The Capitals\' Donald Brashear and the Rangers\' Colton Orr go toe-to-toe. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
I received an email the other day from Szymon Szemberg, the communications director for the International Ice Hockey Federation and a man with a deep appreciation, affection and understanding of the North American version of the game.
Yet he remains perplexed on one key puck issue. He believes Canada is perhaps the most civilized nation he has visited, but can’t fathom why so many of its inhabitants exhibit “Neanderthal behaviour” when the conversation turns to hockey.
I’m no anthropologist, or in this case even an apologist, but I have my theories. (I also believe the pro-fighting faction is eroding, but I’ll get to that later).
For me, the support for fighting among Canadian hockey fans is engrained, learned conduct. It has been part of the fabric of the NHL for so long, we (or some of us) accept that it’s necessary. When people in positions of authority tell us the way things should be, and what we should like or dislike, we tend to follow.
That point is reinforced by men, such as Don Cherry and Brian Burke, from bully pulpits. Intimidators in their own way, and very charismatic and powerful ones to boot, they help embed public opinion. If Grapes and Burkie think fighting is necessary, it’s gotta be, right?
International hockey (not to mention the NHL playoffs) tells us otherwise.
The 2009 World Junior Championship in Ottawa was a riveting tournament, one which Canadians viewed in record numbers. Time will stand still for us while the hockey portion of the 2010 Games in Vancouver plays out before more spectators than ever before at an Olympics. Yet, not a single punch was thrown in Ottawa and none will connect in Vancouver (not without risking ejection and suspension).
And we wonder how many fighters Burke, as GM of Team USA, will include on his roster?
On the bright side, for my European friend and those with a similar bent, there has been a sea change on fighting in the NHL. While cynics claim the proposed 10-minute misconduct for staged bouts is a sham and will do nothing to curb fisticuffs, I disagree to a point.
If adopted by the board of governors, the rule may not drastically reduce the number of punch-ups immediately – enforcers are used to riding the pines for entire periods at a time, so what’s an additional 10 minutes? – but it does prove there is a will to address the issue.
Every movement needs a starting point, a foot-hold, even if it’s just symbolic. Right now, the goons are the target and there’s a consensus that every player in every NHL lineup should be able to do more than just fight. If these proposed changes have little impact, it’ll be onto Plan B. An evolution is taking place.
And what of the true Neanderthals? We’re told, eventually, they became extinct.
Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every Friday.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.