For as long as the game of hockey has been played, there have been hockey fights. Two or more players drop their gloves and bare-knuckle fight each other until one has had enough, or they are separated. Now, as the NHL and other leagues around the world are becoming more conscious of the issues of concussions and brain damage, they have been asking the question: is it time to remove fighting from hockey?
When you went to a hockey game in the '60s, '70s and '80s, it wasn’t uncommon to see two to three fights a game. Bench clearing brawls were even a regular event, as well. In one case, the Boston Bruins climbed into the stands at Madison Square Garden and fought the fans. Fights would bring cheers from the crowd as the home teams enforcers and tough guys would square off with their opponents and beat them to a pulp.
After the NHL lockout in 2004-2005, the league introduced some new rule changes to better the game. The rule changes introduced made the game a faster, more skill oriented game then it ever was before. Gone were the days when a player could slow another player down with his stick, bear hug another player to keep him away from the puck or instigate fights without any penalties. It was the beginning of a new era of hockey. This would also be the beginning of the end for the enforcer.
Today, there are nowhere near the same amounts of fights in a game as their once was. In today’s game, you can’t be an unskilled, slow skating goon, a “plug” or a “traffic cone.” You have to be fast, skilled and, more importantly, a strong skater. Anything else just doesn’t cut it in the NHL, anymore. Fighting in the game has gone down for the simple reason that there just aren’t the same number of players who want, or need, to fight.
That does not mean that there is no fighting. There are still plenty of players today who can play the game with a good mix of skill and grit. Still, the question is asked: should fighting still be allowed? There are some good points to be made as to why it should not. Concussions and long-term brain damage have become an issue in sports, recently, and the NHL has taken it very seriously. Players are no longer allowed to remove their helmets to fight, fighting straps are to be attached to prevent the jerseys from being pulled over the head and leaving a player vulnerable, and the introduction of the third-man-in rule. These rule changes have been for the better and without a doubt made fighting a little less dangerous then before.
The problem with removing fighting from the game of hockey, however, is simple. What happens when a player gets away with cheap shot? The referee didn’t see it, but every player on the bench saw it. A team can simply not allow that kind of play to alter the momentum of the game without any kind of repercussions. Referees are there for a reason, and for the most part, they do a very good job in making sure the game does not get out of control but, sometimes, the players need to police the game themselves.
Fighting in hockey prevents things from getting out of control, for the most part. When a game comes down to a moment when players need to step in and police the games themselves, fighting provides them a way of doing so in a much safer way than some alternatives. Two willing participants, who are well aware of the dangers of fighting square off and settle their differences. They fight, receive five-minute major penalties, sit in the penalty box to cool off, and the game goes on. This, for the most part, prevents the possibilities of more cheap shots, hits from behind and sticks being swung.
This may sound absurd to anyone who doesn’t play or watch hockey. Understandably so. You don’t often see an infielder drop his mitt and a base runner toss his helmet aside to fight each other, one on one as the rest of the players watch. Hockey is a much faster game than any other major sport and is played with more raw emotion. That raw emotion sometimes leads to fights.
Without a doubt, the game of hockey is better today. The skilled players have the room now to dazzle the fans with their speed and slick puck handling skills while the grittier player can still throw hits and keep the game physical. Fighting still serves a place in the game and it always will to a degree. The fans love it, the players want it and the game needs it.