Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Thoughts on Fighting

Well, it continues to be the off-season where not much is occurring with respect to the New Jersey Devils. OK, according to the official website, the Devils signed Mark Pandolfo, Jason Paige, and Dave Caruso to AHL contracts. However, there's not much more to say about those signings outside of what the article tells you. I surely don't have a strong opinion about either way outside of just wishing them the best of luck in Lowell. With the signing of Paul Martin the only remaining issue for the Devils, there's not a whole lot to look forward to before training camp.

In the meantime, I'd like to air my own thoughts about fighting in hockey. Now, before I get into them, I want to make the following clear: these are just thoughts based on what I've seen in hockey. This isn't based on some kind of serious analysis; I didn't employ a metric and then watched all of last season to see how it measures up. These are just some thoughts. Furthermore, since I primarily watch the New Jersey Devils, I will remain in that perspective instead of trying to consider all 30 teams in these thoughts. Lastly, before you sit down and type dismissive messages saying that I don't like hitting or toughness, please read why I love hockey. I do like hitting in hockey, I would never suggest to get rid of body checks; it's part of what I think makes the sport so great. Just like professional football would suffer should it switch to two-hand touch over tackling, hockey wouldn't be the same without body checks and it would most likely be worse off for it.

That being said, I am of the opinion that I wouldn't miss fighting were it to be eliminated from the NHL.

In the past, I didn't think anything of it - two guys who are really angry or upset throwing down the gloves and duking it out got rid of the pressure of the game, it protected star players, it was part of "the code," and hey, no one sits down during a fight. But the more I think about it, the more I started feeling otherwise. Remember, I primarily watch the New Jersey Devils - one of the most disciplined teams in recent years. They never had a reputation for beating up people on a nightly basis, but they have had their share of enforcers in recent years from all the way back to Mike Peluso to Kryzystof Oliwa to Jim McKenzie to Rob Skrlac (for a short while) to Cam Janssen. Not that nobody else ever thrown down (e.g. Grant Marshall); but the odd thing is that the Devils don't often fight and when they do it's just...just...


As an anecdotal example, the first game that Fox Sports NY aired for the Devils' 15 to Remember series running this summer was the Devils' 4-0 rout of the Carolina Hurricanes. After goal #4, Kevyn Adams decided to throw down with Dan LaCouture after the ensuing faceoff. The home crowd - the game was in Carolina - got real excited as the two fought. All I could keep thinking was why Adams decided to do this. His team is down by 4 even before the halfway point of the game. Granted, you don't hear much about 4 goal comebacks, but if Carolina wanted to make a game of it there was plenty of time available. It doesn't hurt to try, but clearly Kevyn Adams felt otherwise. I still tried to think of a reasonable reason for this act.

Was this a response to something? Did the Devils do something wrong, something that crossed an unwritten rule in the NHL? What transgression against "the code" did the Devils commit to prompt Adams to drop the gloves? That they are routing the Hurricanes are their own ice - that they are outplaying them? And somehow fighting LaCouture would salvage some of their pride or make things right or somehow get his team to play better? What nonsense, I nor many others could tell you who won the fight and it really doesn't matter given that the Devils won the game 4-0. The fight had ultimately no effect on the game as a whole. The Hurricanes didn't play any better after the fight aside from the team not conceding anymore goals. If a Devil were to drop the gloves to salvage their pride when a bad loss seems inevitable; I as a fan could not possibly care about that pride. I would much rather have the Devils try to score a goal - something that means something within the game, something that is indicative that the Devils have indeed played successful hockey for some stretch of time - than to send any kind of message to the other team. I am not more proud of the Devils if a player beats someone up, I am more proud of them when they succeed.

Therefore, I think fighting for the most part is an unnecessary thing to do in hockey. Nothing of productive value comes out of it unless you figure a player sitting in the box for 5 minutes (and an extra power play to the other team should your team's player instigate the fight) is somehow productive. The same applies to fights in the middle of a game where it seems both teams do nothing. Yes, the fight may draw out the adrenaline and motivate one or the other team to play harder - not to mention the crowd - but this isn't anything a big hit or big save or a goal or a coach giving their team the business couldn't do. (Aside: For the amount of money these players get paid to play, I don't think they should need other people throwing haymakers to "wake up" for a game.) It's simply unnecessary.

