The debate over fighting in hockey takes on a new wrinkle with the advent of a recent rule change in the Ontario Hockey League (“OHL”). The OHL, starting this season, will assess a two game suspension for any player that receives a fighting major over and above his 10th. By implementing this rule, the OHL is taking deliberate steps to curb fighting and perhaps, to phase out the role of enforcer altogether. I thought it would be worthwhile discussing some of the competing arguments in this area for the following reason. NHL officials are on record saying that they will be closely monitoring the impact this rule has on the game at the junior level. Translation: “the NHL will consider implementing such a rule if we like what we see.”
As most of you know, fighting was a prominent part of my game throughout my junior, minor pro and NHL career – a period of time that spanned three decades. It’s also worth repeating that I left the game due to a concussion sustained in a fight. So below is one view, it is my view and I offer it in so far as it might inform the discussion on this issue. At the end of the day, I favor leaving fighting in the game. Let me explain why.
It should be noted on the front end that there are reasonable arguments on both sides of this issue. First, those that favor eliminating fighting from the game would cite player safety as the reason. No argument here. Ban fighting and you abolish one area where concussions occur on a fairly frequent basis. After all, reducing blows to the head is the primary justification for implementing a rule change in this area. The studies show, however, that concussions occur more frequently during the normal course of play rather than during a fight.
Second, there are those who would say that by allowing fighting in hockey you actually drive away interest in the game. It’s a fair point that fighting in the hockey context is fairly brutal. Remember, these are big men who go at it bare knuckles – and often times without helmets. By contrast, boxers and the mixed martial arts crowd wear gloves that provide some protection for the athlete.
Even so, I am not so sure this argument stands up. For one, it’s not a position I have ever seen supported with real data. And anecdotally, I don’t come across a lot of folks that avoid the sport for this reason. I suggest that anybody who’s philosophically opposed to hockey because it allows fighting may not be much of a sports fan to begin with. The point being; hockey isn’t going to draw that person into the arena anyways.
On the other hand, there are valid reasons to leave this aspect of the game as is. First, the presence of an enforcer keeps the other team honest. The opposition doesn’t take liberties with your team when you have an enforcer in the lineup. And if the ultimate goal is to reduce trauma to the head, this is one tool in a basket of tools that the NHL has at its disposal. The enforcer acts as a deterrent.
My experience has taught me that if you don’t have an enforcer in your lineup the other team will play you differently. And by “differently” I mean they may try to run you out of the building.
Second, the fighter drops his gloves with his eyes wide open. Today, more than ever, players understand the risks involved when they engage another player in a fight. In the law, players are said to have assumed the risk. And let’s face it; we live in a society where we are free to make our own choices – even when those choices pose a risk to our health. If we eliminate fighting for that reason, we are starting down a path to abolish any sport/activity where a risk of injury exists. Think about it. If we take fighting out of hockey because we’re concerned for the athlete involved; what prevents us from eliminating other similar sports/activities? Not far down the slippery slope sits boxing and mixed martial arts and other sports we love to follow.
Again, I am for leaving fighting in the game. I believe it deters other acts that cause injury and the enforcer/fighter appreciates the risks involved. Furthermore, there was a day in this game when fighting was far more widespread and completely random. Today, fighting is very much a tactical part of the game. When two players engage, there is usually a strategic purpose behind the altercation.
Having said all that, I also believe in keeping an open mind to proposed changes. Let’s watch to see what impact the OHL rule change has on the game at that level, if any. Who’s to say it won’t be for the better?
See you around the rink.