Tuesday, 6 March 2012

An Open Letter to the NHLPA

The pro-fighting hockey crowd continues to throw out the comment that, “98% of NHL players approve of fighting”.   Even ignoring the fact that this interpretation is not exactly accurate, it was still disappointing to me that the NHLPA would have that level  of support for something that is against the rules.  So I thought that I would send them a letter asking them to take some steps to better express their views.

An Open Letter to NHLPA

The NHLPA/CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada Player Poll was recently released, showing that 98% of the participating players answered no when asked, “Should fighting be completely banished?”   As a fan of hockey, but firmly against fighting, I am disappointed by the results, but I have to respect the player’s opinion as a key stakeholder in the game.   However I believe that the specific question does not reflect an accurate opinion of NHL players and something of this importance requires more discussion and study.

I can understand that players do not want fighting to be “completely banished”.  But this overly simple question does not provide us with a complete view of what the NHLPA membership really thinks.  I would not expect that 98% of players enjoy having to drop the gloves whenever they deliver a clean but hard hit.  I’m also positive that the survey results would be different if players were asked if they supported staged fights or asked if they thought the image of hockey was improved when enforcers drop the gloves 2 seconds after the face-off.   I suggest that the NHLPA designs a better questionnaire that gives us an unequivocal answer on player’s views after providing them with complete information on the positive or negative impact of fighting on the game.

I suggest that the player’s association should start by collecting real statistical data on the impact of fighting.  On my blog I have posted some basic research  ( Additional Statistics on the Impact of Fighting) that shows non-fighting penalties are decreased when fighting is reduced.  This is the reverse of the perception that cheap shots and stick work will increase if fighting is eliminated.   But I am not a trained statistician and smarter people than me should be studying this issue so that intelligent decisions can be made about the future of this great game.  I would further suggest that the NHLPA contact Hockey Canada and get access to their study of fighting in junior hockey, where a control group in Ontario had stiffer penalties.  Hopefully this research will highlight differences between leagues where enforcement was in place versus those that allowed fighting.

Every NHL player also needs to consider the role of the enforcer on their team mate.  It is well documented that players who skate for a few shifts a game but are expected to fight when called upon, will talk about the lack of sleep and being nauseous when thinking about an upcoming game.  These players suffer cuts, bruises and potential long-term effects from repeated blows to the head.  They pay for a professional hockey career with a physical and emotional toll on their bodies that none of us can truly understand.  How many NHL players, the majority of whom fight rarely in their career, would want their sons to play hockey and take on that role?

The NHLPA has a shared responsibility with the NHL to expand the fan base in order to bring stability to the game.  Would they rather have fans that love hockey for the game, or fans who watch because of the expected bouts between enforcers?   I think that it is unreasonable to assume that the NHL and NHLPA support fighting simply to sell tickets.  But tolerating an activity that is against the rules also turns off potential fans who perceive the sport to be all about fighting and won’t take the sport seriously.   Implementing new rules to reduce fighting gradually will increase the likelihood that real fans will stay with the game and the reduction of violence will bring in a new audience.   Think back to the 2005-2006 season, immediately after the lock-out.  Fighting was down dramatically and new rules made the game faster and entertaining by cutting down on obstruction and holding.  The overwhelming response from the fans and media was positive – the game was exciting again.

Financial considerations must be understood and discussed by all NHLPA members.  Hockey is a fast paced game where injuries are increasingly commonplace because of the size of the players and the speed of the game.  The league has to look for solutions to reduce injuries overall, and specifically concussions, as it has an impact on revenues and costs.  Fans pay to see the top teams and their stars, and injuries can affect ticket sales when a popular player is out of the line-up.  Insurance could increasingly become a bigger factor as premiums will rise for policies that pay salaries for injured players.  Insurers will insist that the league push through safety reforms in order to decrease the risk they are taking on.  Those reforms may include mandatory visors, helmets that improve protection against concussions or increased penalties for dangerous hits.  Fighting is already not allowed under NHL rules, but is tolerated by the league.  Increasing penalties and game misconducts for this activity could reduce injuries and violence in the game.  Insurers might demand that eliminating fighting is an easy step in the overall effort to mitigate their risk in protecting salaries for injured players.

Every NHL player should also have the opportunity to review presentations from medical experts on the subject of head trauma that can result from fighting, either as a single incident or from a long term career.  Players should study this information, either through online resources made available to them or in live briefings that allow questions.  The phrase, “very few players are injured by fighting” is casually thrown out by fans, media personnel and team officials.  NHL players should understand the risks and use that knowledge to decide if one of their members is being unduly exposed to a hazardous and non-essential activity.

It’s important that the NHL players deal with facts and not perception.  All members of the NHLPA should have access to the information noted above and have the opportunity for discussion before forming an opinion.   Then the association can survey their members in order to craft a reasoned statement that reflects the majority.  I believe that the NHLPA needs to take a leadership position on this issue, instead of allowing the media to casually poll players and release the information for ratings.   The numbers in the recent survey are being stretched to fit a wide range of arguments, some of which I expect the NHLPA would clearly not support. 

I am not sure that fighting will surface as a discussion point in the upcoming collective bargaining agreement with the NHL.  If it becomes one of the issues in the CBA, the NHLPA can demonstrate leadership by proposing rule changes that can reduce fighting while still allowing players to stand up for themselves.  A game misconduct for any fight would dramatically hasten the end of the one-dimensional enforcer.  If players feel the need to respond to a cheap shot then they still have the opportunity but will choose their spots because of the new penalty.   Keep the instigator rule as the initial reason for this penalty was to protect skilled players from being forced into a fight by an enforcer or marginal player.  Insist that the referees use it as intended and it will serve that purpose.

I can only ask that the NHLPA considers this letter as it was intended, to improve the quality of hockey and grow the game by attracting fans who love the fast paced action, hard-hitting and highly skilled players.   I hope that this information is shared with your membership and that some of the initiatives suggested are undertaken to improve the image of the NHL and of the players themselves.


Paul Busch

1 comment:

  1. Great commentary and analysis Paul. Couldn't agree more. We need to clean this game up and provide the skilled aspects of this great sport to thrive. Just consider watching this current crap through the eyes of a young child or minor hockey player. What message are we sending to our future hockey players!! I enjoyed watching several years back when the NHL 2005 - 2006, when there was an attempt to reduce violence and get back to hockey. No one is suggesting to take out the physical aspect of the game, but the goonsmanship and cheap shots have no place in my view. Well done!

    Joe in Ottawa