Thursday, December 14, 2006

Fighting and Hockey

A few days ago, this article, written by MSNBC hockey expert Kevin Dupont, got passed along to me. I thought it brought up some interesting points, so I figured it was worth mentioning here.

The article talks about making fighting more of a part of the NHL game. It challenges that convetional wisdom that American fans would shy away from the barbaric nature of fighting, citing American interest in shows like Jerry Springer, and grotesque reality shows like Fear Factor.

I've always had a mixed opinion on fighting. On one hand, there's nothing more entertaining than a good fight, but on the other hand, it doesn't seem to add a lot to the game.

Most of the fights I've seen at the junior hockey level have been pretty lame. It looks more like a bad tango than a real fight. The two players circle around each other for a while, then strip off their gloves and helmet, circle some more, come in for one big punch that misses, grab onto each other, and fall to the ice. The refs skate in to break it up, the players reflexively clap their sticks on the boards for their teammate, and then the game moves on unchanged. It's basically a waste of a couple minutes.

Fights at the NHL level are a little better, but not much. The guys that fight in that league are a little more adept at fighting, and I understand that sometimes it's necessary to step up for a teammate, but for the most part, it doesn't add much to the game. It's usually two guys who only skate a few shifts a game, and who bring little other value to the game that are the ones dropping the gloves. Fights seem so pre-meditated between the two parties that it loses a lot of the drama.

Ironically, the best fights usually come at the college level, where players aren't allowed to fight. Since players know they will miss a game if they get into a fight, they don't fight somebody unless they really mean it. There's a passion and an anger and a spontaneity in those fights that you never seen in the calculated fights of the NHL.

Dupont is right that there is a lack of passion in NHL games. But that lack of passion stems from the fact that you can't get that excited about any one game when there are 81 others just like it. I've never heard anyone question a lack of passion in the playoffs, where you never see fighting, because each game has such critical importance. There's no easy solution to that problem. Every major professional sport, save football, struggles with that problem in their regular season. But more fighting certainly isn't a solution.

While I don't necessarily have a problem with fighting, I also don't think more of it is what is best for the game hockey. It's a sideshow that may bring a few more people into the fold, but in the long-term, isn't what is best for the game. The NHL didn't put franchises in the South because they thought they would make a quick buck. They put them there because they knew it would grow the game and pay long-term benefits.

Fighting is such a minor part of the game of hockey, yet whenever hockey discussion is brought up in the mainstreak American media, it draws a lot of the attention, which in turn, draws the attention away from the game itself.

I say sell the game based on its more positive aspects. The speed and skill of the game is second to none. I'll probably end up quoting this book a lot, but I think Arthur Farell's 1899 book summed up the game perfectly:
Essentially an exciting game, hockey thrills the player and fascinates the spectator. The swift race up and down the ice, the dodging, the quick passing, the fast skating, make it an infatuating game. From the time the whistle blows for the face-off until the exciting moment when the gong announces the end of the match, the players are rushing, struggling and the spectators strainging their eyes to catch every glimpse of the play.

Fast! it eclipses other games in this respect, as football does croquet in point of roughness. Never a second to lose, never a moment to spare-an opportunity once lost is gone forever-and even one little slip, one miss, one fumble, is oftentimes the loss of a match.

So fascinating is the game to a man who rivets his attention on the play, that even the most thunderous applause, if he hears it all, sounds like a far-off of a rippling brook, because he is engaged heart and soul in his work.

Now that is a game that I want to watch. And there's no mention of two guys fighting anywhere in there. The NHL has done a great job to try and open the game, by eliminating clutching and grabbing. Putting more guys out on the ice who are just there to fight would be a step backwards in terms of making the game faster and more skill-oriented.

Fighting may be briefly marketable, but ultimately, what is going to keep fans coming back to the arena consistently? Watching Ryan Hollweg or Cam Janssen duke it out every night, or watching Pittsburgh and getting a rare second chance at seeing a greatness we thought we'd never see again? I know what I would pick. So let's take it easy on the rough stuff and just play the game.