Saturday, 16 November 2013

The Fighting In Hockey Debate Isn’t Going Away

You might think that there appears to be more news articles and blog posts on the subject of whether fighting in hockey should be reduced or banned outright.  And you would be correct.  I’ve been posting regularly on this topic for almost two years now and I’m encouraged that more writers are publishing opinion pieces and fact based articles – even without a major brawl or fight-induced concussion to prompt it.

Over the past 3 months I am sure that I have read over 100 interviews, sports reports or blog posts on the pros and cons of hockey fights.  It’s not just the anti-fighting fans and media that have increased their frequency in writing about enforcers dropping the gloves.   There have been numerous articles over the past month from current and former players who are all expressing their opinion that fighting is part of the game and is there to help make the game safer.  But, in my opinion, there is a difference in the quality of material that is being presented.

The pro-fighting arguments are all pretty much identical, either an opinion piece by a journalist or an interview with an NHL player.   Here are the main points that are repeated, along with my advice to future pro-fight authors on how they can strengthen their arguments.

1) Fights can change momentum.

Can someone please provide some facts to support this?  The majority of NHLPA members seem to be unshakeable in their belief that fights can change the momentum of a game.  Unfortunately I’ve read several statistical based articles that show it’s useless as a strategy.  This one is a great example. – Does The Momentum Boost from Fighting Help Teams Win Games?

If you really believe that an outcome of a game can be altered by two 4th liners dropping the gloves and knocking each other senseless then provide some data.  The Vincent LeCavalier Vs Jarome Iginla bout is the ultimate momentum changer point of reference, but it’s subjective and means nothing.  There have been close to 5,000 fights since that one in 2004 so it should be easy to sift through all the statistics and perhaps provide conclusive evidence that there is a link.  Good luck with that.

2) Fights help the players relieve stress.

Gary Bettman recently stated that, “fighting is a thermostat” and that it helps to cool things down within the game.  I would think that a professional league would prefer to have their game officials be thought of as the “thermostat” and that they, not the players, are the ones that keep the game in control.   Players fight because they can, not because of some uncontrolled urge to punch someone because they can’t score or generate any offence.  Fighting is the result of having undisciplined players in the game - period.  When the play-offs begin, and most of the truculence is sent to the press box, the fights per game drop dramatically.  Surely Bettman doesn’t believe that the play-offs are more relaxed and laid back, and that the players are calmer.  It was a dumb statement.

The Red Wings have stayed cool by leading the league in not-fighting for over a decade and they’ve done pretty well based on this report - No goons, just good: Red Wings' winning way

There is also plenty of analysis that shows fighting has a negative impact on team performance.  Here’s a sample – Do frequent fighters help NHL teams win? The numbers say “no”

3) Fights make the game safer by reducing cheap shots.

Jerome Iginla, the star of that historical bout noted above, recently made the statement that fighting makes the game safer.  I have a lot of respect for Iginla, for what he has accomplished and for how he plays the game.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t think for myself and wonder why there are holes in this argument.  If fighting reduces cheap shots, why do we still have cheap shots?   If it cuts down on dirty players, why do we still have dirty players?   And then there are the facts.  I have numerous posts on this site that demonstrate that non-fighting penalties increase when fights per game increase.  My Rat PIM updates clearly show that teams that fight the most will also incur more dangerous or dirty penalties.   My common sense tells me that when you respond to violence with violence you get an escalation of hostilities versus the situation becoming calmer.  

Again I would suggest that fighting proponents should present facts that support the perception that fighting polices the game.  Surely you can find a link that shows how cheap shots are dramatically reduced as soon as there is a fight in a game.   You should be able to report that teams who carry an enforcer will have fewer games lost due to injuries since their roster is protected.  Perhaps the data will show that teams who have “more room to skate” because of the tough guy on their roster will have better results in the standings or in advanced stats.  I don’t believe that you will find a link, but I would love to be proven wrong.

If you want an opinion of a former NHL player, an enforcer no less, then read this interview - Former NHL enforcer Jim Thomson: My case against fighting

4) The players know the risks and the majority are OK with fighting.

Hard to argue with this one…actually it’s not that difficult.  I acknowledge that in 2011 a NHLPA survey showed 98% of players did not want a ban on fighting.  I also understand that players accept the risk of brain trauma in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars and the opportunity to live the dream of playing professional hockey.  But the NHL exists because of the fans.  We buy tickets, team paraphernalia and web or cable subscriptions that bring multiple games into our homes.  If I don’t want to watch  a bunch of fair to poor hockey players interrupt the game so they can concuss each other then I have every right to express my opinion.  

Despite the “every fan stands up for a hockey fight” statement, I also believe that my point of view is the same as the majority of hockey fans.  Over the past few years I see the comments on web articles that debate fighting in the game and can see a real shift in opinion.  More and more fans are saying that it’s time for the game to get rid of fighting and focus on skill.   I can respect the NHLPA for taking a survey of players to see where they stand on the issues but perhaps they should undertake a comprehensive survey of hockey fans.  Maybe players should understand what the fans want since we pay their salaries.

My belief is that pro-fight fans fall into two categories; those that believe the rhetoric of NHL players without questioning and those that just like to watch brawls.  To the former I would recommend that you question what you are hearing from the players and demand real data that supports the myths of momentum and policing.  I challenge you to get educated and make up your own mind on what makes hockey so special.  For the latter category, there’s not much I or others can do to change the minds of someone who loves violence and blood over everything else. 

If you are a real hockey fan then you’ll love the game no matter what.  I started in the game on a backyard rink that my Dad built every year for my brothers and sisters.  I continued to play long after my competitive years and have watched an untold amount of games on TV.  So I’m not going to go watch tennis.  If fighting remains in the game then I will still be watching and offer my opinion on why it’s pointless and that it detracts from what hockey should be all about.  For those that say that they’ll stop watching hockey if fighting is banned then I guess you’re not hockey fans.  You obviously can’t enjoy the speed, the skill, the hard hits and the intensity of the greatest sport on the planet, without the spectacle of two players destroying the flow of a game while they punch each other repeatedly in the face.  We’ll miss you.

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