You Can’t Measure The Immeasurable
Written by Faiz Khan
Fighting in the sport of hockey is a growing debate in the National Hockey League. While the majority of the negativity surrounds player safety, fighting is a fabric of the sport’s illustrious and exuberant history. Now I am not saying I am in support of fighting because it adds excitement and ignoring the brutality of it. Fighting in hockey is brutal, not only because it is bare-knuckle, but because of the techniques involved. It involves strong balance, shifting body weight, grip strength, basic boxing skills, and a bit of strategy.
Besides the occasional hazards that accompany fighting, like a player being knocked out or facial lacerations, injuries during hockey fights occur in other ways that NHL Officials are concerned with as well. The constant pushing and pulling involved when players are tied up during a fight in order to gain an advantage, using their opponent’s jersey for leverage to knock his opponent off-balance to land a punch or hindering his opponent so he cannot defend, leads to players injuring themselves as often as landed punches. Fights tend to end when one player hits the ice, both players tied up hit the ice, or after a marathon. Since fighting in hockey is based mostly on balance and strength, some players get off-balance and drag their opponent down with them. This leads to players hitting the ice unexpectedly and without defending themselves. (See: George Parros vs. Colton Orr below)
Players were able to take off their helmets before they squared up for a tilly not too long ago. Now, helmets must stay on in order to combat head injuries when fights end for reasons discussed above. However, with helmets a mandatory rule, this often leads to broken hands and fingers. Majority of players wear a visor, giving you a target on their face from the bottom of the nose down. Since it is a bout of strength, balance, and constant danger with every peek, your vision of your target is limited. So when you throw a punch it may or may not land on his chin, but if it doesn’t, you are most likely hitting his visor or helmet. These are chances players are taking with their career. A broken hand can set you back weeks and, for players in an enforcer role, it could be detrimental to their stay in the Show.
However, this is not a piece about what is wrong with fighting in hockey or a breakdown of how many ways you can get hurt fighting in hockey. This is simply a piece about why I believe fighting in hockey is essential to the sport.
As a hockey player in my own right, I have seen my fair share of scraps. Playing juniors anywhere will show a hockey player how the game works from a purely mental perspective. You had guys racking up 10+ fights a year in juniors. This isn’t because they like to fight. This is because they don’t fear a fight if it gives their team a chance to win and they know that it is a valuable asset in the pro’s. Every player knows how effective these enforcers can be for and against them.
They Are Hockey Players, Not Goons
Fighters are looked at as goons and thugs because their play is violence based on the surface. However, hockey is a contact sport built on highs and lows, both mentally and physically. These enforcers are there because they are a crucial element to the game. They play hockey for the same reason as every other player, because they love the game. On every team you have your goal scorers and playmakers, essentially your stars. However, championship teams are not built on offense alone. Championship teams have their role players. These players may not be the center of attention, but they are the glue that holds a team together. They are there to be hard to play against. They are there to make sure the other team goes through hell if they want to find success. They do the little things that go unnoticed. They are the most unselfish hockey players on the team. They sacrifice their bodies and well-being to give their team a morale boost. They bleed for their teams because in that world nothing else matters, but finding a way to win. They are there to bring out the best in their teammates by showing them that they will walk through fire to help them succeed. While the tone they set with hits may be enough to ignite the team, sometimes they must drop the gloves to really send the message home. This is the part of the game that critics are aiming to abolish because on the surface it seems useless. It seems useless only because it is an element that cannot be measured in numbers or analytics. They cannot measure what a fight means because it means something on a spiritual level. It can truly change the momentum in one way or the other.
90% Mental, 10% Percent Physical
For as long as I can remember, I was told that hockey was split into two percentages. The game is ninety percent mental and ten percent physical. If you’re mind is not focused on the task at hand or you can’t shut out the worries of everyday going into a game, it can weigh you down and shake you off your game. The mental part of the game is something you can’t measure, much like what fighting means to the sport. Every athlete on the planet can tell you how much your mental approach means to playing to your full potential. When things go wrong, doubt starts setting in. Then, every play feels like the end of the world if you don’t find a way to turn things around. You start doing things out of the ordinary, instead of what made you successful in the first place. It spreads throughout the team and everything seems out of place. This is where a fight can change the downward spiral your team can’t seem to climb out of. When a player takes it into his own hands and is willing to go toe to toe with an opponent for the sole purpose of showing his team there is light in the cloud of doubt that surrounds them, is something that is truly inspiring. I have felt the electric feeling that touches every player on your bench when you see a teammate shed the gloves to give us a spark. We may or may not win the game in the end, but the focus is not the outcome. The focus is how much a fight means to a team deep inside their soul. The focus is how a seemingly violent and brutal craft, can be an invaluable tool for a team’s success. (See: Philadelphia Flyers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins Game 6 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs below)
“Keep antagonizing me, watch what happens.” – Casey Affleck, Good Will Hunting
Not every player is a fan of fighting, but they respect those players and their craft. Respect goes a long way and the kind of respect these players receive is another essential part of the game. While hockey is known to get a bit chippy here and there, it often times can get out of hand. Some players take out their frustration on opponents with cheap shots; hits from behind, hits targeting the head, slashes, and other cheap shots. Sometimes these are focused on star players on the opposing team. These are plays that do not have a place in the game. These are plays that are intended to injure an opponent. While you can’t determine what a player will do at any given time, the NHL resorts to suspensions and penalties. Sometimes players have no intention of injuring a player, but in the heat of the moment deliver a cheap shot just playing hard. While NHL’s punishments are effective to a degree, hockey players have their own justice system. Although that statement sounds a bit barbaric, it is far from barbaric in my opinion. When you see a teammate on the receiving end of dangerous hits that have the potential for serious injury, your initial reaction is seek justice for the dirty hit. Whether your teammate is hurt or not, it is someone’s job to right the wrong. Often times it is the enforcer’s job to seek justice, but sometimes it is just the player closest to the play willing to fight to show that if you cheap shot one of us you are going to have to answer to all of us. It is just an instinct within a hockey player. Some call it pride. This is just to make sure everyone playing in that game and whoever is watching that game, that you cannot play dirty against our team without repercussions. Fighting is the game’s own police system and without it, hypothetically, players with bad intentions will have no fear because they know they will be protected. Fighting is not just a brutal and violent part of the sport, but a way to protect players from the dirty plays that often happen.
These are all reasons why fighting in hockey is something that goes beyond the superficial view. Players that are there because they fight, deserve to be there because they made it there on hard work and skill. They still have to play the game of hockey. They still have to be effective when they are not fighting. They are still hockey players, maybe more so than a lot of other players.