Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Why Fighting Does Not Belong In Hockey.

Joseph Beyda recently published an article in the Stanford Daily titled Why Fighting Fits in the NHL.  It was a rebuttal to a colleague, Tom Taylor, who wrote about his initial experience with hockey, published previously on the same website under Why do NHL “stars” Still Have to Act Like Goons?  Beyda thought that his arguments were solid and his defense of fighting was a slam dunk.  I don’t think so.

I read both articles and I’m sure you can easily figure out which one would have received my support.  However with no option to post comments on the Stanford Daily website I decided to prepare a longer response to Beyda’s support of fighting.  Below I have provided some excerpts from his article and followed up with my opinions.

Speaking for hockey fans everywhere, Tom, let me say this: We hear you loud and clear. We get that fighting is easily the most off-putting aspect of the game to outsiders, and most of us have ourselves had trouble coming to terms with it at one point or another.

Beyda should be stating that he is speaking for pro-fighting hockey fans everywhere.  There are lots of fans who love hockey but hate it when players drop the gloves.  To use his terminology, it’s also “off-putting” to a lot of fans who are on the inside of the game.

To make my case for why fighting is not only necessary, but beneficial, in hockey, I’m going to use the very same play that Tom took offense to during Saturday’s game. The sequence began when Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog skated up the boards and was leveled by Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart.

Beyda goes on to explain that this was a clean hockey hit.  So he thinks that there should be a fight after every good clean hockey hit in order to protect players.  If you buy the argument that fighting “polices” the game, and I certainly don’t, then he is suggesting that hard but clean hockey hits would be all but eliminated by the threat of the enforcer coming after you. 

(It should be noted here that hockey has taken some of the most aggressive action in professional sports by suspending players whose unsafe hits threaten others’ safety. League disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan, once a professional tough guy himself, issued 58 such “Shanabans” last season alone.)

Except that the NHL Department of Player Safety, which states their prime objective as the reduction of head shots in hockey, continues to ignore the fact that fighting involves punches to the head.

By most objective accounts, Stuart’s hit was clean: He was making a play on the puck handler, he stayed on his feet and any contact with Landeskog’s head was incidental. But Colorado defenseman Ryan O’Byrne thought otherwise, and you don’t let a dirty hit to your team captain go unpunished. If you did, after all, who’s to stop the other team from pummeling him again on the next shift?  That sort of retaliation happens all the time in hockey.

So it’s OK that enforcing the rules of the game should be taken out of the hands of the referee and we should allow players to exact revenge.   NHL teams have no faith in the rule book or for trained on-ice officials, who have worked for years to become professional referees, so they employ a player whose primary responsibility is to break the rules by fighting.   He is defending the act of a biased and emotional player to attack an opponent because of a perceived injustice to a teammate.  Allowing that sort of behavior is how we ended up with the Bertuzzi – Moore incident, and there is no reason why it can’t happen again.

He did get something right in the section noted above, “that sort of retaliation happens all the time in hockey”.  That’s why the argument for “policing” is so weak.  The cheap shots and illegal hits continue to happen but fighting exists for revenge and retaliation.  No one is put off by the enforcer, who is more likely to be sitting idle at the end of the bench or up in the press box.  But teams want the privilege of turning them loose.

Tom and others wonder why the chaos of fighting seems so institutionalized in hockey, but shocking as the fisticuffs appear, they’re not nearly as violent as your average dark-alley duel. That’s because the players are still on ice, and if you’ve ever worn a pair of skates you know that a quick change of momentum — say, lunging your fist forward — is a pretty easy way to fall. So in any hockey fight, the first thing the two players do isn’t to go for the haymaker, but to grab their adversary’s jersey with their left hand for stability.

Now that everybody’s safely entangled, the hilarity can begin. Each player stiff-arms their opponent’s right shoulder with their left hand as they swing own their right fist around at their adversary’s head, which is now conveniently out of reach because of said stiff-arm — and usually no longer sports a helmet, the removal of which is a common courtesy to prevent bruised or broken fingers. Most punches miss, and in an even fight there are only two ways to make contact: with a surprise upper-cut by the right hand or a pesky, six-inch jab to the chin with that all-important left paw.

Wow, lots of stuff wrong here.  I’ve been playing hockey for over 40 years and I can change momentum quickly or swing my fist without falling over.  I think that professional hockey players, who are decades younger and play at a level that I could only dream of, would be a lot more stable and mobile.  Regarding the “hilarity”  Spend a few minutes on Google and you can quickly come up with a list of players who suffered fractured jaws, orbital bones or noses during the “hilarity”.  I’m sure that players who have been recently injured, such as Ben Eager (concussion) and Ryan Callahan (dislocated shoulder), are not laughing.

Occasionally a big punch lands; even less often there’s blood. Nine times out of 10 a hockey fight is more like wrestling than boxing, but the frenetic flair of flying fists can be a bit misleading.  And don’t forget, even a Michelin-Man-esque spokesperson for Maxi wouldn’t be wearing as many pads as these guys do.

Last season the NHL reported that 8% of all concussions were caused by fighting. 

O’Byrne, our vigilante, was fortunate enough to channel his anger into a few solid punches. But even though the entire ordeal lasted just 25 seconds — not “several minutes,” as Tom would have you believe — it cost O’Byrne 19 penalty minutes: five for fighting, four for instigating and a 10-minute misconduct. Stuart also got a matching five (the typical penalty for a fight), but by coming clear across the ice to tackle Stuart, O’Byrne put his team down a man for four minutes, twice the length of your typical penalty. Though the Avalanche had dominated the game to that point, Marleau scored twice on that extended power play and the Sharks never looked back.

