Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Fighting in the NHL

This is my most favorite time of the year as the NHL has started up again. I am still wrapping my head around seeing Vinny Lecavalier as second-line center on the Philadelphia Flyers, but it is exciting to see all the new line-ups and just finally watching games that mean something. But part of my excitement is hampered by all this talk of the hot-button issue of fighting in hockey. For those who are unaware, this is a divisive topic in which there really is no middle-ground. Although I have heard persuasive arguments for both sides, I not only prefer fighting in hockey but I also believe there is a place for it.

One of the best arguments that I have heard denouncing fighting hockey is that it is unnecessary in order to win championships is from Drew Remenda, the color analyst for the San Jose Sharks. He used the Detroit Red Wings as the best example for this because they have the longest consecutive playoff appearances to date of twenty-two years. They have eleven Stanley Cup wins, and they have the lowest number of fights when compared to all other teams in the league. Remenda makes an excellent point, and he is absolutely correct when he emphasizes that the Red Wings win because of their fast-skating and incredible stick-handling. But I'd also like to point out that they also have Todd "I Almost Killed a Man" Bertuzzi on the roster. Jordin Tootoo is perhaps the hired gun of the current group, but he doesn't quite fit the image of an enforcer/pest type. And let's not forget that Darren McCarty, Brendan Shanahan, and Martin Lapointe have been big parts of the Red Wings past. However, the Red Wings are the lone team who are able to have success with this system. They are the outlier. It has become far more the norm to utilize one or two players to be the tough guy on the team. These tough guys are more like pests rather than the enforcers in the old days. These pests are intended to rile the other players, throw down the gloves when necessary, but they have to have a more dimensional game. There has been value attached to players like Brandon Prust, Steve Downie, Scott Hartnell, and Steve Ott. They aren't merely hired guns but have to be able to score or offer something other than pure fighting. Thus, fighting has decreased over the years and hasn't always had the same "I'm going to kill you" feel to every scuffle that breaks out on the ice.

One of the arguments for fighting is that fans will not watch hockey without it. Drew Remenda pointed out that hockey fans will continue to watch the games without fighting, but they would not watch it without scoring. That makes sense, but I think this slightly misses the point. Hockey fans will watch hockey because they love the game. Fighting is like the decorations on a cake. They aren't necessary in order to enjoy the cake, but they do make it just a little bit better. Not every game has a fight and that does not make the game any less enjoyable (well, unless your team suffers a heart-breaking loss or gets completely embarrassed). However, fighting can draw in new fans which is what the NHL desperately needs. I am not saying that people will not become fans of hockey because there wasn't a fight, but when there is a fight, people become far more curious about the professional sport that stops in order to allow two players to duke it out where they stand. Suddenly, hockey becomes all that more fascinating. I remember taking a friend to her first hockey game, and she was amazed, "They can just fight like that?" Yes, yes, they can, and I love it. I have also heard people who have brought a friend who has never been to a hockey game before being fascinated and thrilled by seeing a fight. And I have never heard anyone ever say, "Our team won which was great, but there was a fight. That was awful." I guess there must be some people who feel that way, but I have never met them.

An argument against fighting is that it is too dangerous. In my opinion, this is not entirely true. In the majority of fights, the players might have a few cuts and/or bruises on their face or torso but not much more. They usually do not require any extra attention from the trainers because of injuries. What has brought the issue of fighting back in the limelight is that there was a lot of heated reaction after the George Parros-Colton Orr fight in the Toronto Maple Leafs at Montreal Canadiens game which opened the NHL season on October 1. During the fight, Parros tripped and fell head first onto the ice and was trotted off the ice in a stretcher. It was later determined that Parros had suffered a concussion and was required to spend the night in the hospital. All of a sudden, this fight (which had been their second of the night) reignited the debate. However, I think this is a very poor example that simply focused on the outcome. Yes, the fight technically ended because Parros suffered a concussion. However, he fell. He tripped, not punched in the head until knocked unconscious nor intentionally pushed to the ice. This scenario could have also happened if he had tripped from a chip in the ice.

There is far more danger in the (legal) hard hits delivered throughout the game. Studies have proven that the punishment the bodies of hockey players take from hits is what causes concussions far more than fights. The NHL has taken leaps and bounds as compared to other leagues since Sidney Crosby suffered his concussion in 201. I would even argue that had the player not been the Christ-child of hockey, the league would most likely not have been as tenacious in its efforts to protect its players, if they pursued the matter at all. Not only have the rules changed to eliminate the more dangerous plays (i.e. hits from behind), but how players recover from concussions has also changed. Sidney Crosby was the first professional athlete to dictate his return rather than the organization or trainers to simply medically clear him and put him back on the ice. It was a few months after Crosby was cleared to play that he actually returned because he could tell from how he felt that he was not ready. Trainers and doctors have become more willing to allow players to use their own intuition in an effort to help them recover from concussions.

