Hockey fighting has been a form of on-ice justice and a tradition in the sport for over 80 years. In the modern age of professional sports, we are understanding more about concussions and head trauma all the time, so we have to ask ourselves, with this new understanding, if it's really worth it. Some argue that without the fighting there would be more violent illegal hits in-game. Others argue that the talented finesse players would be able to excel. The NHL has made less progress in this field than even college hockey or other promotions and doesn't seem to be taking this too seriously. Die-hard fans love the fights, but would they stop watching if it was banned?
The injuries related to the contact in the NHL (including fights) have only increased in the post-lockout era, while being virtually non-existent in college leagues as a result of strict enforcement of the rules. Bob Probert was a "goon" in the NHL for his entire career and died suddenly last year at the age of 45. Despite the cause of death being a heart attack, Boston University researchers have not ruled out a link to head trauma. Boston U also approached the family of Derek Doogaard after he had passed away only 5 months after a career ending concussion. This is scary stuff because injuries that might have been unnoticed in the past are now possibly being linked to deaths. Crosby himself missed 20 games last year and has no clear return date, due to post concussion syndromes. Fighting, head shots and dirty hits just aren't going anywhere and taking people out of the game more than ever in the NHL. The league's commissioner Gary Bettman doesn't seem to mind at all, stating that the league "celebrates body checks" and doesn't think that head trauma is something that has to be addressed.
Players, coaches and GMs don't seem to think that fighting has to be addressed either. Not surprising considering that any change that has ever taken place in hockey has always been met with resistance. Even helmets were unpopular when they were introduced! General managers fear the loss in ratings if fighting was banned, coaches don't want their players being hit without someone to fight back and players accept it as part of the game. The league is there to protect its players so it should be the league that makes a decision on that, but that probably won't happen anytime soon.
The only plausible purpose for the fighting would be to regulate the amount of illegal hits in-game, which is the main argument for the enforcers. If there is no fear of consequences then there's nothing stopping people from taking out the best players with head shots or using their stick. This argument makes a lot of sense, but watching hockey on an international level seems to indicate that this isn't as big as a problem as some believe. There is no fighting in the Olympics and very strict contact rules and some feel that that is the highest level of competition.
As I'm writing this, I appreciate the irony on many levels. For one, I'm a fighter. I don't play hockey, but I've trained in martial arts for over half of my life and love to fight. Second, my best friend (Ricky Mabe) has a new movie coming out ("Goon") about a hockey enforcer and this is the most excited I've ever been for any of his films. Third, a long-time friend of mine is an enforcer ("Sheriff" Sean McMorrow) in a hockey league in Europe and I'm always proud to see him lay someone out. The irony is not lost on me here. I'm the first to jump out of my chair watching a good hockey fight. I love fighting and I love hockey, but if it's going to start costing people their lives (or quality of life during retirement) then maybe it's time to really put it's role under the microscope. There are plenty of combat sports out there to get behind and I certainly wouldn't stop watching hockey if fighting was banned. On an international level, it seems like this is only such a big issue in the NHL. Maybe it's time that Gary Bettman starts to look out how the rest of the world has handled this issue and save some lives.
Fight or Die