Could The NHL Ever Ban Fighting? It Is Doubtful At Best.

I am a bit of a hockey fight aficionado, which you might have known about already. These days, being as such comes with ridicule and praise - praise from those who remember the old days where tough guys were always present and were there to stand up for their teammates . . . but ridicule from those who believe fighting is the ruination of modern hockey. I appreciate the former while tolerating the latter whilst trying to strike them down.

So one day, when I posted (on Facebook or BookFace or whatever the hell they call it these days) the fight report that I do for every game on another St. Louis Blues blog I write for, the first comment came from a long-time friend of mine, whom I used to play pickup roller hockey with back in the Old Town (because the nearest ice facility is about 30 miles away and anyway, we all sucked at hockey, so who cares? And I still live here, so how would it be the "Old Town" anyway? Again, who cares?), and he said the following (with italic emphasis added by yours truly):

"What will Tyler Atwood do when the NHL bans fighting?"

Well, that set me out for a bit. "WHEN the NHL bans fighting"? Sure, the NHL COULD ban fighting, but I had to think to myself about how could they make that work. After doing that for a few minutes, my response to this comment went into a long-winded missive about cheap-shot artists (you know who they are), how they would proliferate (big time), WHY they would proliferate (not having to stand up for their douche-bagged on-ice actions) and how to keep this from being a problem (a strong head of player safety taking complete control of irresponsible cheap shots, which I thought Brendan Shanahan WOULD be, but sadly has turned out not to be thus far as evidenced by the near Colin Campbell-esque level of inconsistency that was always present previously), all assuming we would live in this bizarre part of the time continuum that would somehow NOT allow for fighting to be legal in the National Hockey League. What a damn scary thought THAT is, right?

After all that, I said that I could probably write a whole blog post on the issue. That was about three months ago. Yes, I am a slacker. Thank you for pointing that out. NOW JUMP, TOWEL BOY!

Look, I am fine with the fact that the "punch-only" hockey skaters (i.e. our old pals, DJ King and Cam Janssen) are going the way of the dodo in the NHL in favor of players that bring tangible skill WITH fighting ability (i.e. BJ Crombeen and, to some extent, Ryan Reaves). I am perfectly cool with that, as are a solid amount of other hockey fans. And I am aware that the number of fighting majors issued in the National Hockey League has decreased in recent years, which hopefully is a function of those nasty fouls to the head, from behind and into the boards being called more often and with stronger, swifter punishment (albeit, as mentioned earlier, with inconsistency of said punishment). But to ban fighting altogether, I feel, would bring about consequences that I am unsure the NHL could really afford to realize.

I do have more than selfish reasons why fighting could never feasibly be removed from the league. It seems Greg Wyshynski, editor at Puck Daddy, seems to at least sympathize with that side of the argument. Click on this link, and you will find these two money sentences that form the third paragraph of that article from Wysh:

"Calls to end fighting are more political and image-driven than relevant to the current debate; yes, we're all concerned about (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and how fighters' brains are affected by a career of punches taken, but fighting isn't the reason why Sidney Crosby, Jeff Skinner, Simon Gagne, Shea Weber and the majority of their peers are currently concussed. Adding fighting to the current player safety debate is like when a senator attaches an amendment on defense spending to a payroll tax bill."

Greg nailed it. Banning fighting in the NHL is an issue that is ancillary to the actual problem at hand.

As for fighters that can also score a few goals, Harrison Mooney also wrote an excellent piece that was posted at Puck Daddy over the weekend, which included the following:

Last year's Boston Bruins were the quintessential example of what can happen if the players providing your toughness are versatile. It wasn't just that Boston had guys that could drop the gloves -- it's that those guys were still plenty effective when they held onto their equipment.

The Bruins had two players finish in double digits in fighting majors in 2010-11 -- Shawn Thornton and Gregory Campbell -- and both those players finished in double digits in goals as well. Thornton had 10 goals and 14 majors; Campbell had 13 and 11.

Let me put into perspective how impressive this is: there were only seven players in the entire NHL that reached 10 goals and 10 majors in 2010-11, and Boston had two of them.

The point here is that every team needs a tough guy or two to handle the dirty team business and protect their players, and those players must be able to handle regular shifts if you expect your team to be a Cup contender. I am perfectly cool with that, which is why I am taking a liking to players such as Crombeen and Reaves - while they are not goal-scorers, they ARE role-players when they are not punching people, and that is vital in the modern NHL.

Continuing . . . .

Arguably, banning fighting in the NHL could make the problem of blindside hits, cheap blows to the head and other horrible infractions to become worse. Before we rope this piece back to the heart of the issue, let me throw some examples at you that come from outside the realm of hockey, pointing out how violent aspects of certain situations bring out the passion of said activities.

I am not an auto racing fan by any means, but my understanding is that the big thrills of the "sport" (I know some of you like racing, and that is fine and dandy, but . . . I drive a car to work amongst traffic and THAT is not a sport) are not the cars whizzing by at amazingly fast speeds, but the fact that - at any moment - the cars could collide into each other and cause a huge wreck. I can understand that. You might see the point I am getting after here.

