Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Fighting is Stupid

George Parros is a big, strong man. He's generally acknowledged to be a good teammate and an interesting guy. He's Princeton educated with a degree in economics and was once named the fourth-smartest athlete in all of professional sports. George Parros has a lot going for him, but he is not a hockey player.

A hockey player's main job is to either score goals or prevent goals from being scored against his team. Parros' main job is to fight. He's in the NHL not because he's a smart guy or a good teammate or a great skater or has slick hands. He's there because he's 6'5", 230 pounds and can punch really hard. Last night, a stupid missed punch in a stupid fight meant to prove...what exactly?...caused him to crash with all his height and weight to the ice and injure his brain. His Princeton brain.

To make it worse, his family...his real family, not the "hockey family" that pays him to hit people...was there to see him carried away on a stretcher. His blood stained the ice and his glazed eyes stared without comprehension, and for what? It wasn't for the glory of the Habs, who fought four times and still lost the game. It wasn't for his own glory, as it's his concussion, rather than his hockey or fighting skills, that's making headlines today. It wasn't for fans, because the only people cheering after he collapsed cannot be called fans of sport.

Fighting does not belong in hockey. The rules of the game itself oppose it, assessing a major penalty for those who partake. New penalties addressing fighting...the instigator, suspensions for leaving the bench to join a fight, instigating a fight in the last five minutes of a game, the aggressor penalty...are all meant to limit fighting, not support it. At the end of the season, there are no awards given to the player or team that fights the most or the best. It's not an "outlet" for the naturally violent emotions generated by playing a hard-hitting, physical game. If it were, people like David Desharnais and Tomas Plekanec would be dropping the gloves regularly. Hiring people to fight on their behalf belies the "emotional vent" theory.

Also undermining the argument that players must have a way to purge their violent feelings is the fact that when games are really important...playoffs, Olympics...nobody fights. If emotions drive fights, one would think the biggest games would generate more of those emotions than a run-of-the-mill regular-season game on a Tuesday night. Yet, it doesn't seem to work that way. The fighters fight while the skilled players watch. Perhaps the league's leading scorers and top goalies don't have any emotions so don't need a vent.

Every other major league sport ejects fighters from their games. All those other "emotional" athletes are told fighting is an unacceptable way to express themselves and, for the most part, they don't do it. Hockey's allowing it makes the league look something less than professional. When the most well-known hockey joke is "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out," the game itself becomes a bit of a joke.

The NHL believes fans come to games or tune into them on TV in the hope of seeing a fight. Yet, playoff games draw the biggest audiences, and fights in those are few and far between. That would, perhaps, suggest to the league that fans are more drawn to actual hockey than to the sideshow fights that plague regular-season games. The NHLPA argues fighting is "part of the game," while it stands by and watches as professional boxers in hockey gear get beaten night after night, sustaining injuries that put their actual careers and futures at risk. It's no coincidence that, were fighting to be eliminated from hockey, a quarter of the league's players who currently hold borderline fourth-line "toughness" jobs would be out of work.

The argument that eliminating fighting would lead to an increase in stick infractions doesn't hold water either. Other leagues, like the NCAA, have banned fighting and show no notable increase in players sustaining serious injuries from stick fouls. There is, however, ample evidence that fighting causes serious injury, and in the sad case of Don Sanderson, death. Referees can control the stick infractions by calling them tightly. Players soon know that extra slash or high stick isn't worth it, with so much of a game's outcome determined by special teams.

Kids watch their NHL heroes fighting. They emulate the pros, so they fight too. Fighting is part of hockey because it's taught by example to the youngest players. It's part of hockey because junior hockey and NHL GMs will hire a guy who can't otherwise cut it  if he can fight. They make a buck off the backs of guys who can't let go of the dream and are willing to risk their health for it, because fighting might put a couple of extra bums in seats. Now parents are rebelling. They don't sign their kids up for hockey in the numbers they used to, at least in part because they don't want to put children at risk of injury. They don't want them to fight. Kids aren't allowed to fight at school or on the playground, but they get rewarded if they fight at the rink. That's the same mentality that says a parent who curses or boos a kid at a piano recital is crazy, but the same person is perfectly within his rights to yell at children on a hockey rink.

Last year, the Globe and Mail newspaper surveyed Canadians and asked whether they'd support a fighting ban in hockey. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said they want fighting banned in all junior hockey. Sixty-eight percent want it gone from the game altogether. When questioned about the skills they believe are necessary to play the game, 95% of Canadians believe skating is essential. Ninety-three percent say shooting the puck is an important skill. Seven percent say it's important for a hockey player to know how to fight.

