By: Tony Del Fiacco, KCOU Sports
Ask someone what the most enjoyable part of hockey is and often times they will answer “the fighting.” Why wouldn’t they? There is something inherently entertaining in watching two people connect fists with each other’s faces.
Recently, though, increased concern over concussions has raised questions over whether fighting is worth allowing in an already violent sport. The autopsies that found two longtime NHL enforcers, Derek Boogaard and Bob Probert, to have suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) are no secret. Couple those disturbing truths with the ongoing renaissance of advanced statistics—in which more NHL executives are prioritizing their teams’ ability to create shots and move the puck over their willingness to exude intangible “grit”—and we have our first serious debate over what value, if any, fights provide in today’s NHL.
The pro-fighting side argues goons are necessary in keeping “the rats” from targeting star players. What players refer to simply as “the code” dictates that enforcers be there to police the ice and look out for their own. But even though fighters have been on NHL rosters for decades, dirty hits remain an all too common occurrence. Ryan Reaves’ reputation didn’t stop Brent Seabrook from trying to decapitate David Backes last spring; and Blackhawks fans remember how Brandon Bollig’s presence couldn’t scare Raffi Torres out of torpedoing into Marian Hossa in 2012.
If enforcers can’t “enforce,” why reserve a roster spot for them? So they can endanger themselves and waste at least two of the very few minutes they average a night in the penalty box? Leave punishing headhunters like Torres and Matt Cooke to the Department of Player Safety. Though the department’s standards for dealing with cheap shots are far from perfect, the most effective way to keep pests off the ice remains officially keep them from suiting up in the first place.
The other argument in favor of fighting is that it can be used to shift momentum. The idea is when a team is trailing, they trot out their goon to fight the opponents’ goon. If the former beats the latter, his team is given the motivational boost necessary to turn the tables. While it’s hard to deny that a player can feel more energized after watching his teammate drop the gloves, there is no proof “momentum” actually exists.
Change has arrived in the leagues’ attitude towards fighting. Brawlers like George Parros, Paul Bissonnette, Kevin Westgarth and Matt Kassian are unemployed. The Toronto Maple Leafs placed tough guys Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren on waivers, eventually demoting them to their AHL affiliate. Last season saw Shawn Thornton catching a lot of heat, and rightfully so, for sucker punching and concussing Penguins D Brooks Orpik after Orpik refused a challenge to fight. Even NBC studio analyst Mike Milbury, of all people, has done a 180 on his views towards fighting, advocating its end for the sake of safety during the pregame show of the Bruins-Flyers season opener Wednesday night.
It won’t come easy; professional hockey is the only level of the sport—of any sport—in which fighting doesn’t lead to an outright suspension. But fighting’s absence hasn’t negatively affected the quality of play in college hockey, the junior and youth levels, some major European leagues or the Olympics. If the end of one of hockey’s oldest and most well-known, as well as most unnecessary and dangerous, traditions loses casual fans who cannot separate the sport from the in-game sideshow, then so be it. Actual hockey, unhindered and beautiful, will draw enough new fans to make up for their loss.
Three Stars: Top plays of the past week
★★★ A buzzer-beating goal in hockey is a pretty rare and pretty sweet occurrence, so Daniel Briere’s game-winner against Boston on Monday to give the Avs their first win earns a star.
★★ Your save on Martin St. Louis from Saturday was obscene, Sergei Bobrovsky. Man. (Arguably NSFW)
★ Four words: Steven Stamkos hat trick. ‘Nuff said.