Saturday, 2 November 2013

With Apologies to Bobby Orr and Brian Burke, All Fights Are Stupid

Over the past few weeks we have heard from two prominent hockey insiders on why fighting belongs in hockey.  An excerpt from Bobby Orr’s new book was widely distributed by the media and Brian Burke had his own guest column on the subject.  Both tried to show that fighting was an honorable and necessary activity in the NHL.  And then Emery demonstrated why all of their arguments are bullshit.

The central argument from both Orr and Burke was the premise that fighting “polices” the sport.   Orr’s comment, “Enforcers have a very practical role to play. If the league really wants to see its stars shine, one of the best ways is to give them more time and space to be creative. And that is the enforcer’s job description.”  Burke offers a similar view, “Reduced to its simplest truth, fighting is one of the mechanisms that regulates the level of violence in our game. Players who break the rules are held accountable by other players.”   It’s obvious that both Orr and Burke think that fighting is the smartest method to deal with the lack of respect shown by certain players.

Both are talking about retribution, not “policing”.  They believe that if an opponent does something they feel is wrong then a player should have the right to exact revenge, to make them pay.  For two individuals that obviously understand and love the game I find it hard to believe that any hockey professional would allow this to continue.   Emotional and biased players, acting without regard for any rule book, are taking liberties with other players based on their perception of what is right or wrong.  Decisions made by NHL on and off-ice officials are not respected and teams continue to call for attacks on their opponents.  And it’s tolerated and encouraged by both league and team executives.  

And it obviously isn’t working.   Cheap shots continue to happen while enforcers patrol the ice.  The “Rats”, as referenced by Burke, continue to ply their trade and are prized as “agitators” who put the star opponents off their game.  NHL culture demands that a team “gets tougher” when one of their players is victimized.  Teams bulk up with enforcers who are more accustomed to playing without gloves in the hopes of intimidating others.  When two opponents with multiple enforcers in their line-ups meet then violence, cheap shots and fighting becomes virtually guaranteed.  It becomes less about “policing” and more about individuals proving to their coaches that they will do whatever they have to in order to stay in the league.

Unlike Orr and Burke I don’t believe that there are any smart fights, just ones that have different levels of stupidity. There are players
who step in after a team
mate has been boarded or elbowed but it’s a dumb response.  The NHL should increase the penalty minutes for certain infractions and punish the team on the scoreboard.  Track dangerous penalties and implement suspensions when you exceed set limits. It’s just plain stupid to believe that a fight will deter a Kaleta from repeating his cheap shots. The level of stupidity then increases with fights after a clean hit, fights in the last few minutes of a blow-out or fights after the opening face-off when two teams send out goons to start the game.  Which brings us to the thankfully rare but incredibly stupid fight that leaves even pro-fighting fans shaking their heads: Ray Emery’s assault on Braden Holtby.

The league cannot tolerate fighting, in the mistaken belief that it has positive benefits to the sport, without accepting that it
leads to incidents like Emery attacking an unwilling opponent.  For every less-stupid fight where someone comes to the aid of a team mate, we have 10 times that many that are side-shows and needless interruptions to what should be a fast paced game.  And occasionally we get a Bertuzzi-Moore or McSorley-Brashear incident.  A player who feels he has the right to engage someone in a fight even if the other party is not interested.   You can’t be a little bit pregnant.

I’ll leave you with another comment from Brian Burke’s guest column, “Certain arguments are virtually impossible to win when made against people who simply cannot or will not understand your viewpoint.”   He was of course talking about trying to convince the anti-fighting contingent that dropping the gloves is a necessary part of the game.  But I think it more accurately describes the majority of NHL executives and NHLPA members who put more faith in the culture of intimidation and violence.  They remain insulated from reason and research.  


  1. The thing about this incident is that the way everything started is lost in the shuffle. Yes, Emery did a very stupid thing. After the Ward goal, Simmonds won the faceoff and carried the puck forward. He then proceeded to stop carrying the puck so he could lay an unnecessary hit on a Caps player then took a run at Wilson on the boards. The hit was not illegal, but it was clear Simmonds role that shift was to injure someone. Given the choice of (A) letting Simmonds run free until he DOES lay an illegal check to someones head and allow the refs and Shanahan sort out his fate at the risk of my teammates' safety, or (B) drop the gloves, take him off the ice, and protect my teammates from a potential blindside dangerous hit... I would prefer my team choose (B) every time.

    To legislate the game so that no stupid things happen would be a mistake. No matter how stringent you make the rules or how harsh you make the punishments, there will be instances that make everyone shake their heads in shame. Where you say "for every less-stupid fight... we have 10 times that many that are side-shows and needless interruptions", but I would contend that for every stupid incident we have to face (McSorley/Brashear, Bertuzzi/Moore, Emery or Cloutier....) we have 10 times as many instances of a player like Simmonds losing control of his emotions and crashing around dangerously. I cannot tell the future any better than you, so I can't say whether a ban on fighting would increase or decrease player safety. But to say its not a way to hold a player in check when he would rather target opponents than hold onto the puck is shortsighted and perpetuates Burke's point exactly about the anti-fighting stance. (And yes, I'm probably doing the same for the pro-fighting side in your view. That's the nature of the debate I suppose.)

  2. Major leagues need to start showing responsibility for their players and their games, rather than playing to profit. Using something that's dangerous (fighting) to deter something that is dangerous makes no sense. If a player does something stupid on ice he should be dealt with severely enough to act as a deterrent, and then the problem will be reduced. If the NHL's prohibitory actions aren't dealing with on-ice problems, then it's clear that they're not severe enough. Sure, stupid things will still happen, but that's just endemic of a violent game filled with bone-head players. When they do those stupid things.. suspend them for a year.. there are thousands of hockey players waiting to take their place and actually play the game. Once the fact kicks in that their pay-cheque isn't secure if they act up, things will change.