Thursday, December 18, 2008

This ain't the Coliseum

As per usual, I am a couple of days late jumping onto the "hockey controversy train". Please recall this incident which occurred a few days ago. Now, someone getting as severe of an injury as Don Sanderson did is no laughing matter, nor is it something to just be shrugged off, especially in the light of how often fights break out in not only the NHL, but in every level of hockey. I'm not kidding when I say every level either.

When I first heard about this, I instantly formulated an opinion about it as anyone would (and seemingly everyone did). I have had a back-and-forth relationship with hockey fights for a long time and this tragedy only seemed to further confuse my position, but it simultaneously gave me a whole lot of things to say about it. Before I could gather my thoughts together for a nice rant though, Bob McKenzie of TSN had to go and spoil the party by basically calling a spade a spade:
"...I am also sick over how this tragedy has become a jumping-off point today to either rally around the game and how it’s played or to use it as an example of all that is wrong with hockey."
Basically, ol' Bob is saying that all the pro fight boosters and no fight naggers are taking the humanity out of this incident by using it as a rallying point. You can read the whole thing here. While I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. McKenzie's sentiments, I also can't help but feel a need to say something about the matter now that it has once again come to the forefront. I have no doubt that there are people out there using Don's injury as diatribe ammo without batting an eye, but I nonetheless feel that a debate is appropriate as long as it is in the name of preventing more instances such as this rather than for the far less important issue of "preserving the integrity of the game". Not saying anything about the cause of his injury while simultaneously declaring how terrible it is doesn't really make any sense to me. If we can all learn something from this, we are at least finding a small amount of good in a horrible situation and preventing more reasonless pain.

So now that I have established my moral bearings, my opinion: fighting in hockey is all cool with me.

If you knew me in any way beyond being an anonymous Internet pseudonym you would know that this is a rather odd stance for me to be taking. I am pretty much the most liberal, peace-loving, violence hating, kitten cuddling dude you will ever come across. But it should also be taken into consideration that not everyone is as good at controlling their temper as I am, and also that I live on the Internet thus limiting my most stressful daily moment to something between "oh noes I have to cook food" and "goddammit I need to go reset the router again". When you start considering the amount of nonsense that goes on on the ice (both intentionally and unintentionally) it is understandable that sometimes people are going to lose their cool. Hockey is fast and full contact and without a certain level of self policing, that wouldn't be possible; the man can't (and shouldn't) be the players' babysitters.

Unlike other sports combatants and referees generally adhere to a vague but rather effective set of rules. These have been listed and talked about many times, so I won't bother with the specifics of "the code" (although here is a fun article about it if you are so inclined). I feel that fighting is good for the players' well-being (that sounded hilarious, didn't it?) because it allows some fairness and balance to exist in the otherwise chaotic world of hockey. It is only human nature to want retaliation after getting hit by a questionable check, and having a round of fisticuffs accomplishes that in a far safer manner then retaliating with your own questionable check. I also think that fighting is okay in hockey but not in other sports due to the limitations imposed on a player by their gear. With all the padding protecting their bodies, the skates restricting their feet, and the lack of traction the ice grants them, hockey fighters are always being subjected to two sets of rules: physical and mental. Sure, there are still some gray areas in the rules that people squabble over like helmets (wear them!), visors (take them off!), the instigator rule (umm, no comment), and when a ref should step in to break up a fight (use your brain!), but a century and change of on ice boxing has led to some pretty decent guidelines that are almost universally followed.

Besides all that, it should also be mentioned that fighting isn't even the most dangerous thing going on on the ice. The puck is a frozen piece of rubber being smacked around at 90+ miles an hour and men weighing around 200 lbs are skating at high speeds trying to crush each other into either wood, glass, wood and glass, or ice with concrete under it. This isn't a safe game, and yet we play on. Just like everything else in life, there are risks involved, so make sure to keep your head up but don't let fear limit you.

But alas, it can't be left simply at that. While I have no problem with the idea and purpose of hockey fighting, I DO have a problem with the current state of it. The goons have got to go. The game is called "hockey" and not "ice boxing" for a reason. Fighting is a secondary aspect of hockey, and any player that is out there for purely enforcement based reasons shouldn't be playing the game. I don't doubt the will, hard work, or hearts of any of the many enforcers in the league, but I do have to question what good they really do when they use fighting to bully other players instead of as a last resort when someone is taking liberties. The specialized enforcer set of players are responsible for 90% of terrible on ice incidents and the mindset they are trained to utilize is something that is both counter intuitive to player safety and, less importantly, incredibly unexciting.

We need to stop talking about if fighting is appropriate and start talking about WHEN it is appropriate. When a player steps on the ice, they are not suddenly allowed to discard their humanity and be a thug with no consequences. That seems to be the mindset infiltrating hockey on all levels and it is the cause of most senseless violence in the game. It is ultimately up to us as consumers and/or parents to begin showing our displeasure against the more senseless aspects of hockey thuggery and to begin asking for skill and ability at all times rather then just settling for "big and violent" when the former is in short supply. Even to this day there are smaller more skilled forwards who are great at the game but are unable to participate in the world's highest level leagues because they can't handle the level of unnecessary violence thrown their way by the goon squad.

In the end it really comes down to this: If you want staged violence, check out the WWE or boxing. If you want a fast paced game involving skilled players skating at high speeds, shooting, and hitting each other (oh, and occasionally dropping the gloves when appropriate), then hockey might just be your game. There is no doubting that this is awesome. But the artificial cultivation of hockey fights, the goons, the websites, the junior league players committing violent acts because they think "it's part of the game" is not. A young man is clinging to his life right now because of a certain sect of people demanding that hockey players "pay the price" and that the only way to do that is to endlessly fight over every little thing. This isn't what I became a fan of this sport for, and I hope that goes the same for all of you.

With my rant over, I would like to direct your attention back to Don Sanderson's condition. His teams website is giving updates here and also offering an email address to send him good vibes. Hopefully, this will all turn out for the best.


Sarah said...

"We need to stop talking about if fighting is appropriate and start talking about WHEN it is appropriate"

in one sentence you have neatly summed up my position, which usually takes me 2 sheets of A4 to explain.

thank you

wrap around curl said...

I think rational hockey fans feel this way.