Friday, February 10, 2012
Picking a Fight with the NHL
I never played hockey.
Alright, so after getting that nearly blasphemous-for-a-Minnesotan statement out of the way it is important to understand that sometimes it takes an outsider to provide necessary insight. Especially for a bold question like:
Why does the NHL allow – even encourage – fighting?
Throwing a punch in the NBA, MLB, or NFL will get a player a several game suspension, a fine, and a one-on-one conversation with the commish. But in the NHL, throwing multiple punches is typically penalized with a several-minute reprimand in the penalty box. Then, the fighters are back on the ice, as if nothing happened.
What's even more astonishing is that hockey has a position - “the enforcer” - for the team instigator and brawler. Minnesotans need to look no farther than former Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard* for an example of what it means – on and off the ice – to be an enforcer.
*Check out the extensive series (part 1, part 2, part 3) from the New York Times on the life and death of Boogaard which makes the case that Boogaard’s role as an enforcer was a contributing factor to his death at 28 years old. The author said that it was the NYT’s “biggest multi-department compilation ever.” Around the same time of Boogaard's death, two other enforcers (Rick Rypien and Wade Belak) died of similar, fighting-induced, causes.
It makes no sense that an activity considered “extracurricular” in every other major sport is treated as a part of the game in hockey. The fact that fighting is penalized within the game rather than through league fines and penalties implies that the NHL considers breaking someone’s nose is equivalent to pushing a punter or swearing at a ref.* It seems strange that there would a difference this great between the US's major sports.
*After three “fight instigator” penalties a player receives a two game suspension. Which is some incentive to not start a fight, but not every fight has an instigator and not every instigator gets penalized for it.
However, most hockey-ites see no problem with this disconnect. Rather, they see fighting as “just a part of the game.” That is exactly what's so unsettling about it: it is a part of the game to obliterate an opponent’s face with a fist. It allows players to treat opponents as creatures rather than fellow athletes.
Maybe Minnesotans should lend some credence to the opinions of our neighbors to the north – even the State of Hockey has to bow to people from Canada* on the subject of hockey. However, 3 years ago, a poll said that about 60% of Canadians would like to see fighting penalized with suspensions and fines rather than a respite in the penalty box. These opinions don't quite square with the opinions of NHL team management. After a Canadian semi-pro player died as a result of a on-ice fight injury, the NHL general managers to discuss the matter. In a poll of the GM's leading up to the discussion, all but two said that the in-game penalties on fighting should be loosened. Really?!? A player just died because of fighting, and league officials thought that it would be a good idea to remove the already-loose disincentives to fighting. Wow.
* Or, North Montana.....at least according to Meet the Robinsons.
Maybe the differing opinions between Canadians and management suggests that there is money to be made in fighting. This has to be the only reason that the NHL allows fighting to go on. That, and the fact that it is engrained into the culture of the game. Which actually may be harder to overcome than the revenue lost from a fighting ban. Persuading hockey fans that fighting is not an integral
part of the game will take more than 30-second commercial sports or pros championing sportsmanship.
It will, more than likely, take time. Time for the league to convince its patrons that fighting can fall by the wayside while the core of the sport remains. Or, for more players to die from the consequences of fighting.
Or, there's a third option. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader. His newest cause is combating fighting in hockey. He sent a letter to the the NHL commissioner requesting a ban. I have only been alive for a fraction of Nader's campaigning. But, in that time I've learned that he is not someone to pick a fight with.