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Politics And Fighting Are Intertwined

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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Maybe you are too young to remember the two solitudes.

It was a term that spoke to the deep division between French and English Canada.

Hockey is facing its own two solitudes: those who accept fighting in the sport and those who oppose it.

Concussions, the biggest story in pro sports the last few years, snakes through the fighting question.  Concussions aren’t new. What is new is their sudden status as the new battlefield over fighting.

To me the fighting question is political.

There is your right wing. There is your left wing.

Proponents of fighting see themselves as pragmatic, self-reliant and optimistic. Generally, generally they are your right wingers.

People such as Don Cherry speak of a code.  If left alone, people will police themselves. In the case of the fighting question, they will find someone to do the policing for them. 

The problem they see is not fighting but rather people who choose not to behave honourably and the functionaries, rule-makes and left wingers who make things worse.  Tough guys know their jobs. They are well-paid. They should be left alone.

Right wingers are incensed that left wingers can’t seem to grasp that we all live in free-floating environments that can’t be controlled by an overweening police state.

Over on the left, you will find people who reckon the best lesson of unlimited individual liberty came in The Lord of the Flies.

They believe in a strong moral voice that flows from North to South unless (usually, usually) you count God. And they see the NHL’s nod and a wink toward fighting as coldhearted exploitation.

Lefties consider tough guys a product of a sport that takes hockey players and turns them into goons. They do not buy the flimsy concept of fighting as a safety valve and recognize it as a tactic tolerated only because it has always been tolerated and because bloodied jerseys are easier to get on sports shows.

Both sides view each other as inflexible proponents of a stupid, self serving ideology that ignores basic human nature.  Any effort to link real life events like the deaths of Wade Belak, Derek Boogard and Rick Rypien with one belief system is cursed by the other side as disrespectful and exploitive.

With the glaring exception of Cherry, coverage of the question usually reflects the ingrained political flavour of the news outlet.

No one ever booed a fight, Terry Koshan wrote in the rightist Toronto Sun the other day.

He’s got a point. Not in the NHL, nor in Rome.

Hockey has continually evolved reminds the leftist Toronto Star’s Damien Cox who says the concussion crisis reinforces the need to eliminate fighting.

But progress has also brought us Chernobyl, a decaying environment and a steady decline in traditional values. There’s often little progress in progress let alone in ill-conceived, ideologically-driven and revolutionary change.

Fighting is a lot of things, fraternal and brutal, lucrative and devastating, honest and yet almost always staged.

It speaks to the basic elements of the people who watch it and the people who do it. It is the centre of the game’s twin conflicting elements, brutality and skill.

And that’s why the debate will never go away and why no accord seems possible.

Despite the shrieks from the left side of the sporting landscape, the pro-fighting  view runs through the game, from the corporate offices to the rinks in Estevan, Prince George, Dryden and Repentigny, through the broadcast booth and to a public that is both entranced and horrified by what it sees.
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