The NHL cannot, in good conscience, take a stand against concussions at the same time it's allowing fighting. Yet, Commissioner Gary Bettmen continues to be a hypocrite, citing the old "part of the game" argument. At the same time, the NHL is tacitly admitting something's got to give by instituting the silly "no taking your helmet off during a fight" rule this year. It's allegedly supposed to reduce fighting injuries, and maybe prevent a fight if a guy doesn't want to cut his knuckles on a visor. It's more likely an attempt by the league to get out in front of a lawsuit launched by the family of former fighter Derek Boogaard, who died at 28 years of age in 2011. Boogaard's brain showed signs of a degenerative brain disorder that can be caused by repeated blows to the head. The family is suing partly because it says the NHL exploited Boogaard's ability to fight, which contributed to his death, and partly because it allowed him access to the painkillers he needed to deal with the physical consequences of fighting, and to which he became addicted. If there's one thing likely to move NHL owners, it's their bottom lines, and a successful suit against them would not be good news. So, voila! The NHL says players can't take their helmets off during fights, showing a sudden concern for the well-being of players. You can still fight, says the league, but we want to protect your head while you do it. It's a cynical approach to a serious issue, at best.

USA Hockey and Hockey Canada are more boldly admitting it's not a great idea for teenagers to punch each other in the face, so they're looking at steps to eliminate fights among junior-aged players. The process is abominably slow, but it's at least an acknowledgement that there is a problem.

In the end, it's a sad commentary that after all the hype about the Habs/leafs opening game, the story emerging from it is George Parros' concussion. It's pathetic that some who support fighting are making the case that he could have easily slipped and fallen in a similar way at any point during the game, therefore it shouldn't be considered a "fighting injury." Sure, he might have fallen anyway. He didn't, though. He fell during a fight. When a guy plays six minutes a game and his main job is fighting, the chances of his falling during a fight rather than in an innocent hockey play are greatly increased. The bottom line is, if he hadn't been fighting last night, it wouldn't have happened.

If there were no fighting, perhaps George Parros wouldn't be receiving an NHL salary today. It's quite likely he wouldn't be. He also wouldn't be sitting at home nursing a concussion right now. He'd probably be using his undamaged Princeton brain to do something productive, and he'd be feeling a lot better.


moeman said...

Well said J.T.

Steve said...

Right on Right On! Hockey should not be NASCAR on ice.

FarAwayMax said...

You sure he didn't get into Princeton on a hockey scholarship because he could win fights?

UK3X said...

I have seen those polls asking if I support fighting or want it banned. I have always come up on the "part of the game" side of things...but maybe I need to re-look. Given no other league accepts fights and given that many of the "feeder" routes to the NHL have now banned fighting, I'm thinking it's about time. Watching Parros last night in the first period I thought "hmmm...bit slow but effective around the net" (he didn't fight in the 1st period). The Habs could use that. They have enough people going to the penalty box for stupid stuff without adding the guys that fight, and shortening the bench when they end up with 10 and a game for instigating or whatever reason they choose for ejecting them these I'm now firmly on the "Kick Fighting out of hockey Bandwagon!" Nice one JT!

soperman said...

It is not a co-incidence that fighting's biggest proponent, Don Cherry, looks like he would fit very naturally behind a WWE announce table. I would be surprised if they have not tried to recruit him.

It has not turned me off hockey yet, but weakly punished fighting gives the NHL the credibility of roller derby and professional wrestling. I want my grandson to play hockey but I dread him getting good enough to play at a highly competitive level.

Unknown said...

I love your post. It's so exhausting to hear the same incoherent arguments recycled over and over again by those who are pro-hockey-fights. I have yet to hear a well-reasoned argument for keeping fighting in the game. They generally appeal to emotions so much that they're woefully illogical. Thankfully, there are people like you who know how to put together a decent argument, and it's that fighting does not belong in the game.

Sadly, I fear that the NHL will not remove fighting from the game until someone actually dies on the ice. I certainly hope that doesn't happen, but if history is any indication, this incident with Parros isn't going to change much, if anything at all. Even if this ends his career, I'm sure the pro-fighting advocates will come out and say how much it was a "freak accident" that "rarely happens," and how he "chose to do this for a living", etc. It'll just be lame excuses and denial so they can continue to get high off their own bloodlust.

Topham said...

A masterclass

Doug Ross said...

Dear NHL:

Fire Gary Bettman and hire Leigh Anne Power.



J.T. said...

Thank you all for your comments. To be honest, I was expecting a lot of "get your head out of your butt" or "have you ever played the game" types of reaction. It's encouraging to see so many real, true blue hockey fans have had enough of fighting.