I think he is digging a hole here.  The example he is using now includes a fight after a clean hit and the act of revenge results in 19 minutes of penalties, having to play short-handed for 4 minutes and ending up giving up 2 power-play goals.  Sure sounds like a good idea to me.

With all that background in mind, here’s how we can explain the crowd’s excitement — which Tom portrayed as barbaric — during the fight.

Most people will stand around and yell when a fight breaks out inside of a bar.  Crowds got caught up in the mayhem and violence during the Vancouver riots after their team lost the Stanley Cup in 2011.  That’s the ugly side of human nature but doesn’t make it right.  You could showcase bikini clad cheerleaders wrestling at centre ice and you would have the same reaction.  But that doesn’t make it part of the game.

Turning points like that scrum change the complexion of a hockey game. And as crude as fights may seem to one eloquent Englishman at The Daily, their consequences — for O’Byrne, likely costing his team the game — are a better deterrent for unwarranted violence than their counterparts in any other sport.

Fighting is all about revenge and retribution.  It does not serve as a deterrent, as I have pointed out in my post Additional Statistics on The Impact of Fighting.  Anyone who watched hockey during the 80’s, the peak period for the role of the enforcer, can tell you that it was one of the most violent decades in the history of the sport.  Fights per game were at all time high at the same time when any player could expect to be slashed, speared, elbowed or just plain attacked.  The game wasn’t safer or cleaner.

There is a growing recognition from many hockey fans that fighting does not fit in the NHL anymore.  Dropping the gloves is a symptom of a game that is loosely enforced and tolerates emotional outbursts of violence.  Increase penalties for cheap shots and have referees step in quickly when players congregate after every whistle, and the reasons to fight will be greatly reduced.   The beauty of the game is in its speed and hard hitting.   The image that the NHL and NHLPA should be promoting is the artistry and skill of those who play one of the hardest professional sports on the planet.  Fighting is not part of the game.


  1. Boy, articles like Beyda's sure do make my job a lot harder...

    The line to walk is quite treacherous in some cases. Ben Eager got concussed in a fight that didn't make a lot of sense to me. If he hadn't dropped the gloves, he might still be playing now. On the other hand, Stuart is still playing, though Landeskog is not, and that does not seem right. "Clean" though the hit may have been, it was still a dangerous play on a team captain, and O’Byrne made the right decision to drop the gloves with Stuart from an emotional/team perspective. The four minutes for instigator/instigator with a visor are unfortunate, because they cost his team the game, but I view that more as a flaw in the instigator rule than as a fault in O’Byrne’s actions (He should have taken them better into account, though). Hits like Stuart’s, which are dangerous but do not fall by definition under the suspension category (although his skates remain on the ice, he is clearly exploding upwards and makes conveniently incidental contact to his head) still warrant a response, in my opinion. And again in my opinion, the proper for the player who was hit or for one of his teammates to step up in defense.

    As an aside, I am curious about your opinion on Malkin’s tomahawk chop to Staal’s head in the Penguins/Rangers game last night. Personally, I think it gives players in the league ample reason to doubt the league’s disciplinary system. And as long as there is that doubt, I can see every reason for fighting as retribution, revenge, and deterrence (I know you disagree on this last point, but I believe I have addressed it in response to your arguments and still do believe in it).

    In addition to the abolishment of players who are unable to play hockey at the NHL level/increased punishment for fighting, as you and I have discussed before, I think the NHL needs to consider playing on a bigger ice surface. It would allow skilled players more space to make the plays every hockey fan, pro or anti fighting, can appreciate. It would also, in my opinion keep defensive players out of the “check first, puck later” mentality illustrated on the Stuart/Landeskog hit. And finally, it would reward teams who can roll four full lines for 60 minutes, further discouraging teams from dressing dangerous players.

  2. Although I didn't think that Stuart's hit was illegal, I would agree with you that it was more aggressive than necessary. The objective used to be to separate the player from the puck and today it's all about trying to separate the player from his helmet. It may take the adoption of IIHF type rules (any hit to the head is an automatic game misconduct) to get NHL players to start backing off their hitting. I used to love watching replays of Scott Stevens hitting guys but now it makes me cringe.

    I did not see stick work by Malkin on Staal so I went and located it on YouTube - That looks like a suspendable offence and I can see why the refs may have missed in the middle of the melee at the time. But Shanahan should have taken action against Malkin.

    The incident with Malkin will likely result in a fight the next time those two teams meet. Fighting is a symptom of on-ice incidents that players feel the officials should have addressed in one form or another. If the offending player was not penalized or disciplined, or they felt the official response was not strong enough, then everyhone expects that the enforcer will send a message at the next opportunity. Fighting won't be reduced until players no longer feel the need to take revenge because they believe in the league's disciplinary process.

    1. "The objective used to be to separate the player from the puck and today it's all about trying to separate the player from his helmet."

      Exactly right. Unfortunately, I don't think simply adopting IIHF rules about hits involving the head will work on its own. As we have seen recently, officials seem to be trying to crack down on hits to the head, giving game misconducts when they feel a player has been hit too high. In two separate occasions recently, though, a game misconduct has been WRONGLY given for hits to the head. The result of that, instead of players backing off their checks, is that everyone just gets pissed.

      My solution again is to expose the players who rely on injuring opponents as a defensive strategy by opening the ice. The 15 extra feet in width between an NHL rink and an IIHF rink make a huge difference, I believe. Defensive positioning and personal responsibility take a much higher priority on the bigger ice, and going in for a huge check and missing because your opponent maneuvered around you is the perfect cue for coaches and GMs to move away from goon culture.