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The Importance of Fighting in Hockey

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Every sport has its own unique signature that separates it from the rest of the sports world. Baseball has the homerun, basketball has the slam-dunk, golf has the hole in one, and football has the touchdown. But, perhaps the sport with the most distinguished and unique signature is hockey and its fights. However, hockey officials and executives are trying to eliminate the games most distinctive aspect. Yet, because of the recent decline in the amount of fighting in the National Hockey League (NHL) and since a ban on fighting in the NHL could jeopardize the popularity of the sport, eliminating fighting from games may not be necessary. Over recent years, the amount of fighting in NHL games has been on the decline and the role of the one time “enforcer” has changed dramatically. Also, hockey fights bring in much needed revenue for professional teams in way of television, attendance, and concessions. The NHL deeply needs to look at what effect removing fighting would cause in the long term.

The argument for not banning fighting in hockey begins with fighting itself. “The hue and cry of a decade ago calling for the abolition of fighting has all but died, but if the past two season are any indication, those who campaigned for the elimination of fistcuffs are closer to getting their way – at least numerically” (Kreiser). Fighting in the NHL last season dropped to levels not seen since the mid-1970s. There were just 571 fights in 1999-2000 (559 in which both participants received majors, and another 12 in which only one player received a five minute penalty for fighting).

The last time the NHL had fewer fights than games played was 1976-77, when, like last season, the league averaged just less than one fight per two games. Even that’s a lot in comparison to the rugged 1950’s, when the six teams in the league played each other 14 times and feuds were common, but actual fights were rare (there was one for every five or six games). Fighting has always been part of hockey. “Newspaper accounts of the New York Rangers’ first-ever game in November 1926 featured a description of a ‘wild battle on the ice’ between the Montreal Canadiens’ Bill Phillips and the Rangers’ Frank Boucher that earned each player a five-minute penalty” (Kreiser).

However, as times change, players who were once valued as enforcers are no longer given significant amounts of ice time. When games are close near the end of the game, enforcers often times find themselves as spectators from the bench. And, what may continue the erosion of fighting in the continuing growth in the number of close games. The closer the game, the less ice time that teams can afford to give to a small group of players who skills lie not in their skating, shooting, and passing, but in their ability to throw a punch. “Fighting has gone from spontaneous combustion to tactical weapon to the age of the designated hitter” (Kreiser). Players who were one considered strictly fighters must now be able to do a few other things as well, such as score, backcheck, or kill penalties. “The game is changing, especially when it comes to fighting. With the way the game is going now, you still need an enforcer, but that player also has to have some other talent. You can’t have one-dimensional players anymore” (Schultz).

In addition to the changes that the game and players have underwent, fighting still remains a favorite among fans as well as players. “Fighting in the NHL is morally reprehensible, ideologically indefensible and one of life’s guilty pleasures. But the truth of the matter is this: In measured doses people like it” (Farber). When a fight breaks out on the ice, the noise level in the arena swells. In living rooms the visceral response is to play closer attention to the television screen, not to change the channel. Statistics have shown that when a fight breaks out at a hockey game, fans are more likely to return to see another game, and that’s a major issue considering that the NHL derives more than 60% of its revenue from the gate. The same relates to people who happen to witness a fight while watching a game on television. Television ratings for the remainder of a game that has had a fight are less likely to decline than if a fight had not occurred. “Concession sales also appear to increase after a fight has occurred. Perhaps the violence builds up the appetite” (Kennedy).

However, as with most violent actions, fighting in hockey does not come without its opposition. Many people argue that the sport promotes violence through the use of fighting which can then encourage youths to engage in fighting. And since hockey is the only sports that allows players involved in a fight to return to the game provides a greater argument for disallowing fighting in hockey.

To understand what the public believes on violence in sports, a survey was conducted among American youths ages 13 to 17 in October of 2000. The Gallup Youth Survey showed that 63 percent of teens said there was too much violence in hockey. In comparison, 41 percent said football was too violent, 25 percent said basketball was too violent, and 17 percent said baseball was too violent. One question that remains though is how does one qualify violence. A study completed in December 2000 by the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Research tried to do just that. According to the test analysis, 1.69 “acts of aggression” occurred in hockey for every aggressive act in basketball, the only other sport in the study (Grant).

However, when compared to other sports, hockey may be getting the bad end of the stick. “Professional basketball players punch their own coaches and sometimes strangle their own coaches” (Grant). Feuds in basketball are becoming ever so more popular in the sport. In baseball last year, there was an average of over one bench clearing incident every month. “The last time there was a bench clearing brawl in the NHL, the U.S.S.R. was still a country and the Internet was but a gleam in Al Gore’s eye (according to the NHL it was 1987)” (Grant).

And what about American’s most popular game: football. “Football players take pride in violence on the field. When they’re not impersonating bulls in china shops (how can a 300 pound man running at full tilt not be trying to injure an opponent), they’re grabbing facemasks and trying to make foes do impressions of Linda Blair in The Excorist” (Grant).

As for football, numbers also are available concerning its level of violence. Statistics gathered by the NFL commissioner’s office and printed recently in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer show that a brain injury occurred every 3.5 NFL games in 2000. “Although the NHL has no similar statistics available, projecting the occurrence of concussion over an 82 games season reveals that a brain injury happens every 16.6 games in the NHL” (Grant). Such injuries occur far more often in the NFL, which plays its games on a softer surface that is not surrounded by glass and wooden wall like in hockey.

Hockey players and coaches also believe that no matter what action is taken against fighting, they’re not sure if fighting will ever disappear completely from the sport. Center Mike Modano of the Dallas Stars said that “fighters in the NHL are like major countries of the word with atomic bombs. If you have one, it’s a deterrent. If you don’t have one, then you’re taking a big chance” (Schultz). Fighting also remains an intrinsic part of the game, and probably will for quite some time. Former head coach and current “Hockey Night in Canada” analyst Harry Neale said that as long as some of the teams in the NHL have an enforcer or fighter that element of the game is always going to be there (Schultz).

Fighting would be very tough for the NHL to legislate against, and although fighting has declined over recent years, most fans still enjoy seeing or anticipating a fight. Teams in the National Hockey League would be reluctant to eliminate the enforcer role from their lineup and hockey officials may also be hesitant to pull fighting from hockey for the possible losses in revenue that they may encounter. There is no doubt that the issue of fighting in hockey will continue to be brought up after every conflict that occurs in the game. But, perhaps the legendary hockey player Gordie Howe put it best: “If you take fighting out of the game, it would really make it dull.”

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