Players fight because we let 'em


The only thing more predictable than fighting in NHL hockey is the fight over fighting in NHL hockey.

Right now in Canada, the game's ancient birthplace, and everywhere the game is played and talked about, we are engaged in another great debate over the role of fighting in hockey. Like the orbit of a dark and distant planet, these arguments come and go like clockwork, but shed little light. For many years, once a decade or so, the moral, ethical, practical and existential questions of why fighting is allowed to continue in professional hockey were politely raised and shelved in a useless cycle. Plenty of anger on every side. But no answer. And no catharsis. Nothing changed. That these painful self-examinations of Canada's national pastime are now annual may itself be evidence that the fight for fighting is a losing cause. Still, the debate goes on.

There are lots of arguments for fighting in the game: It holds players accountable for their actions; protects star players; gives teams a momentary boost of momentum and purpose; attracts and excites fans and keeps the core audience happy; prevents more serious violence, thereby lessening the risk of serious injury.

The case against has always been the same: Fighting is a useless, vicious anachronism providing no benefit to anyone.

The instigator in the most recent public argument is Bobby Orr. The publication of his new book, "Orr: My Story," and its excerpts in the Globe and Mail, make clear that fighting is still a natural and necessary part of modern hockey.

"I would be very hesitant to take fighting out of the pro levels of the game, and here's why. As a young player in the NHL, I was called out on certain occasions and responded to those challenges to fight because I felt it was my duty to do so. I didn't particularly enjoy fighting, but I understood its place in the game. I never wanted or needed someone covering for me when the rough stuff started, and as a result I believe it helped me over the course of my career, both with teammates and opponents.

My first fight was against Ted Harris of the Montreal Canadiens. He wanted to see what I was made of -- that happens to every rookie. If you answer the challenge, you will have the respect of both your teammates and your opponents.

It is a tough sport, a sport that requires physical play, and sometimes that can lead to frustration. Speaking as a former player, whenever those situations occur on the ice I would much rather face an opponent man to man in a fight than have to deal with sticks to the face as well as spearing to other areas of the body. Similarly, hitting from behind is a cowardly and careless act that has resulted in far more significant injuries than those resulting from fighting, at least in my estimation. If respect for the guy between you and the boards isn't enough to stop you from running him, maybe what will be is the fear of the retribution that is sure to follow.

A lot has been said in recent years about fighting and its place in hockey.

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