The Tas said...

The only people who espouse fighting are the old guard - guys like Don the Cherrysaurus who are living in some past world like the dinosaurs they are. All you have to do is look around to see how ridiculous fighting is - no other professional sports league in the world condones fighting. Relegated at this point to WWE status, the NHL is the laughing stock of professional sports - with their ref the worst in any professional league. Fighting will disappear - if no by force by evolution.

Anonymous said...

All of your arguments make perfect sense. But maybe we are looking in the wrong place for answers. The question is not "When will the NHL wake up and ban fighting?"

I think the real question is: "Why does the NHLPA still agree that fighting should be part of the game?" It's certainly not in the best interests of their constituents. The reality is absolutely no rule changes happen without the P.A.'s consent. Let's think about that for a minute.

If the Player's Union wanted fighting eliminated they could drum up support from fans and the media in a heartbeat and it would be gone overnight. The cynical among us would say the union doesn't want to because no fighting means fewer "players" which translates to less money from union dues. It would also mean they are condoning a form of contraction; which of course, they cannot be seen to agree with. That of course is a smoke screen since the fighters who lose their jobs would need to be replaced by players with slightly more skill.

Perhaps the P.A. isn't in a hurry to ban fighting because it lacks sufficient motivation to change its views. I suspect the instant the P.A is named as a defendant in some upcoming litigation they will be screaming at the owners and GMs for a ban.

Is it possible that we who love hard-nosed hockey and despise fighting have been laying blame at the wrong door?

J.T. said...

@Coach K: The NHLPA angle is one I've been thinking about. I agree there's the issue of a reduction in membership if there were no need for fighters. However, I think it's a bigger issue than that. Ken Dryden wrote a piece for the Globe not long ago, in which he explained the lack of need of a fourth line at all. Goons, "grinders," "energy players"...all of them are unnecessary.

I think the NHLPA brass (minus Mathieu Schneider who's come out against fighting) sees the elimination of fighting as the thin edge of the wedge. If you don't have fighting, do you still need to carry a Travis Moen or Ryan White to provide "toughness" without a whole lot of skill to back it up? Maybe you do, but the NHLPA is afraid maybe you don't.

As for the NHLPA membership and its support for fighting, I honestly don't put much faith in that. Ten years ago, nobody wanted to wear visors because it was "unmanly." But gradually, the majority shifted and now that they're mandatory, nobody says a word about it. These are guys who grew up with fighting and they can't imagine a game without it, any more than they can imagine a game without faceoffs.

Yet, we hear the stories of the goons whose job it is to fight, and they talk about the mental impact and the fear they face. Skilled players just don't do it for the most part anyway. If you look at who actually fights, you'll find it's that lower level of player who makes up a majority of the NHLPA membership because every team needs to fill out its roster with able scrubs. They've always seen their willingness to fight as a requirement in keeping their jobs, and they can't imagine what they'd do if fighting were taken away.

I saw a couple of players on TSN say today that if you took fighting out of hockey, the game would never be the same. What they can't picture is perhaps the game would be better. They accepted the enforcement of interference penalties, which changed the game. They accepted the shootout, which definitely changed the game. The game changes. We don't have the rover anymore, and we allow the forward pass. Change can be good, and that's what the NHLPA has to think about, rather than dismissing it out of hand.

Ian said...

As usual, a well put and thought out post, Leigh Anne.

My neanderthal side has me standing up to watch when a fight occurs. I was happy to see Parros signed because I was tired of the Habs being constantly pushed around.

I also don't like a game decided by a shootout, but I admit to watching it with a sense of excitement.

But, my intellectual side wonders how fighting can be allowed in a team sport like hockey.

It is ludicrous! Period.

So, while I watch the fight with some caveman form of interest, I know it is plain stupid.

I have played hockey. Though I have never had a hockey fight, I have had several concussions. They are not fun.

How good would the game be if teams had a fourth line with skill on it?

The NHL will never ban fighting completely - until a player dies from a fight. And it is amazing this has not happened yet!

So, count me on the side that KNOWS fighting should be out of the game.

Woodvid said...

Ian puts it very well -- the neanderthal in us liking the fights, versus the thinking side that realizes they just don't make sense.

Somebody somewhere wrote this yesterday, which I thought really put the "fans love it" argument in context: If you had strippers at NHL games, yes, many would like it and watch, but that doesn't make it right or appropriate.

Fighting is no longer right or appropriate.

Unknown said...

Well written. Good points are made and the logic follows. Referees can police the game, not enforcers. Such is true in other serious professional sports.