“It’s a part of the game.”
“It protects players.”
“Players should stick up for their teammates.”
“It helps teams win games.”
If these phrases look familiar to you, it’s because the pro-fighting contingent of hockey fans has pounded you over the head with them like haymakers.
Here’s the thing about those claims–they aren’t true. None of the logic commonly used to defend fighting in the NHL is fact-based or proven in any way. In Wednesday night’s game between the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers, the mini-line brawl triggered all these excuses and more.
Fighting is not a part of the game.
Yes, violence is a part of the game, and hockey is an inherently violent sport, but fighting is a part of the game the same way the shootout is a part of the game, if you choose to subscribe to that logic.
The shootout wasn’t always a part of the NHL, and at some point in time, will no longer be a part of it. (The shootout doesn’t have much in common with fighting aside from disrupting the flow of a game, but the point still stands.) The same goes for fighting. Just because it is there now, and has been in the past, doesn’t mean it should be, needs to be, or always will be a part of it.
Fighting does not protect players.
The notion that fighting “protects” players is ridiculous. Teams that dress less-skilled players and deploy them for 4 minutes a night — in the name of ”protecting” their star players — usually end up just retaliating for clean, hard hits or incidental contact on their goalie. These players serve no other purpose than to physically maim their opponent. For want of protecting a teammate, they could end someone else’s career with several well-placed punches. Most of these guys can’t play. They are dead weight.
Cheap shots, slashing in retaliation, slew-foots, etc. have been in the game for a century, and remain today. No amount of “protection” or “enforcing” has managed to drive this nonsense from the game. Honest, legitimate player safety rules, enforced on the ice, by the league, and by teams themselves, is the only answer. To this point, the league has allowed certain teams to dictate policy when it comes to fighting and violence in hockey.
One day, I hope, if fighting does still exist in the NHL, the “goons” are not just goons. I believe that every player on a team should possess actual hockey skill and contribute to the team in other ways besides propelling their metacarpals into someone else’s skull.
Hockey is a physical sport, and any time the human body is subjected to any extreme force, including a hard body check, it causes trauma to the brain. Now think about the force exerted by a fist to someone’s head. Over time, that can lead to undiagnosed concussions and traumatic brain injuries.
While we can’t completely rid the game of hitting, and nor would we want to, shouldn’t we want to see the amount of potential brain trauma reduced as much as possible? The answer is yes.
Fighting does not help teams win games.
Sure, a fight can boost momentum, that much is true, at least. Hockey is an emotional game. But what matters at the end of a game is the score on the scoreboard. The team with the most goals wins the game, not the team that spars the hardest.
There are no moral victories in hockey.
On many occasions, I’ve seen the losing team praised for showing “grit” and “heart” because they came out on the winning end of a couple fights. “They were trying to get the bench fired up,” it is then said. Do you want to know another way to “fire up the bench”? Score goals. Finish your checks. Play smart hockey. Don’t break another guy’s orbital bone, because that doesn’t improve your place in the standings. In fact, it’s probably sending your team to the penalty kill, where your opponent will likely score a goal. You are putting your team at a disadvantage, and thus making it less likely they will win a game.
Most people who know me, or at least follow me on Twitter, can attest to how outspoken I am about fighting in hockey. I cannot count the amount of times I’ve heard the prior arguments and more, including being urged to find a new sport, and being told that I should find a new sport to watch. What you and these other people may not realize is that I, too, was once a fan of fighting. It’s exciting. It boosts your adrenaline.
But at some point, I realized that the toll taken on the athletes who play these types of roles is not only detrimental to their long-term health and longevity in the sport; it’s detrimental to the game. People I’ve spoken with who are not hockey fans have told me they are turned off by seeing line brawls and fights whenever they turn on a game. As many people as are attracted to hockey because of fighting, the same proportion are alienated by it.
If the league wants to reduce the amount of head injuries to players, why not rid the sport of something that is probably the main cause of it? It’s a gross double standard.
The NHL has clearly started thinking about it, instituting rule changes that require all players entering the league to wear visors, and penalizing players for taking off their helmets prior to a fight (they’ve also started doling out penalties to those who think they are clever by removing their opponents helmet before a fight, as well). It will be years before fighting is phased out of the league, but the NHL is taking baby steps toward protecting the health of its players and the sport as a whole.
The health of the players who play the game we love to watch should be considered paramount. The long-term effects of continued brain trauma are well-known, the emotional and psychological effects of it are probably not thought about too much. It’s time to start thinking about it.
Katie Brown is a Staff Writer for District Sports Page covering the Capitals. She grew up in Virginia and Maryland, currently resides in Arlington, VA, and developed a love for the sport of hockey as a youngster while watching her brothers play. She combined her enthusiasm for the game with her love of writing after college. Katie has covered the Capitals as credentialed media for two seasons for several area blogs before joining the DSP staff. Katie works at a nonprofit organization by day but the rest of her time is devoted to watching, writing, and talking about hockey and perfecting her mean one-timer. You can follow Katie on Twitter @katie_brown47.