Fighting in Hockey: Hawks vs Doves

The debate on fighting in hockey is bubbling up again due to recent events.  Unfortunately it has become more polarized than ever with no sense or reason added to the discussion.  You are either a hard-line hawk who says any changes to eliminate fighting from the game will make it a game for sissies and increase other non-pugilistic violence.  Anyone even suggesting the current state needs to be changed is portrayed as a dove looking for the absolute banishment of fighting from the game.

The motivation beneath the hawks, which are mainly commentators who are filling a talking head role after careers as players and coaches, appears to be at least partly due to a machismo attitude ingrained into them after years in hockey circles.  Any sign of being against what has become “normal” violence in the game would be a sign they are not quite a man.

It hasn’t always been like it is today, with professional fighters who see 2-3 minutes of ice-time a game.  The old “code” was based on demanding respect.  Now it based on vengence and strategic fights for motivation.  All sports constantly evolve where players will do what ever they have to to keep their jobs.  In hockey that has resulted in the lack of respect for fellow players in the same Player’s Association.  This is largely because:

  1. Players carry a weapon
  2. Fighting has always been allowed (offsetting penalties with rare game misconducts)
  3. Suspensions for violence have not been stiff enough (acts of extreme violence have not resulted in the end of anyone’s career)

An increase in stick violence is the number one item cited when restricting fighting and enforcer players is discussed.  The fact is over the last 20-25 years the NHL has failed to maintain a standard for stick work on the body and even recent improvements has not reset the bar.  Any increase in stick work by frustrated players could be met with an increased crackdown by officials.  The game may suffer for a period as players adjust, but there is no other way to introduce such a change.  It will not come from the feeder leagues as they all train their players to the NHL standard, the NHL must change first.  The NHLPA has always stood behind its members in the truest union sense, disapproving of anything that may eliminate the jobs of its current members with more skilled players.  Just like any union, being a member is what counts, not your skills to do the job (playing hockey in this case).  (I am not anti-union, this is just one of the aspects of unions that I could do without).

There are a lot of options that can be tried before automatically kicking out players who fight and suspending them will come into play.  Maybe roster sizes need to be reduced to eliminate those players on the end of the bench waiting for their next bout.  I would certainly support a reduction in teams to strengthen the talent pool.  Hockey Canada penalizing fighting like any other league with ejection from the game in all leagues below the professionals would be a huge start.  Any rule about players maintaining helmets will do nothing to reduce fighting, but the hawks are still opposed to it.  If there is no helmet rule there should be a waiver every player must sign each season stating the NHL, member clubs and other players and officials involved will not be responsible for any act of fighting which causes them bodily injury or death.  Despite that, the NHL and hockey in general risks a great loss in popularity if another player dies as the result of a fight.

The hawks don’t want change.  Those that don’t change soon find out that the world changes around them, leaving them behind.  The NHL is already on the way to irrelevance in the US, even with fighting selling tickets.  A reduction of Canadians getting into hockey could be the result of maintaining old rules for the sake of the hawks feeling masculine.

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