Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Dumb and Dumber

Okay, let's clarify the title of this blog right off the top, just to avoid any confusion as we move along.
  -Dumb: Fighting in hockey
  -Dumber: The NHL trying to pretend fighting in hockey is NOT dumb and making silly rules and rulings to counter the effect of the aforementioned pretense

As many of us are aware, fighting in hockey is dumb. It puts practitioners at risk of brain injury (see: Parros,George). It gives a game trying to attract a wider audience a distinctly bush-league appearance off-putting to the average spectator, rather like trying to sell horse meat to an equestrian club. It's purported to be a "release of emotion" on the ice, yet it's rarely ever seen in the most emotional of games, like Olympics and Stanley Cup playoffs. People have died fighting in hockey. As far as many observers can tell, fighters don't save star players from abuse, as they're rarely on the ice at the same time and can only fight other fighters anyway. Fighting, when argued logically (as opposed to in a gut-feeling kind of way) doesn't really have a reasonable connection with a game composed of skating, passing, shooting, blocking shots and checking. So, it's dumb.

What's dumber, however, is the NHL trying to walk a very pointy picket fence without slipping and damaging itself. The NHL believes fighting is "part of the game." Yet, the rules of NHL hockey say fighting is illegal and punishable by a major penalty. Despite that strange logic, the league continues to support it...sort of.

-An Aside:
-All the NHL's recent "we need more goals" angst can be largely attributed to its allowance of fighting.
-To have fights, you need to have fourth-line fighters in the lineup.
-To have a fourth line, you need to play a defensively protective system, to make sure those guys don't get exposed.
-If you play a fight-capable fourth line and a defensively protective system, you limit the time your offensive-minded players spend on the ice and you limit their creativity within the system.

The league doesn't want to say "fighting is banned." That's too political, too finite and too controversial. The NHL, a league whose recognizable face is Nice Bland Guy Sidney Crosby, does not want to rock the SS Tradition. If it were to say "fighting is banned," it may be lauded for protecting the health of players and committing to a game based on skill rather than brute force, but it might be equally condemned for compromising the tradition of the game.

The funny part about the game and tradition, though, is the league has never had a problem changing things if change was in its best interest. The removal of the rover was HUGE. Going from seven guys to six? Cataclysmic! Then there was the forward pass. Oooh, yes, the devil's pass. That entered the game, gave defencemen a bigger role and increased the speed of the game exponentially. They took out the red line, they added an extra referee, they made OT 4-on-4 and they eliminated ties in favour of the Sideshow Shootout. The league has shown an ability to change.

Yet, in the matter of fighting, there has never been a more wishy-washy approach to a controversial issue in league history. Instead of just saying, "Yeah, we're cooling off on the idea of fighting as a marketing tool, and people are protesting some of its uselessness, and it's causing injuries, so we're gonna change it," they make up rules to "curb" it. They didn't like bench-clearing brawls because that looked bad, so league officials decided to ban those. They weren't the pure, emotional kind of hockey fights the league was after. Then they decided to institute an extra two-minute penalty for the guy who instigates a fight. That, officials thought, would reduce the staged fights, leaving only those spurred by emotion: the "honest" fights. The league also introduced an aggressor penalty to punish the guy who kept whaling away even after he'd obviously won a fight.

Now there's a rule compelling all players not squaring off to clear out of the way and go to the bench during a fight, just in case they should be overcome by emotion and tempted to jump in. If a player does intervene, there's a "third-man in" penalty for that too. There's a penalty for starting a second fight while there's already one going on. There's an unsportsmanlike penalty for instigating a fight while wearing a visor and two minutes for taking off your own helmet in preparation for a fight. (That's lip service to the NHL's commitment to protect players' health.) There's a misconduct for trying to keep on fighting after the linesmen intervene. Players can't fight off the ice, during intermissions or before puck drop. They can't remove their jerseys or fail to tie them down, or tape their hands before a fight.

The league didn't like it when players tried to "send a message" in the last five minutes of a game, so they made a rule to suspend guys who instigate those fights. It's not attractive when goalies skate the length of the ice to brawl, so the league is "reviewing" that after Ray Emery beat up on an uninterested Braden Holtby and disgusted a lot of people.

Then we have last weekend's Vancouver/Calgary game. Bob Hartley, being completely within his rights under current NHL rules, decided to send a message and start the game with his best fighters. John Tortorella countered that move, and Saturday's game-opening line brawl happened, followed by Tortorella's semi-insane attempt to break into the Calgary dressing room. That was embarrassing to the NHL, and Colin Campbell was left to figure out how to punish the perpetrators without removing their right to carry fighters or their right to deploy them at whatever point said fighters might be needed. As a result, we see Tortorella given fifteen days to cool his heels for the attempted B&E of the Flames' room. Hartley has to pay $25-thousand for starting the whole thing with his choice of starting lineup.

This is strange territory. There is no rule saying "You cannot start a game with all your goons," but the league is scrambling, trying to figure out how to make one without actually saying, "Large groups of men fighting on ice isn't really hockey, and we don't like it." Really, there can be no such rule. As long as fighting is given tacit approval under the "part of the game" banner, dictating when, on the ice, between the whistles, a fight can happen is ridiculous.

-Fight of the future:
-At the mid-point of the period, there shall be a fighting time out, during which a coach, with the agreement of his counterpart behind the opposing bench, may request a fight.
-At that time, the coaches shall consult with on-ice officials, who will request approval from NHL headquarters.
-Should permission be granted, each team shall send an appropriately-dressed and equipped, equally-matched by weight class, combatant to centre ice. 
-At an agreed-upon signal, the combatants will drop their gloves and begin fisticuffs. 
-When players indicate they no longer can continue, or at the two-minute mark, whichever is reached first, the linesmen will escort both combatants off the ice and play shall resume.

Seriously, there's either fighting or there's not. Dictating where and when and how it happens, and tweaking the rules every time there's an embarrassing situation is the NHL's futile attempt to box up a brutal sideshow into a nice, neat package. That can't work. Fighting is dirty, dumb and, by nature, out of control.

If the league doesn't like line brawls or fights in the last five minutes or the first five minutes, or off a faceoff, maybe, deep down, it doesn't like fighting at all. Maybe it's just trying to find a way to maximize its audience by not making the purists mad with a full-on ban. Now, though, it might be time to look back and see how the earth-moving changes that happened to the game in the past really didn't move the earth. The game survived and thrived and grew. The same would happen if fighting were eliminated, eventually.

Right now, the league is really reaching when it fines Bob Hartley for sending fighters out on the ice to start a game. Decision time on fighting is coming sooner than the NHL would like, and soon enough fines and rules tweaks will become even more convoluted than they are now and there'll be no more room for them. The only question remaining then is "Fighting: yes or no?" And it's getting awfully difficult to argue for the "yes" side.


FarAwayMax said...

Agreed on all points.
Or in French: D'accord sur tous les poings!
Poings = fists, but sounds the same as points. Homophones.

By the way it's nice to get to read you more often.

moeman said...

Great read J.T.