By: Chris Dagonas
Every time I watch an NHL fight, I cringe. I can’t help thinking of the potential for concussions and long-term brain damage. Then I think of young kids, sons and daughters of those fourth-line grinders, who may have to grow up with a dad who can’t read them bed-time stories and needs help tying his own shoes. Then I think of the other young kids, those boys and girls who play hockey and look up to the men in bright jerseys with logos on their chests. Their version of superheroes. Those kids watch and learn, I know they do, and they start to believe that “being tough” and fighting are one and the same thing. That fighting is just something you have to do to be a hockey player, as important as stickhandling, passing, and skating backward. That is probably my biggest problem with fighting in hockey. I could not care less if two adult men choose to puff out their chests and settle their dispute. But please, not in front of the kids.
You have probably noticed that south of the border, the gun control debate has been raging full tilt for about two months. The debate circles around two simple theories; 1) The Second Amendment gives people the right to own guns; and 2) Certain powerful, exceedingly aggressive types of guns are unnecessary and do more harm than good. Amidst all of this, I got to thinking about the similarities between aggressive gun owners, and hockey fighters.
Hockey fighters are meant to “protect”. They protect young players and superstars from the dangers and cruelties of the crazy hockey world. Body check Phil Kessel too hard, you’ll have to answer to Colton Orr (ironically, a good name for a gun, too.) It has been this way since the days of the original six, and even before that. Fighting has always been a part of the good ol’ Canadian game, and many inside the sport hope it will remain so. Similarly, the right to bare arms is seen as an historic part of American culture. Lately, this argument falls by the wayside in both parallels. Tradition has its value, certainly, but times have changed greatly since these traditional methods of solving conflicts were first instituted. In hockey’s case, the game is faster, the players stronger, the equipment more effective, and the referees better trained. Video review adds even more protection and safety, so the argument of a fighter doing the “protecting” when there are other, better means for protection is ridiculous. Guns have also developed in the years since 1776, and since the Second Amendment places no limits on them, gun ownership and lobbyist groups continue to fight for everyone’s right to own whatever kind they want, regardless of safety or necessity.
Does fighting actually serve to protect NHL players? And what exactly are they to be protected from? Aggression is a natural part of the sport, and a clean, solid body check on the puck carrier is to be expected. So why, then, do defensemen and fourth-line fringe players feel the need to swing punches at anyone who dared to body check an opponent? It’s a part of the game. You don’t see offensive and defensive linemen duking it out every time a quarterback gets sacked. The aggression is limited to on-field, legal outbursts in football, and so it should be in hockey. So why isn’t it?
It all boils down to a distrust of authority. If a fighter is meant to protect his teammates from legal hits, that seems ridiculous from the outset. If, on the other hand, he is meant to protect his teammates from illegal hits, isn’t that what the referees and disciplinary committees are for? Once one team begins to use a secondary source of protection, other than the one provided by the institution, then suddenly all the other teams begin to think about their own protection, and whether they need protection from that other team’s protection.
Sadly, the same mentality prevails when it comes to gun ownership. Right now, I can’t think of one person I know who owns a gun. That being the case, owning one myself, for “protection” or whatever other reason seems unnecessary and over-defensive. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case in USA, and that is where the fear begins. As soon as you see one, on the street, at the grocery store, or wherever, you start to think about your own need for protection from others. It breeds fear, then paranoia. Maybe the police can’t help you, if that guy at the bread stand decides to unload. I better have a bigger, stronger one, just in case.
“You don’t have a fighter on your team? Don’t you care about protecting your superstars? Everyone else has one, you know!” Thus goes the dialogue, and eventually everyone gets one, keeping it handy for certain specific occasions. In the NFL, it has never been acceptable, and likely never will be. There is an understanding that hitting superstars is to be expected, within the boundaries of the field and the sport. Anything that is considered too rough, too violent, is sorted out by the referees and the league, without any need for punches being thrown. The NHL and its fans don’t seem to believe in that, and that is where we are today.
So what does it all hold for the future? There is a generation of current NHL fans who have been told, repeatedly, that the only honour left in hockey is in the “fraternity” of the fighters. Those old-school, grizzled, hard-nosed guys who protect their teammates. Likewise, Americans are being told that your only real protection comes from yourself. The police, the government, the referees, the league, no one can protect you from the dangers of the world around you. Added to that is the (obvious) sensationalizing of guns in American media. I won’t delve too deeply into that here, but basically, encouraging hockey fights stands as the Canadian version of encouraging TV and movie gunplay. If these narratives are allowed to continue, you can not realistically expect the world to get safer. Far from it. You’ll have a whole generation of people who are distrustful, scared, and violent, rather than the small handful who have been responsible for terrible tragedies so far. Is the best way to stop guys like Adam Lanza to have a whole country full of Adam Lanzas? No thanks.
The irony in all this is that I have no problem with rough play in hockey, or most other sports (baseball is probably the only team sport I can think of where contact with an opponent will likely never happen). It’s a part of the game. Finish your checks, throw your weight around, push and throw guys off the puck, and protect your goalie and his crease. But I expect it to be done with respect for the sport and for the opponent. You wouldn’t want to see a defender slash an attacker in the face with a stick (“That’s dangerous!” you’d likely shout), but fighting and risking a headfirst fall on the ice is something we should encourage? I don’t buy it. Likewise, I am one of the only people I know that still has an interest in boxing. It’s a great sport, one that requires stamina, balance and power, and it deserves more attention than it receives in the media (particularly in Canada). But just as I wouldn’t want to see a boxing match interrupted by a Zamboni, I really don’t like seeing hockey games interrupted by amateur, bare-knuckle boxing.
Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age. The more violence I see in sports and in media, the more I worry about the message going through to kids. If something is “built into” a culture (as Don Cherry types will tell you about hockey, and Alex Jones types will tell you about gun ownership), that does not make it right. Nor does it make it permanent. Hockey fights can be removed, if we want them to be. Next time you see two hockey fighters tearing each other apart, don’t whoop and yell. Stay in your seat, don’t raise your arms or your voice. Oh, and that trailer for the next Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot-em-up action flick? Ignore it. You’ll be doing yourself, and maybe a whole generation, a favour.