Fighting for Fighting

John Scott of the Buffalo Sabres pulled back from his pursuit of the puck on Thursday night and three things happened. First, Scott skated in the opposite direction of the puck and towards the others teams benched in a calm manner, which provoked the question if he was concussed (he was not), and if he was going to try and take a seat on the Toronto Maple Leafs bench. Second, Scott sought out Franzer McLaren, who had just come on to the ice as the Leafs were in the midst of changing their lines, and positioned himself between McLaren and the Leaf’s bench. Third, Scott shoved McLaren and the gauntlet was cast onto the ice.

The ensuing affray took 32 seconds as both men used their left arms, fully extended, to keep the distance but using their opposite arms to throw deft right-hooks at one another. That fight was Scott’s fourth of the year and the footage of the battle is telling. There were five bystanders of the fisticuffs in total; two were Leafs, and McLaren’s teammates, and the other three were referees. There is an obvious increase in amplitude from the crowd within the Air Canada Centre as well as commentator Barry Melrose remarking that Scott was, “…just trying to rile up his team.”

There is an aboriginal argument in the National Hockey League about fighting – on one side it is a masculine part of a game that allows disputes to be settled in a gentlemanly way akin to dueling was during the 19th century. The opposing faction claims that fighting denigrates the sport and that Olympic and Junior hockey made altercations such as Scott’s taboo for a purpose.

For some men, like John Scott, all they do is fight. Scott averages 3:52 on the ice per game, and over his career (163 games) he has spent 262 minutes in the Sin Bin. Kindly, men of the same breed as Scott are dubbed “enforcers” while harshly they are termed “goons” and these men may do a little of both. They are big men on skates who do little to nothing else than waylay players on other teams who harass their team’s star a little more than the coach may like. In fact, Matthew Barnaby, who recorded 300 points in a 14-year NHL career, called out Scott, tweeting, “He’s big, he’s tough, but he couldn’t make my bantam hockey team” which referenced Barnaby’s son’s team – which Barnaby coaches – for under-11 boys. Barnaby means that Scott, who wouldn’t fight in Junior leagues, is not a good enough skater, shooter, passer or defender to be valuable even at that level.

While it may not seem like it, there are regulations concerning fighting in the NHL. A player may not be suspended for one fight, but they receive 5-minute majors. Using a weapon (stick, skate, etc.) carries harsh consequences, and coaches can be severely reprimanded for allowing bench players to agglutinate into the brawl. Basically those rules ensure that if two men have a disagreement, they solve it themselves.

Those cynical of boxing on the ice purport that it injures players, that it is a barbaric encampment in the sport and diminishes hockey’s integrity.

When it comes to injuring players, head of the NHL Players Association, Paul Kelly, says, “players need to keep a helmet on during the course of a fight, and perhaps require officials to step in if a helmet comes off during a fight.” Considering that helmets come off in a vast majority of the fights in the NHL – and that the NHL averages .53 fights per game – Kelly touches on a pertinent issue. My discrepancy with Kelly’s suggestion is that if a player is punching plastic and metal rivets rather than a person, are they not more susceptible to breaking their hand or wrist on a higher percentage of fights than players are already injured now? As of now nearly all fights end in a trip to the penalty box and not a trip to the trainer. In fact, in a study by HealthDay, in over 1200 games and 700 fights during the 2010-11 season, there were only 17 reported injuries – and five of them were knuckles. That’s 2.3% of fights are injurious.

In response to fighting’s barbarousness, it’s no more savage than an NFL safety coming across the middle and clocking an unsuspecting Wide Receiver on a crossing route, it’s no more crude than the sport boxing itself at which many esteemed patrons cheer as the combatants slug each other in the face repeatedly. And what about the UFC? UFC with all its submission holds and broken noses and blood is the fastest-growing sport in today’s America (by TV viewership and event attendance). In those sports, plays like that are accepted. Is fighting in the NHL barbarous or is it traditional? Such occurrences in sports like football, boxing and the UFC are considered “how the game is played” and that’s just how the NHL is too.

Where the ‘fighting diminishes hockey’s integrity is concerned’ I would say it is the exact converse. Gamesmanship is increased by the skirmishing. If two men have a problem with one another, or their playing styles, the pair set down their gloves and sticks and have a battle royal. That is far preferable to throwing a Matt Cooke-esque elbow or a player dealing with their frustrations in a similar fashion to Sean Avery. During fighting, both players are face to face and can see the fists coming; there is a certain pride in acknowledging your opponent and letting the tougher man claim victory. In a Cooke or Avery style of altercation (which would be prevalent if there was a ban on fighting) there is no warning, usually the victim is neither watching nor aware, and weapons don’t stop at fists. Skates, elbows, and sticks are far more dangerous than fists. Fighting allows players to relieve their frustrations, punch it out, and head to the penalty box to calm themselves for 5 minutes. If fighting was illegal, there would be a substantial increase in dirty play – which would certainly reduce ‘integrity of the game.’

I would even argue that fighting brings honor to the rink. It shows camaraderie – one teammate standing up for another and saying “I have your back.” Fighting is also a part of the unwritten code that NHL-ers adhere to, guidelines for the players and by the players – it’s them saying, “If one of your guys cheap shots our guys, there’ll be hell to pay.” They fight for respect and they fight for each other.

Hockey fighting is so engrained in today’s society that there is a website dedicated solely to it (hockeyfights.com) where fans can vote on the winner, watch highlights, and see statistics on a players fights throughout their career. Removing fighting would certainly incite anger in an NHL fan-base that already is full of discontent because of the many strikes in the past few years.

Also, is there any strategy to fighting? Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton tangled with Scott on Jan. 31st in their game and was – unusually – beaten. First, Thornton, who held no hard feelings, remarked that at least he lost to “a guy who was 6’8” rather than 5’8”.” Second, many callers into the Boston sports talk show ‘Dennis & Callahan’ on WEEI 93.7 were complaining that Bruins big Defenseman Zdeno Chara didn’t stick up for Thornton by ambuscading Scott. Callahan was astounded, saying that that’s exactly what the Sabres wanted, Scott – who plays three minutes a game – would take the beating for the team if it meant that Chara – one of the NHLs premiere Defenseman – would sit in the Sin Bin for five minutes as well. Scott for Chara is a swap that many would take and it would weaken the Bruins defense while the Sabres give up a man who barely plays.

For all the negativity surrounding fighting: the supposed injuries and the degradation of the sport, it appears that hockey has succeeded (and remained healthy) for years with it. While pundits continue to fight about fighting, the players will play by the code and hockey will continue on continuing on.

If fighting isn’t dangerous and it’s a part of hockey – the game we all already love – why remove it?

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One thought on “Fighting for Fighting

  1. Pingback: Goon Squad: League Officials Mug John Tortorella | Sports Compass

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