Furthermore, the Blake Geoffrion story also exemplifies why the game of hockey is more dangerous than fighting itself. For those who are unaware, Geoffrion was a player for the Montreal Canadiens who had been playing for its AHL affiliate the Hamilton Bulldogs during the lockout when he suffered a career-ending injury. During a game against the Syracuse Crunch, Geoffrion was skating at full speed along the boards with the puck when Jean-Philippe Cote delivered a legal hip-check which flipped Geoffrion upside-down and in the process Cote accidentally fractured Geoffrion's skull with his skate. Geoffrion had to undergo brain surgery to remove fragments of his skull from his brain and have a plate inserted where the bone was broken. And this was from a legal hit, an inherent danger in hockey. Another example of how hits are more perilous than fights is the infamous Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty. During a game in the 2010-2011 season, Chara delivered a hard hit to Pacioretty which unfortunately collided him with the stanchion. He suffered from a fractured cervical vertebra and a severe concussion. The hit was deemed to warrant an interference call as well as a game misconduct, and the NHL pursued an investigation to determine if further punishment was necessary. The league ruled that there would be no further reprimand would be warranted because they did not feel Chara intended to hurt Pacioretty and that it seemed that the unfortunate injuries Pacioretty suffered was due more to where on the ice he had been. The league then moved to remove the stanchions from all arenas in an effort to avoid another incident. Although the hit was not within the rules, this injury was incurred from a hit not a fight.

Another danger of the game of hockey is blocking shots. Players sacrifice their bodies in order to stop an opponent's puck from finding the net. In a recent incident, Gregory Campbell of the Boston Bruins broke his leg blocking a slapshot during the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Not an injury due to fighting. Matt Greene of the Los Angeles Kings has been known for using his head in order to block shots. In the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Kings were facing the Vancouver Canucks, and in one of the games, the Kings were trying to hold their one-goal lead. Greene dove down on the ice as Alexandre Burrows took a slapshot at the net, but he dove a couple seconds too early. He was completely flat on the ice, and as he turned his head to the right to see where the puck would be coming, he realized it was coming just over his head. As any gritty hockey player would do, he raised his head to stop the puck with his face. He made a conscious decision to stop the puck at all costs because it is the playoffs. Of course, he repeated this same act in a regular season game during the 2011-2012 season, and I'm sure this will not be the last time we will see him do this. Taking slapshots to the head is far worse for your health than any fist coming at you.

To address the issue of whether or not there is a place for fighting in hockey. I believe that there is. Sometimes the fights that occur at the end of blowouts are superfluous, but the majority of fights are intended to rile up the players or to respond to a hit from the other team. Every so often, a team might start a game without energy, and the pest of the team will try to engage in a fight in order to inspire his team to have passion to play. Some critics don't feel that these fights are necessary, but I think if it gets the team going, why not? In an 82-game season, it is difficult to always be running on all-cylinders. If this is going to give you that competitive edge, do it. But where fighting really has a place is responding to the other team. Some teams are more physical than others, but an effective way to limit a team that may be bullying another is to hit back. This sends the message that if you're going to hit us, we're going to hit you back. In a game against the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller felt that Milan Lucic had been too physical in his front-of-net play which ended in Lucic crashing into Miller so intensely that he suffered a concussion. Part of the problem is that the incident reached that height because the none of the Sabres players tried to pick a fight with Lucic to send the message that his antics would not be tolerated. This incident also lead to the Sabres acquiring John Scott and Steve Ott to add toughness to the team. The Miller-Lucic incident is exactly why fighting has a place in hockey. Hits are what causes more physical harm to players than fights, and fighting can limit those more dangerous hits that can lead to injury. Lucic kept rushing the net because no one stopped him.

One last point I would like to make is that this is the beginning of the season. There will be more fights during this time of year as younger players desperate to have a spot on the roster may engage in a fight in order to attract the attention of the coach. Sometimes those players who do not necessarily have the talent to be a top goal-scorer will make up for that with the heart they show by demonstrating that they are willing to drop the gloves for the team. They will literally fight for a spot on the team. For example, Hugh Jessiman formerly of the Florida Panthers engaged in a fight in his NHL debut. He had failed to make the team at the beginning of the season but injuries warranted a call up to the majors. In an effort to make an impression on the coach as a bid to keep him on the team, he fought one of the toughest players on the opposing team, Troy Bodie. Although the ploy did not ultimately work, it demonstrates why some players will be anxious for a fight. Last season, Frazer McLaren of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tye McGinn of the Philadelphia Flyers engaged in fights to begin their debuts with their respective teams in a similar effort to show how they could be useful to their teams.

Although the topic of fighting in hockey will go one to be debated, I strongly feel that it is still necessary to the sport, and I highly enjoy it.