On the back of recent trends of NHL teams opting not to employ fourth line enforcers, the debate about whether fighting serves a purpose in today’s game reaches new heights. With many teams opting to dress more serviceable fourth line players, it appears that the days of the gunslinger in hockey may be coming to an end. I’m not talking about complete extinction, but it seems there is no longer much use for the 4-minute-a-night face-puncher in the new, evolving game of hockey.
This article has been a particularly tough one for me based on the fact that I grew up in the game of hockey during the heyday of the celebrated goon. I grew up bobbing and weaving while watching Stu “The Grim Reaper” Grimson, Donald Brashear, and Tony Twist run amok. These were true enforcers, in every sense of the word. I watched Don Cherry’s Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em religiously and I wasn’t one of the “Teetotalers” who went away at the end when the fights came on. I loved watching hockey fights and I still do.
Having been baptized into hockey during the era of the hired gun, it took me a lot of years to be able to remove myself from the culture and really examine fighting in hockey for what it is. As a former minor leaguer, I had a few scraps. I wasn’t great at it, but it was something that I had to do to ensure I had a place in the game. If you had told me seven years ago that fighting doesn’t belong in hockey, I would have spit in your face. Now, having been removed from the culture of the game, with more knowledge about head injuries and the residual effects they can have on a fighter and his family, I can see the idiocy of it all.
While head injuries are scary, the thing that is even more frightening is the addiction to pain killers and other powerful drugs fighters use to quell anxiety and play through crippling injuries. While playing in the minors, I struggled silently with drug and alcohol-related issues. Most of the guys I played with did, in one form or another. Pain pills were rampant. They were over-prescribed, easy to access and were used for everything. Hurting? Take a couple Percs or Oxy’s. Can’t sleep? Take a few Vics or Ambiens. Pro hockey is a grind and it’s a struggle to hang onto the dream. There’s a common saying: “Make them think you’re strong when you’re weak.” It’s all about survival.
It’s no secret that enforcers have the toughest job in hockey. More than any athlete in any sport, they are used and abused and easily replaced when the expiring date comes up. All you have to do is talk to Chris Nilan, Jim Thompson, or Georges Laraque, and you will see what a career as an enforcer can bring you after the roar of the crowd dies down. Just like boxers, most of these guys experience a tough life after they call it a career.
For most, this isn’t new information. We all know the damaging effects of what a career in fighting can bring you. But, the heart of the debate isn’t really about the well-being of players. It never really is. It’s about whether or not fighting can impact the outcome of a game and, more importantly, money, and whether or not hockey needs fighting to be profitable as a major form of entertainment.
I can tell you first hand that a fight, for the right reasons, at the right time can and does affect the outcome of a game. Fighting to defend a teammate or to amend for a dirty play greatly increases camaraderie levels and sways momentum, which are two massive, immeasurable influences of success. It’s hard for many to accept this, but it’s true. I’m a proponent of advanced statistics in hockey and I believe it’s a valuable resource, but some of the things that greatly impact success, such as heart, confidence, momentum and camaraderie, simply can’t be calculated.
Fighting also helps to maintain the code players must abide by. The code is something that gets shit on by outsiders on the daily, but it’s real. For example, when I first broke into pro hockey, I came out of the NCAA, where I could play recklessly because I didn’t really have to answer to anyone. In my first pro game, I stuck my knee out on one of the other team’s best players and put him out for the game. I got a penalty on the play—2 minutes for tripping. No big deal, we killed it off. The next shift, one of their players lined up beside me and said, “It’s not going to happen right now, but before the end of the night you’re getting the shit kicked out of you.” For the rest of the game I was running on pure anxiety. I played terribly because I was constantly looking over my shoulder. Before the end of the third, I got jumped and took a good beating. A few games later, we played that team again and I had another chance to run one of their players who was in a bad position, but I hesitated and ended up poking the puck away instead. For every action, there’s a reaction. Without the code, the game becomes anarchy.
There are some that say hockey can completely abolish fighting because NHL playoff hockey is the best brand of hockey and there aren’t any fights in the playoffs. This is true, but that is due to the fact that we don’t see much tomfoolery from pests in the playoffs. When the pests are sleeping, fighting isn’t necessary. In the playoffs, teams can’t afford to take a run at star players for two main reasons. One: if you injure the other team’s star, they might do the same to your team’s star. When trying to make a run at the Stanley Cup, you can’t take that risk. Secondly, if you deliver a cheap shot and end up taking a penalty, you risk giving up a goal on the powerplay. In the playoffs, the games are lower scoring and are often decided by one goal. The stakes are much higher in the playoffs; hence, we see a cleaner game and less cause for fights.
What the game doesn’t need, which was mainly instituted to help grow markets in the southern U.S. and sell tickets to blood-thirsty masses, is the staged, enforcer vs. enforcer spectacles. These serve no purpose in today’s game other than to bolster NHL revenues and give fans a taste of blood. It’s gladiatorial and has worn out its welcome in the game.
Will we see a point in time when the NHL completely removes fighting? The answer to this is, no. There is simply too much of a financial risk. Fighting still sells tickets. While there is a good chunk of people that don’t like fighting in hockey, the percentage of people who get excited when a fight breaks out is still very high. This is especially true in the southern markets, where hockey needs to be packaged and sold in a different way than in Canada and northern U.S.
Hockey, at the professional level isn’t just a sport. It’s entertainment. At this point in time, there is nothing that supports the claim that fighting is a threat to revenue streams or popularity. The bigger risk would be to dismiss statistics that suggest a majority of fans enjoy watching fighting in hockey and remove it from the game. At this point in time, the NHL isn’t going to take that risk.