Braden Holtby and Ray Emery square off (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
In a world all too bland, our game sticks out because of its beautiful brutality. Why would we want to change that?It always fascinates me when someone who claims to like hockey says they don’t like fighting. Hockey has always had fisticuffs, so clearly when they fell in love with the sport, they knew what they were getting into. They’re the sort of folks who go to a Chinese restaurant and ask why cheeseburgers aren’t on the menu, I imagine. I don’t try to intellectualize fighting because for me it’s a matter of passion – my own and that of the players. Hockey is an intense, physical game played at high speeds. It inspires loyal fans who know the sacrifices players have made to get to the elite ranks and appreciate the danger those same athletes face on a nightly basis just by skating around with each other in ill temper. Are concussions bad? Are hits to the head bad? Sure, but players have known the risks forever and I don’t believe otherwise, even if specific maladies (such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy) have only been named recently. Here, for example, is one testimonial: “Violence is taken to a greater degree. There is always the specter of being hurt. A good player, just come into his prime, cracks a skull, breaks a leg, he’s finished. If you get hit, you get hit – with impersonal force.” That’s former Chicago Black Hawks center Eric Nesterenko, from the Studs Terkel book Working. He told Terkel that in 1971.
A year or two ago, enforcer Krys Barch told me he was well aware that he could end up with CTE, but he understood the risks of his career choice and was paid more than fairly. Consenting adults playing a sport they love and, nowadays, getting paid handsomely for it. Nanny-staters can argue all they want, but there are far crueler things in this world to gripe about than hockey fights and the hypocrisy of it all is sickening. At the risk of ranting, the “barbarity” of a minute-long fist-fight is nothing compared to the workers’ conditions that helped craft the smartphones members of the media tweet on or the trail of suffering that leads to the burgers we all munch on.Would injuries go up or down without fighting in the NHL? Impossible to say unless you take the plunge, but I guarantee you will never make the sport safe without gutting it, and at that point, why bother calling it hockey anymore? The same folks in the press who lambasted the Fox glow puck or who have decried the shootout somehow don’t see that taking fighting out of the NHL would be, in itself, a radical gimmick. Personally, I don’t care that the NFL doesn’t have scraps, nor do I care basketball banned the practice decades ago. We watch sports for their uniqueness, not their sameness. There’s an untamed ruggedness to hockey that even the NFL can’t boast anymore and the fact very few hockey games get out of control despite the leniency towards fisticuffs makes me think a certain evolutionary balance has been found the past couple decades. Could hockey attract more fans if it went without brawling? Perhaps, but you’d definitely be losing some diehards and replacing them with the fairweather crowd. I’d rather stay true to the game’s roots instead of selling out to a corporate ideal of sport (I was going to use the term “Disneyfication,” but even Michael Eisner employed Stu Grimson back in the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim days). I’m not saying hockey has to remain static, but too often our insular world picks itself apart instead of celebrating what we love. This is an exciting sport where emotions spill over, and that tension is often solved with a fight. It reflects the visceral bond the fans have for their home team and, in a world that embraces blandness, I’m glad hockey sticks out. Fighting is a big factor in that uniqueness. If you don’t love the game with fighting in it, maybe you didn’t love it that much to begin with. This feature appeared in the Dec. 8 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.