Monday, 1 October 2012
Hockey Players Fight Because They Can.
For the last 8 months I’ve attempted to disprove the popular myths about why fighting remains in hockey. Using accepted academic studies, research from other hockey websites, NHL statistics and observations from professional journalists, I think I have presented a compelling alternative view of this issue. But I’ve recently come to believe that the reason it remains in the game is very simple.
Hockey players fight because they can. I’m not talking about fistic skills. Everyone has the ability to throw a punch with various degrees of success. No I’m presenting the argument that hockey players have been conditioned that fighting is accepted by league officials and management at most levels of their career. Put it another way; they fight because no one has ever told them they can’t.
Most of us learned early that punching another person in the head is not acceptable behavior. Maybe a parent or teacher took us aside to explain why it was wrong or we observed the impact on a victim of a fight and it made an impression on us at an early age. If you started playing sports you would have been told by your coaches what was against the rules and at the lowest levels of any league fighting would never be condoned.
In football, baseball, basketball, rugby or any other sport, including hockey, there are strict rules against fighting in any youth league. I coached my daughters for 12 years while they played competitive fastpitch and we travelled across southern Ontario for tournaments. In all those years I only witnessed 2 fights and both times the players were immediately tossed and suspended for multiple games. Hockey Canada sets rules for all levels of the game (except junior, more on that in a moment) and a fighting major results in an immediate ejection and a suspension for the next game. Subsequent fights in the season lead to longer suspensions.
If you are an elite athlete you will go onto to play at the college or university level or get drafted into a feeder league that could take you to the professional level. But here is where hockey diverges from all other sports. If you’re past the age of 15, and if you are not wearing skates, taking a swing at someone will get you ejected and likely suspended. Yes fights happen in college football, basketball or soccer but the officials jump in quickly in order to keep any violence from escalating. Discipline is immediate and usually harsh enough to send a message. Taking revenge for some perceived injustice is not tolerated and officiating is left to the referees.
Now let’s take the average AAA Bantam player, drafted at age 15 or 16 and suddenly playing junior hockey in the WHL, OHL, QMJHL or USHL. At their first training camp they will see teammates dropping the gloves to prove how tough they are. During the preseason they’ll see 2 or 3 fights per game as players attempt to demonstrate that they belong on the team. Coaches will encourage them to play hard and go after opponents who are hitting his team. If a player has some size then they may be told to take boxing lessons.
Teammates will bang their sticks on the boards after a fight and the coach congratulates the combatant. It’s doubtful that they will ever hear anything negative about fighting from the management of the organization they belong to.
When the rookie gets jumped on the ice they will notice that the referees stand back and wait for the fight to develop and wind down before they attempt to bring it to an end. The fans and parents will stand up and cheer every time a couple of players drop the gloves. Each bout is posted on various fight websites and discussed by fight fans. Every bit of feedback from outside the player’s organization is positive about fighting and its place in the game.
Very quickly players are indoctrinated into the culture of fighting. For the first decade of their hockey career they have not been allowed to retaliate against a cheap shot or a clean hard hit. Now it’s not only tolerated but encouraged. Management, coaches and older players will tell them that fighting is necessary to police the game, change momentum or send a message. In fact the coach may tap them on the shoulder and tell them to take out the opponent that has been pounding the team all night. They can go after anyone at any time and only have to deal with a 5-minute major and perhaps the rarely called instigator penalty. Even the new rules in the OHL and USHL still allow any player to fight on a regular basis and avoid a suspension.
The junior hockey system enables the player to fight at will. There is very little conscious thought about the repercussions of seeking revenge. They fail to recognize that momentum is short lived and may not go to their team after a fight. They don’t notice that cheap shots continue to occur despite all the enforcement going on. And they don’t see anything wrong with challenging an opponent when their team is down by 3 goals with 3 minutes left in the game.
They fight because they can. That learned behavior follows them into the minor leagues or NHL where the culture of intimidation is consistent and the institutions are similarly supportive of punches to the head. The same myths and perceptions are presented as fact. The reasoning remains the same - so the professional player fights because they can.