Now, I'm not naive enough to think there is no "code" at work. There is (and even an entire book devoted to the subject), and Eric McErlain at Off Wing Opinion has a good summary here explaining that all sports have a "code" of sorts. I'm not suggesting that such a code be eliminated, but as a fan I couldn't care any less about the code. One argument is that fighting protects the stars - that Dave Semenko was on the ice so Wayne Gretzky didn't get messed with. As I understand it that's, "the code" in action. Fair enough, but consider Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. Georges Laraque, an enforcer, was traded to Pittsburgh at (or around) the trade deadline last season. The logic being that he'll be to Crosby what Semenko was to Gretzky. However, a quick look at Crosby's stats indicate that he was a scoring machine, embarrassing opposition defenses on a regular basis without someone stopping him both legally and illegally. I question how necessary Laraque's presence is as a tough guy. As a player he's good, he has some skill, he can throw the big hits which is good; but with only 2 fights in the 17 regular season games he's played with the team I really question how badly Pittsburgh needed someone to do some fighting. Another example would be the Devils squad as a whole. While Janssen does drop the gloves quite a bit (16 major penalties in this past season), his fists didn't score many goals (only 1 goal in 48 games). I understand that some fans love him - it's difficult to assess how much he's really helped the team on the ice. Personally, I'd prefer to have a David Clarkson or a Rod Pelley on that fourth line earning some minutes and further their development than put on someone who tends to sit in the penalty box almost as much as he's on the ice. I have nothing personal against Janssen, I just think there are other, more production options than having an enforcer out on the ice.

I'm sure if someone thinks about taking a run at Crosby, they'll eliminate that thought at the resulting beatdown from Laraque. However, even in that scenario, I'm not convinced. Tie Domi infamously elbowed Scott Neidermayer in the face without any provocation at the end of Game 4 in the 2001 Stanley Cup Playoffs. I think it was Grant Marshall who beat the holy hell out of Domi for causing Niedermayer to be injured for the rest of the playoffs; but my point is that Domi committed this horrible act regardless of the code. So what if he took a beatdown, Toronto didn't see Scott Niedermayer for the rest of that series. So what if Tie Domi is seen as a heartless jerk and has a horrible reputation. So what if the code damns him, Domi and his elbow wasn't prevented by anything - much less "the code." The players can't police jackasses like Domi or Bryan Marchment out of the game now matter how hard they throw their fists.

If anything, these problems with policing the game are compounded by the National Hockey League's inability to properly discipline players. Referees stand back and let two guys - usually marginal players - stop the hockey we were enjoying to have a little fight. Decisions for suspensions for match penalties are all over the place with little reason as to what is deserving of one or three or X (where X is a positive integer) game suspensions. After the infamous Steve Moore incident, the NHL Disciplinary Committee showed that, yes, they can come down on a player like a ton of bricks - but for lesser incidents, you wonder whether Colin Campbell actually has a spine. That being said, if fighting can be eliminated at the U.S. college level and essentially be eliminated (or made rare) during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it's certainly possible.

But again, I'm not so naive to think that fighting will be eliminated in the near future. The logistics and the strong feelings by many other fans make it far too difficult for now. I just think that if it were to be eliminated, I would say good riddance. With respect to the Devils, they don't fight often and when they do the majority of those fights seem to be the unnecessary kind - the ones at the end of the game that serve no real purpose or the ones that happen earlier in the game. As far as protecting players go, that should be a primary function of the league and it's officials - there are examples where the players failed in that regard and where the worth of enforcers are overrated. As I stated in my last post, I love the sport of hockey because of what goes on in hockey. Fighting just interrupts that and I feel that it is simply stupid because it is unnecessary, because enforcers tend to be overrated, and because it does not yield many benefits (the "protection").

Lastly, after a number of ugly incidents - fighting-related injuries in this case - that spoke ill of the sport (and fighting) during last season, NHL Comissioner Gary Bettman held a press conference covered by the CBC. Bettman made one very clear statement:

"From a player safety standpoint, what happens in fighting is something we need to look at just as we need to look at hits to the head," Bettman told reporters after a news conference in Toronto to announce the NHL had reached a new six-year broadcast deal with the CBC. But we're not looking to have a debate on whether fighting is good or bad or should be part of the game."

If it were up to me, I think that debate should occur before discussing other means of modifying, changing, and improving the NHL and the sport of hockey as a whole.

I apologize for any ranting or rambling I have committed in this post. Feel free to disagree or correct me, as these are simply thoughts I have about fighting in hockey.

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John -
Interesting post. I've always been a fan of fighting because I do think its exciting, but I guess I'd never really examined it in quite that way.
You're certainly right that fighting is not necessary for a gritty, hard hitting game.
It seems to me that fighting has declined recently, defiantly over the course of hockey history, so the question is really does the NHL need to move to ban it at all?
As coaches and players (and GM's with salary cap restraints!) realize the points you've made here, fighting may just dwindle and die out on its own.

I'm not opposed to fighting myself, but I prefer there to be a reason behind it besides "just trying to pump up my team". Then it's just a sideshow. That's why I agree with you about Janssen, that was his reason for almost every single one of his fights. At least the few times that Rupp or Hale got into a fight, there was a reason behind it (defending Zach and Marty).
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