There’s a discussion to be had about the role of fighting in the NHL, but it too often gets lost behind name-calling and disrespect.
The fighting debate rolled and trolled on again after George Parros suffered a horrific injury at the end of his tilt with Colton Orr Tuesday. That split-second moment became the story of opening night, even after three high scoring, high-flying and highly entertaining games.
HNIC’s Ron MacLean summed it up best: “Our guilty pleasure too often becomes our guilty conscience.” It should have been enough to make any pro-fighter, such as myself, pause for thought.
In the outside world, opinions on fighting’s place in hockey seem to be shifting towards stiffer penalties and eventual extinction – gradually. I’m convinced that in my lifetime I’ll see vast changes to how the NHL handles fighting, which could perhaps culminate in its extinction. It won’t ruin the game, but it will substantially change it.
On the ice, most players seem to be OK with accepting these risks and embrace the role fighting has in the game. And since they’d need to vote in favour of any rule changes, that’s where this ends.
The reality is, we pro-fighters can no longer simply dismiss all suggestion of change. We, like the players, accept bad can happen in a fight, but there’s still something that doesn’t sit right when a player falls and struggles on the ice. Hearing an excited crowd turn morose for the rest of the game in an instant is all you need to prove that.
But why the heck do disagreements over characteristics of hockey have to turn so obnoxious? Why must names like neanderthal and caveman or pansy and latte-sipper have to keep being volleyed? Why do we have to be so dismissive and arrogant? It’s childish. It’s counterproductive. It’s lazy. And, somehow, it’s become the default reaction.
When a talking head postulates that you can’t understand fighting’s place in the game if you’ve never played, it accomplishes nothing to push the debate in any meaningful direction. It doesn’t even represent the majority who share the underlying opinion.
There’s a flip side. To simply shrug off any unintended consequences that would come with removing fighting through a one-size fits all ban is intellectually dishonest. When you change anything in sport, dominoes always fall that we didn’t know were there. Removing the center ice red line for a two-line pass was a no-brainer move that was supposed to open up the game to new offensive levels. But eight years later, defensive schemes have adapted and goal scoring has mellowed from its crazy 2005-06 highs (for a number of reasons). Once again goal scoring has become a topic.
What would a fighting ban entail anyway? A game misconduct for a first offence? Second? Greg Wyshynski at Puck Daddy covers off how that route could turn ugly. In fighting it’s the players who would adapt. And specifically the ones employed to get under your skin.
The reason why fighting can’t go away at once is that intimidation will exist at some level in this game and there will never be a way around it. Intimidation exists in the most unlikely places – even in baseball with the inside pitch. Baseball doesn’t have fighting the way hockey does because it’s evolved to be played that way. Hockey has evolved differently and its culture can’t be overridden at the press of a button without expecting any residual effects.
As Gary Bettman said on CBC’s The National with Peter Mansbridge: “You don’t throw a light switch…you let the game evolve.”
Even most pro-fighters disdain staged fights, so there’s somewhere to move here. The question is where and how? That answer is stuck behind a wall of noise.
Some degree of a change in fighting can be had assuming the NHL, raking in record profits, even wants to get rid of the spectacle that makes it stand out from the major sports, for better or worse. But convincing needs to be done on how to best go about it and why, considering all realities.
This isn’t the last time we’ll talk about fighting this season and none of us looks forward to it anymore. But I don’t think it’s the conversation we’re tired of. I think we’re tired of the endless schoolyard shouting match that has become the norm.