as to the type of play they expect, and if you cross the line, your not welcome in the league any more.

It does work in other situations. There is no fighting in international hockey competitions and European leagues. People will say that the Europeans came to North America and brought the stick work with them, which may be true, but Canadian players being produced today appear no different from Europeans.

I am still flipping back and forth on this issue. I was moving towards more restrictions on hockey in and effort to curb it a few years ago, to banning it completely, to allowing it but doing something to take the enforcer fights for fan entertainment out of it, to banning it again. I think it has evolved too far to get it back to a “respectable” part of the game.

On today’s Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown on Sportsnet, the fighting issue was discussed. McCown supported the initiative, but wondered if there was not a better opportunity in the past when the violence could have been curbed and it was not. The example of Dale Hunter’s hit on Pierre Turgeon was brought up, for which Gary Bettman early in his tenure gave Hunter 20 games, which still stands as one of the longest suspensions in NHL history. Bettman, however, received much flak for his discipline from managers in the off-season. Explained that there were mechanisms in place to take care of these incidents and not wanting their own players subject to long or longer suspensions, general managers defended the status quo of the NHL, for this was only a minor check 4-5 seconds after a goal. Bettman got the message and this led to the creation of the NHL Director of Hockey Operations position and transfer of the suspension duties to this role. To conclude the segment on Prime Time Sports, all guests expected hockey to ban fighting, but it to be a slow phase in that would take three years.

Whatever is done, I know that the current enforcers should not be consulted. They, of course, are looking after their jobs. I also do not think the NHLPA’s opinion holds much weight since their mandate is to look after the best interests of their current members. I hope that the managers and executives can see that if fighting is eliminated league wide, everyone is on a level playing field so their should not be an objections on competitive terms. As for worries that the league will be more dangerous, the NHL is in a position to be tough on anything outside the rules to make it as safe as can be. If reckless behaviour by anyone, star or fourth liner, is given only three or four game suspensions, then this will not correct the behaviour.

Finally, what about the fan reaction, will there not be a revolt? I do not think it will be as bad as many expect. Sure, there is the segment that fighting means everything to. These are the barflies that need to express their manhood by celebrating the fights as they get over their third divorce. Fans that live for Sportsnet’s Fight of Night and frequent will migrate to fighting championships and hockey gladiator competitions. With the proper exposure the NHL will only grow its fan base amongst a group of alienated people who have found it too violent for them and their families.

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