Monday 17 February 2014

Olympic Hockey Proves Fighting is Stupid

A lot of anti-fighting hockey fans will use the Olympics as an argument of why fighting is not needed in the sport. The rebuttal from pro-fight fans is that Olympic hockey is too unique and cannot be used as a comparison to the same sport played by the NHL.   I think the pro-fight fan may be correct.

Olympic hockey, particularly the matches played in the later rounds leading up to the finals, have provided fans with some of the most exciting games we’ve ever seen.  Every roster includes the world’s best players and teams are built on skill and toughness, with the emphasis on skill.  Truculence and grit are not required.  Olympic fights are rare, only eight in more than 500 games since 1960, yet players don’t need to relieve stress or require the dropping of gloves to change momentum.   “Rats” haven’t taken over the game and the top players have “room to skate”.  If the Olympics can deliver high intensity and entertaining hockey without fighting, then why does the NHL continue to tolerate it?

The pro-fight fan will tell you that Olympic hockey to too unique, that it’s a highly compressed tournament with the best players in the world that played on an ice surface with different dimensions.  This international version of hockey versus the NHL is so different that holding it up as an example of why fighting should not be part of the sport is ludicrous.  The grind of an 82 game schedule requires toughness and enforcers to protect the star players.  Animosity that builds up over a longer schedule, versus a short tournament, demands that the NHL roster include a different type of skill who can keep the cheap shots to a minimum.  Of course no one can prove that fighting is a deterrent but let’s assume it’s correct.

Here are some other reasons why you cannot use Olympic hockey as an example of why fighting should not exist in the NHL.

  • Olympics use the IIHF Rule Book.  It’s clear that roughing and fighting is not considered part of the sport as it results in a major for roughing and misconduct for fighting.  The specific rules section is short, a few paragraphs, and to the point.  The NHL rule book takes several pages to explain how you can fight and only get a 5 minute penalty.  It makes it pretty clear that the activity is tolerated.  
  • The Olympics is all about promoting a set of values through sport.  They talk about a life philosophy — the promotion of three core values: excellence, friendship and respect.  The NHL has “The Code”.  If you hit or even look the wrong way at one of my teammates then a large, poorly skilled hockey player will attack you at the first opportunity and take revenge.  

It would appear that the difference between the Olympics and the NHL is about attitude.  One focuses on the sport and attempts to keep the side show out of the game.  The other tolerates an activity that has nothing to do with hockey and everything about promoting violence and retribution.

Pro-fight fans will tell you that the NHL without enforcers and fisticuffs would be a scary place.  My belief is that hockey without fighting would be very much like the NHL playoffs.   With very few anomalies the average dropping of the gloves occurs every 4 or 5 games in the playoffs, approximately 1 fight in a 7 game series.   The playoffs have intense competition and stress and frustration is at an all-time season high.  Yet fighting is not needed as “a thermostat” as is suggested by Gary Bettman.  Overall penalties are also reduced, some of that is the referee “letting them play” but it also demonstrates that players are more disciplined.  In general dirty play and cheap shots happen far less often.  Is it a coincidence that when the enforcers get reduced playing time, or are sent to the press box, that there are fewer penalties?   If coaches truly believe that they need that 4th line grit, why reduce their ice-time when winning really matter?

The Olympics is a truly special event that can be held up as an example of hockey that focuses on skill and reduced violence through enforcement of the rules.  The real reason that you cannot compare it to the NHL has nothing to do with the length of the tournament or the higher level of skill involved.  It has everything to do with the ideals that are represented and what they believe is part of the game.   The NHL and NHLPA cling to the myths of enforcement while what they really want is revenge.  They believe that cheap shots and violence is controlled by allowing players to punch each other repeatedly in the head.  The discussion should be about attitude, not about rules or the size of the ice.

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