Another one . . . Do you know anyone who does NOT slow down and look when the cherries and blueberries of an emergency vehicle are flashing on the side of the road? I doubt you do, and I would be willing to bet it has a deeper meaning than respect for the emergency personnel working the scene. I mean, you just want to know if it is simply a car being pulled over by a state officer (so you can point and laugh at the fucker getting ticketed, perhaps), or if there are cars strewn about the side of the road. Deep down, most people want to see a wreck and just MAYBE hope everyone is okay. It's a human flaw that the majority of folks get sucked into, myself included. The same goes for train wrecks, so long as no one dies.

According to Deion Sanders of the NFL Network, this 54-yard touchdown run by Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount against the Green Bay Packers was the best single play in the National Football League in the 2011 National Football League season. Blount did not get into the end zone by dancing and tiptoeing his way there . . . no, he delivered contact to about six or seven guys, running over a few of them with his own shoulder in the process. If you do not find this exciting, then either you are not a football fan (which, around here, is likely, and that is okay, I hold no judgment) or you are just plain weird. And if you are a football fan that does not like this play, I am miffed at how you are also a fan of hockey, arguably another collision sport . . . unless you are, of course, a Packers fan. Then, I guess, I could understand. But hey, your team still won that game, so what the fuck, eh?

You may be still be wondering if there is a point to all this incoherent nonsense. There is, and I will get there eventually.

Sure, people DO attend hockey games to see goals being scored by their favorite team AND to see their favorite team win. Apart from the competitive aspect of the game, what draws the largest crowd reactions? Well, there are two things - one being loud, crashing body checks that knock an opponent to the ice; the other being a fight, be it preordained by the contestants or at the end of a post-whistle skirmish. Hockey seems to be one of the few sports where it is perfectly okay for fans to enjoy a fight during the action, and in some cases, this may be the only time when you hear cheers for the home team's fighter (Barret Jackman seems to come to mind, though I will never understand why Blues fans hate Jackman as much as they seem to).

When do we boo an opponent? Generally, if it is NOT when he is scoring a goal against our favorite squad, it IS when said opponent hits a member of your favorite team in an unceremonious manner. I realize Matt Cooke has seemed to clean up his act this season, but what if he - without the need to fight anyone and answer for his actions - just started boarding and face-elbowing (if that is even a term) everything in sight? Would that not piss you off royally? Would this anger you further if you knew the only thing you could do to get back at him is do something that is banned from the game altogether? I would like to hope so, and this is a major issue you would run into if fighting is banned by the National Hockey League. And that would be, in a word, complete bullshit.

The only thing that would prevent this from becoming an issue IF there were a ban on fighting is a strict ban on illegal hits, including hits from behind and hits to the head. When I say "strict ban", I mean "ban all of these illegal hits, whether they injure another player or not, and suspend those who take such action for double-digit numbers of games in EVERY instance without calling judgment or intent into question". This is the ONLY way a ban on fighting would work. Yes, you would have to suspend anyone who fights for the same amount of time, but I will take that trade-off if a clear, succinct ban on illegal hits is enacted and strictly enforced. AND THAT IS THE ONLY WAY THIS COULD HAPPEN. And since it will never happen this way, I might be wasting your time.

Because, really, what confidence do we have that such a ban is ever going to be strictly enforced? We have no proof that it will, unfortunately. We thought with the appearance of Brendan Shanahan and his well-produced videos explaining his decisions, with swift action taken in the preseason and early on in the season, that there would be some semblance of consistency. Unfortunately, that has not happened, and this is why the above scenario seems a far distance away.

Since we cannot have it both ways, there is pretty much no way you could justify a ban on fighting if you do not first handle the issue of morons like Todd Bertuzzi breaking necks for "retribution" on what was a clean hit for all intents and purposes (Bertuzzi should be playing in the British Columbia Penal League for that, for fuck's sake) or Trevor Gillies basically trying to end some dude's career with a horribly-placed, completely unnecessary "love-tap" to the cranium, or the aforementioned situation (which now seems to be dated, thankfully) of Matt Cooke boarding and face-elbowing everything in sight. Those issues are still largely unsolved, and I really do not see a time when they WOULD be solved completely.

I would not EVER encourage the National Hockey League to ban fighting. If they ever were to do it, the only thing I would be able to look forward to is a league that would become relatively unwatchable, where skilled players would be looking over their shoulder, knowing their next breakaway could bring a stick blade to their head. How could anyone enjoy that? It would effectively kill the league we all once knew, and the hooligans would run wild once again. And if it comes to this, I WILL be that dickhead in the corner screaming "SEE? I FUCKING TOLD YOU SO!" . . . of course, assuming this is how it would go down.

But that is not going to happen if the NHL has any grasp of the situation. So what am I worrying about?

Oh yeah, Gary Bettman is still the commissioner. Goddamn it all.

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