Players fight because we let 'em

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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.

True, the pro game can be cruel to those who choose fists over skills, and it is a tough way to make a living. But the more I look at the current state of the game, the more I realize a simple truth about it. The threat of a fight, or the fear of doing something that might trigger retaliation, is a powerful deterrent. It always has been, and it always will be.

Historically, skilled players were considered "out of bounds" when it came to fisticuffs, and that was respected around the league. Call it honour among thieves if you like, or the law of the jungle, but it worked. Often, in the current game, I see little pests with face shields or visors acting like tough guys and not having to account for their actions. Those pests take away from the honour of the game and actually help create more opportunities for injuries. Their job is to provoke retaliation, and they are almost never the guy paying the price.

I know that hockey fans are very interested in the arguments for and against fighting. On one side of the argument, you have Don Cherry, who is very much in support of the tough guys. Others call it barbaric and feel it should be banned.

The various kinds of data and statistics brought forward either to support or condemn fighting are often viewed with skepticism regardless of which side of the argument you might be on."

In short: Duty. Honour. Loyalty.

The second man in is Ken Dryden, arguing against.

"More than great and legendary, Orr was transformational. He changed how hockey is played. He was the best player I ever played against.

In his newly released book, Orr talks about the necessary place of fighting in the NHL. I think he is wrong.

Hockey "is a tough sport," Orr writes, "that requires physical play, and sometimes that can lead to frustration." The question, of course, is what a player does with the frustration.

Orr lays out the alternatives: A player can respond with sticks or with fists, and that fists are much to be preferred. In fact, the vast majority of NHL players the vast majority of the time, involved in the same tough, physical, frustrating game, don't respond with either. They get even by skating faster, checking harder, going to the net more unstoppably. Like Orr did …

Lose fighting, and you lose the fight in the game? No, it's the reverse. Lose fighting, and you make everyone fight -- in their own way; in the way they do it best.

The case for hockey fighting gets weaker and weaker. For fighting's supporters to make their case, they must twist logic and twist it again to fit the conclusion they've already arrived at. Fighting, a natural, normal part of a game that moves so fast, where collisions happen and feelings explode? Today, big, tough enforcers who look unlike everyone else, come onto the ice, separate themselves from their teammates and, to right a wrong, in the name of honour, without emotion, ritually hammer each other.

Fighting in the NHL will end because its proponents will lose their will, get embarrassed, grow tired, and give up. It will end because it is too dangerous, or too laughable."

That two titans of modern hockey represent these classic and opposing arguments makes plain how wide and deep this struggle runs. Mr. Dryden and Mr. Orr are arguing over the very heart of the game.

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.

You fight because 150 years of North American hockey demand it. You fight because the culture of the game is deformed around fighting. You fight because you're angry. You fight because they're angry. To fire up your team. To short-circuit theirs. You fight because it feels good to hit another man in the face. Because you're slow. Because you're willing. Because you're afraid not to. You fight. You fight. You fight.

Because Don Cherry. Because Lord Stanley. Because Major Junior. Because Moose Jaw and Saskatoon and Guelph; because Kelowna and Chicoutimi and the 'Soo.

Because.

You fight because you fight.

The idea that fighting in hockey somehow curbs greater, dirtier violence committed with sticks or skates has never had any empirical support. There's no evidence that it's a safety valve -- or even that the game needs one. Bats and clubs and spikes and a hundred other weapons are common across every sport, and yet no other league encourages fighting. It's an absurdity used to sell the game to its old audience, its core constituency, and to sell hockey fight highlight DVDs.

All those ancient, circular arguments. There are always excuses to fight.

Even in a lunch-hour shinny skate in Manhattan. There's a low-contact pickup game at a rink on the West Side. Kids just out of Yale or Colgate or Hamilton up from the investment desks on Wall Street; middle-aged men from the publishing houses in Midtown; actors in from Hollywood on a location shoot. One of whom has backed in and parked himself in the crease for years. And for years I've tapped and hacked and slashed at his ankles without conviction or success. I've never thought of fighting him and he never thought of fighting me. But another well-known actor plays in this game, too, and when he does, he picks fights. He chips. He hacks. He wants to go. He drops his gloves.

The rest of us roll our eyes and skate on.

He fights because he wants to fight.

Bang! Boom! Pow!

Check out the lists of most famous hockey fights here and here and here. Then ask yourself why there's no mention anywhere of Bob Probert's degenerative brain disease. Or Derek Boogaard's death.  

How much has fighting cost hockey? How many players and how many fans? How many dollars?

The NHL is a $3.5 billion-a-year specialty business suffering serial failures of labor and management, and in which as many as half the teams lose money.

It's impossible to prove the negative, but it's worth asking whether the growth and health of the game have been limited by its addiction to violence and the rough justice of the goons and enforcers. How many kids were never allowed to play? How many tickets were never sold? How many television deals never made? How many hundreds of millions of dollars lost? We'll never be sure. The true cost of fighting in hockey -- and to hockey -- is incalculable.

Is there a single honest argument left on its behalf? Is there any evidence anywhere to suggest that fighting brings in a single 21st century fan or a single 21st century dollar? Does it curb more dire acts of violence on the ice? Or are those just the lies we tell ourselves? Lots of sports prize physicality and sacrifice and high-speed contact -- and duty, honor, loyalty -- but the fighting culture of NHL hockey remains unique. As happens so often in sports, hockey is an institution made great and then imprisoned by its own traditions.

And this tradition is a chapter out of Orwell: Only by fighting can we keep the peace.

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