Monday, 27 May 2013

An Open Letter to Donald Fehr and the NHLPA

On Wednesday, May 22nd, an announcement was made on that Donald Fehr and the NHLPA would seek to curb fighting in the NHL.  According to the report this direction was announced at a meeting on April 25th with a dozen influential agents.  This announcement is only the beginning and we are a long way away from seeing real action on the issue of fighting in hockey.  With that in mind I thought that I would write a letter to Fehr and NHLPA membership and see if I could offer some advice on how to move the discussion forward.

I don’t believe for a moment that this blog post will have any impact on how Fehr and the NHLPA proceed, or that it will even be read by the stakeholders involved.  I think it is more important that hockey fans understand the arguments against fighting and that they get involved in supporting the league and the players association as they move towards the logical decision to remove it from the sport.  The pro-fighting hockey fan will be noisy and active in condemning any attempt to remove this form of violence from the game.  The silent minority of anti-fighting hockey fans, who are perhaps closer to a majority then we might think, must be as vigorous and loud in their show of support for Fehr, the NHLPA and the NHL Department of Player Safety.

With that in mind, here is what I would say to Mr. Fehr and his membership if given the chance.

Mr. Fehr and NHLPA Members,

I would like to applaud your recent statement that you and the NHLPA would like discuss and work towards the elimination of fighting in the NHL.  For too long there has been no leadership shown in dealing with an element of violence that is unnecessary in hockey.  It is all the more impressive that the leadership comes from the players association whose membership has, in the past, been overwhelmingly supportive of dropping the gloves.

On my website – It’s Not Part of the Game – I have attempted to provide the viewpoint of the hockey fan who believes that fighting should be banned or significantly reduced.  Through opinion pieces and factual research I have tried to show that the act of two players punching each other in the head has a negative impact on safety, attracts the wrong kind of fan base and overshadows what should be considered one of the toughest, fastest and most skilled sports on the planet.  What I would like to do is share some of those articles with you in the hopes that you can use the information to shape the discussion with the NHLPA and NHL executives. 

Fighting and Concussions:

I do not think that the Players Association would be comfortable publicly acknowledging that they support two players engaging in an illegal activity (fighting is against the rules) that carries a high risk of injury or concussion.  And yet in an anonymous poll held by CBC the results showed that 99% of players did not want to have fighting banned.   It may not be obvious to most hockey fans but if a player thinks dropping the gloves is a good idea, then they also are OK with a teammate risking immediate injury and potential life altering brain trauma in the years ahead.   The NHLPA needs to keep their members updated on the latest medical studies on concussions and CTE so they can make more informed decisions when responding to questions related to their support of fighting.

Players should also clearly separate hitting (illegal or otherwise) from fighting.   Although more concussions are caused in a season by hockey hits, the risk of head trauma is far greater from a hockey fight.   This is because of the sheer number of hockey hits versus fights over the course of a season.  More details on concussions caused by hits versus fights can be found here: Hockey Fights & Concusstions.

The Myth of Policing the Game:

Players have matured and developed in a hockey culture that promotes the role of the enforcer.  The overwhelming majority will tell you how important the role is in protecting players and how enforcers have a positive impact on reducing cheap shots on the ice.  NHLPA members need to put those aside those perceptions and study the facts on the real impact of fighting.  I have numerous posts on my site that demonstrate that when fights per game increase, the number of cheap shots and non-fighting related penalties increase.  Over the past season I have a series of posts that talk about “Rat PIMs”, a category of cheap shot penalties that are tracked alongside fights/game.  The correlation is very strong – enforcers and fights will increase the violence on the ice, not reduce it.

One of my Rat PIM posts compares today statistics versus the 80’s: Rats: Then & Now

The NHLPA should take a closer look at the impact of fighting and how it impacts the game.  Take the work that I and others have done and validate it, and expand upon it.  I believe that your members would reconsider their support if the facts were presented by experts that they trust, versus some blog run as a hobby.  If the argument on policing is shown to be a myth then the players will be more likely to view fighting in a different light.  I fully realize that this would not be an easy transition.  The culture of fighting is very strong amongst the NHLPA, and most NHL coaches and executives.  But facts can create doubt about how correct that culture is, and then perhaps real discussion on fighting can take place.  

Suggested Rule Changes: Improving Player Safety and Reducing Fighting:

I have a post on my site that I admit is full of stolen ideas (imitation is the highest form of flattery).   A number of the suggestions put forward have come from the USHL which has focused first on player safety and they believe their new rules will result in less fighting as a result.  On my blog I have made the point several times that fighting is a symptom of player frustration over officiating and discipline.  It is not policing the game, it's about revenge.

What is needed is a rethink of NHL rules and the disciplinary process.  There has to be a focus on safety by implementing rules that either changes the behaviour of the dangerous player, or drives them out of the game.  Penalties that severely punish the team of the offender will also change the attitude of the general manger and roster decisions by the coach.  Make it costly for a team to dress a less skilled player who constantly plays on the edge, or over it.   Eliminate the need for revenge and, with a small change in the fighting major penalty, the need to drop the gloves will naturally be reduced.

More details on these proposed rule changes can be found here: A Blueprint for Improving Player Safety

The NHLPA should work with The NHL Department of Player Safety to review these suggestions, collect the input of others and craft a new direction for protecting players and eliminating unnecessary violence from hockey.


I’d like to leave you with one thought and I acknowledge that this is my opinion but one that I think is shared by thousands of hockey fans.  I have been watching and playing hockey for 40+ years and I love the sport.  I hated that violence and fighting increased throughout the 70’s and 80’s.  I watched less as the reputation of the sport changed from skill and speed to punching and brawls.  The NHLPA and NHL have not shown any leadership in reducing or eliminating the enforcer role and that tolerance has led to several decades of attracting fans to the sport who are more interested in seeing players drop their gloves.  I am hopeful that the NHLPA will take the lead in changing hockey’s image to a game that focuses on speed, hard hitting and the athleticism and artistry of the players.  I am confident that the league will not suffer a loss of the fan base over this issue and, in time, will attract new fans who no longer think of hockey as something that resembles wrestling on ice.  Hockey will move from a niche sport to its rightful place as one of the most entertaining games on the planet.

Paul Busch
Hockey Fan

1 comment:

  1. I'm very glad you've put this sight up and published the findings. I've added your blog to my reading list. As someone who grew up both playing and watching hockey for more than 30 years, it's been disturbing to watch the NHL become what it has. I used to blog about this very issue, but gave up awhile back because I eventually tuned out of watching the NHL altogether (the other factor being the overall corporatizing of professional sports in general - I recall the day there were little to no ads on the ice and boards). Sites like yours offer me hope that with more active voices out there on this subject, we can bring the NHL back to being about hockey once again.

    Keep up the good work!
    Culture Vulture