To Fight or Not to Fight: A Rare Musing on Hockey

As the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins, and New York Islanders have all shown, fighting is alive and well in the NHL. Now, no one will argue that fighting in hockey is in any way new; current rules regarding punishment for “fisticuffs” date back to the 1920s. But it does seem like these last few brawls have achieved a scale rarely seen in the NHL. So we’re left to ponder: is fighting good or bad for the NHL?

There seems to be a degree of arbitrariness to hockey fights. Sure, sometimes they result directly from the plays on the ice. The score could be lopsided, or one team’s checking could be far more aggressive than the other team’s. Alternately, a fight could be a response to a previous game, especially when one team feels a certain offense went unaddressed in the first game. We need only look at the continuing saga of Marc Savard and Matt Cooke for evidence of that.

But sometimes, fights break out just because the two players decide to fight. There’s a quick exchange of glances and eye contact, and suddenly it’s on. No rhyme or reason to it, and often no words at all. When there are words, the conversation is usually very brief, suggesting that some issues run so deep in hockey that it only takes a word or two to start a fight. Based on where hockey players mostly come from, I’d guess those issues include the value of socialized medicine vs. the inability to see a specialist in a timely fashion and the merits of one Scandinavian metal band over another (answer: Mayhem rules).

The fact remains that hockey retains a portion of its fans because of fighting, just as NASCAR does because of potential accidents. Allowing the players to fight humanizes them. It shows that, just like most of us, they care about what they do enough so that when someone impugns their abilities, it produces an emotional reaction.

Hockey fights, random as they might be, have a degree of honesty to them that showboating in the NFL or NBA doesn’t have. We’re more comfortable seeing people fight than we are seeing them gloat.

As kids, we’re taught not to brag about ourselves. But we’re also taught that if a bully won’t leave you alone, sometimes it’s o.k. to fight back. Such values have translated into adulthood. Boastful people are rejected, labeled as “arrogant” or “narcissistic.” But those who stand up for themselves (when it’s appropriate) are heralded for “not taking crap from anyone,” for being “scrappy.”

Some teams have called for harsher regulation of fights in the NHL because they think it’s bad for the game. But fighting is primarily a form of emotional release, and going down this path may ultimately lead the NHL into the state the NBA currently finds itself in. Players aren’t regulated in the NBA, they’re repressed. You can barely make a face now if you’re called for a foul without picking up a technical. If you keep punishing every showing of emotion, you’re going to wash the league of any emotion, and that will ultimately hurt the play. No one wants to waste their money on hockey tickets if a third of the game is going to be fighting (as it was in the Islanders-Penguins game), but no one wants to waste their money watching dis-spirited players either.

Complicating this issue is college hockey. Men’s college hockey allows physical play such as checking, but fighting is strictly and severely punished. Fans are less comfortable with boys- unpaid and representing a school- fighting than they are with men, who are paid a salary and really only represent themselves. Women’s college hockey, meanwhile, allows no fighting or checking. The result, at least with the good teams (like perennial Olympic-team feeder Harvard), is a style of play that emphasizes fluid, strategic skating and crisp passing. Watching a women’s game is such a different hockey experience that you can’t compare it with the men’s game, a comparison that has always kept down the WNBA. But no matter which gender you prefer watching, the college hockey game has shown that good, entertaining hockey is achievable without violence.

Hockey has always appealed most to the “blue-collar” portion of the U.S. And part of blue-collar culture is the embracing of honest emotional urges, even if those urges sometimes lead to violent outbursts. This is not to say that non-working-class Americans don’t feel these emotions, they’re just less self-aware and more self-conscious. They don’t want to admit they occasionally want to lash out, oftentimes at the people around them, so they repress. Hockey fans feel no particular urge to repress those instincts, so they lead the charge the other way. That NHL players do the same appeals to fans and helps them identify with the players.

Ultimately, any decision the NHL makes regarding fighting will be a business decision, and the fact remains that fights generate publicity for the league. The NHL is currently battling Major League Soccer for popularity, behind all three other major sports and NASCAR. Anything that gets more people to games or watching the ads on television is good publicity, even if parents might feel uncomfortable letting their 9-year-olds watch grown men punch each other in the head.

Get rid of fighting, and you’re going to lose a large portion of your fans. And if the loss of fighting leads to a loss of emotional intensity, you’re going to lose the rest.

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