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BoC Pre-Gameday: Fight Club

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When the fight was over, nothing was solved, but nothing mattered. We all felt saved.
When the fight was over, nothing was solved, but nothing mattered. We all felt saved.

(This was written prior to Thursday night's game. My thanks go out to the Sharks and Kings for making it shockingly relevant.)

I'm leaving it up to Rudy to handle the BoC game day duties tomorrow. He promised that his post would be fair and impartial, so fans of both the Sharks and the Kings are encouraged to read it and discuss Saturday's possibly important game in the comments.

For my final regular-season gameday this year, I want to talk about fighting. We probably won't see too much of it from here on, as fighting in playoff games is a rarity. While the natural decline of fighting during the playoffs doesn't bother me much, the continuing decline of fighting in general in the NHL does.

Fighting rules, and I don't want it to go away.

First, let's take a look at exactly what I'm talking about when I speak of the "decline of fighting." Here is a table displaying the number of fighting majors (fights) over the past four seasons (with current-season data updated 4/5/2012)

08-09 09-10 10-11 11-12
Most Fights Anaheim, 82 Anaheim, 78 St. Louis, 78 NYR, 65
Fewest Fights Detroit, 11 Detroit, 19 Detroit, 13 Detroit, 15
Total Fights 1458 1423 1284 1063

A couple of brief observations:

1. God the Red Wings are such babies.

2. What happened to you, Ducks? You used to be cool.

3. Fighting has declined by roughly 25 percent over the past four seasons.

The past year has seen those with anti-fighting views become more and more vocal about their opposition. Social media, player health concerns, and tragedies involving NHL enforcers have all come together and sparked a renewed debate about whether fighting has a place in hockey.

Those who argue against fighting certainly have good points on their side. Player health is a valid concern, and while I object to those who deceitfully try to link the concussion issue to the anti-fighting crusade, nobody should delude themselves about one simple fact: getting punched in the head is bad for you. We don't currently understand all the possible effects fighting can have on neurological and psychological health, but as long as it is a part of hockey the league should do as much as possible to help players deal with the negative consequences of fighting.

With all that said, I still want fighting to stay in the NHL. To make the reasons behind my opinion clear, I first want to set aside a couple of common arguments in favor of fighting that I think are dumb.


Bad arguments in favor of fighting:

1. "Momentum." People who defend fighting often argue that it serves as an emotion boost for a team, and can help change the course of a game. Yes, this certainly can be true SOMETIMES, but let's be clear: there is no real connection between who starts a fight, who wins a fight, and which team gets more of a momentum boost.

Does a player that wins a fight inspire his team by beating up the other guy? Or does the dude who gets his face punched in inspire his team with his courage in the face of a beating? It's totally unpredictable and nebulous, and it's a dishonest argument in favor of fighting.

2. "Fighting prevents dirtier play." This argument claims that if you take fighting out of the game then dirtier and potentially more dangerous plays will become more frequent. If a guy doesn't have to worry about getting beaten up, the argument goes, he's more inclined to go after star players with his stick or elbow.

A slightly different spin on this argument says that fighting allows players to get out their aggression and frustration in a relatively safe way, compared to swinging their stick around or sucker-punching a player when he isn't looking.

There are two issues with this kind of argument. First, we don't know if it's really true. We can look at other leagues where fighting isn't permitted and compare the number of "dirty" plays to the NHL, but that's obviously not the same thing. The only way we would ever know how an outright ban on fighting would affect the play of NHL players would be to institute such a ban - and it would probably be necessary to have it in place for a few years so players could adjust. If such a ban were ever put in place, that would be the permanent end of fighting. Even if dirty plays DID become more common, it is very difficult to believe the NHL would see a reintroduction of fighting as a rational solution. Once the culture of a sport has changed, it's impossible to make it go back to the way it used to be.

The second, simpler issue with this argument is that it treats players like children who aren't responsible for their actions and can't control themselves. Saying that you have to let players fight so they don't slash each other in the face with their sticks is an insult to the players.

3. "It's tradition." This is a pretty awful argument for anything in life, politics, or sports. There are so many examples of things that have been defended as "tradition" that were clearly bad ideas that I don't really feel it's necessary to get into them here.

Now that we've dismissed the bad arguments, let's focus on a couple of good reasons fighting should stay in the NHL.


Good arguments in favor of fighting:

1. "Fighters and the NHL are good for each other." Fighters are good for the NHL because they are popular. Enforcers are often fan-favorites, and they're easy for teams to promote and market. The NHL often has trouble selling the appeal of its players to casual or non-fans due to their reserved natures or funny accents - but a big tough guy who beats the hell out of people is something that North American sports fans love and will always respond to.

On the other side of things, fighting as a part of the NHL offers an opportunity to a certain subset of athletes - an opportunity that will vanish if fighting is banned. Modern NHL enforcers are nearly all talented hockey players (they're certainly better at hockey than YOU, reader, and if you think they aren't then you're deluding yourself) but many are not quite skilled enough to earn a roster spot based on finesse or defensive prowess alone. Guys who might be a bit too slow or have too wild of a shot to make it to the NHL have the chance to advance their career by way of their fists. They can achieve their dream of playing professional hockey by being an enforcer.

Fighting in the NHL allows for greater diversity in the type of athlete that plays in the league, and that's a very good thing both for the players and the NHL.

2. "It's awesome." Ultimately, this is the core of my argument in favor of fighting. I've done my best here to discuss the issue of fighting on a rational, intellectual level, but honestly doing that kind of misses the point. When I watch a fight I'm not thinking about the effect the fight will have on the culture of the league, or the perception of hockey among the general public, or any lame boring stuff like that. When I watch I fight I'm excited. It's cool. It's fun. It's awesome.

If you don't like fighting, no amount of argument from me is going to convince you to like it. It's a subjective thing, like art or music or film. I enjoy fighting with the same part of my brain that enjoys hockey itself. Is it some sort of primitive caveman idiot part of my brain? Quite possibly - but isn't that part of the brain pretty much the whole reason we have sports at all?

Yes, fighting is dangerous. I don't care. Hockey is dangerous. Boxing is dangerous. Football is dangerous. Playing a professional sport dramatically increases your odds of getting just about every serious injury a person can suffer. NHL players themselves, the men who actually take the risks, are overwhelming in favor of keeping fights in the game. That's good enough for me.