Players fight because we let 'em

And a lawsuit filed in late November on behalf of NHL players done permanent injury by the league's culture of violence adds urgency to what was historically a kind of ritual theater.

In real life we're taught in kindergarten that fighting never settles things. It only unsettles things.

So what would NHL hockey look like without fighting?

You've already seen it. As Mr. Dryden suggests in that same article, it would look exactly like the NHL playoffs.

"The model for an NHL without fighting is right there in front of us. It's not the Olympics, though opponents of fighting often say it is. The Olympics are too unique an experience. The ice surface is bigger. Players put on their nation's jerseys and, in front of countrymen who know their game and those who don't, avoid doing things that might be misunderstood.

The real model is the playoffs. It's the time of year that fans love best; when the best hockey is played.

What happens in the playoffs?

Except in 2012, when early head shots, injuries and wrong-minded enforcement by the NHL sent many games out of control, the enforcers don't play. Even mini-enforcers, 'pests,' Orr calls them, who zip around the ice jabbing star players with their sticks, provoking retaliation, remain on the bench. Teams and coaches can't afford anything stupid and unpredictable.

The result: With no one to fight back for them, players go harder into the corners, more determinedly to the front of the net. If they want to fire up the crowd and their teammates, they have to do it themselves. And in the playoffs, they do."

The question of fighting in hockey has more to do with "authenticity" and the fear of alienating an imaginary legacy audience than it does with any practical application of preventive violence. Fighting is a marketing tool.

For a long time it was a given that fighting was the natural state of the game. In the same way goalies played without masks because that was the state of the game in nature, too. No helmets. No visors.

Now helmets and visors and masks.

If you took fighting out of the NHL tomorrow, nothing would change. As Mr. Dryden suggests, it will simply look like NHL playoff hockey. Or European hockey or U.S. college hockey. Nothing of the game's beauty or speed or skill would be lost. The game would be more emphatically itself. Because if the excuse is that you need a low-skills goon to protect your skills player from the other team's low-skills goon, simply doing away with all goons solves the problem. Goons beget goons beget goons. Get rid of goons and what the game has left are all skills players. Only disarmament makes everyone safe.

You have to be taught to fight. There is no more natural occasion for a fistfight in hockey than there is in football or basketball or baseball or rugby.

There is, however, a great deal more he-man self-delusion. 

The truth? You fight because they allow you to fight.

Because the roar pours down red-faced out of the stands and those thick-necked old crew cuts rise in their seats and the 10-year-olds pound on the glass. Because it got you here. Because it's what you were taught. Because your team has a boxing coach.

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