I've been on the fence on a hot button topic for some time now. Since the untimely deaths of three popular "enforcers" last year, the NHL has put at the forefront the issue of fighting in the game. Traditionalists will argue that the physicality of the sport won't allow for a total ban on fighting. The other side of the aisle will state that the game suffers because of these bouts. The truth, I believe, is somewhere in between.
There is no doubt that the game is never as beautiful as it is during the Stanley Cup playoffs and the Olympic tournament. There is a focus during these events that allows the players to display their talents in a fashion that brings even the casual fan to awe. For the sake of this argument, I think it is best to disregard the Olympic tournament for one simple reason; its brevity. Of course there is no less passion on the ice throughout the Olympic games, but what is missing is the 82-game grind leading up to the tournament. Memories are short, so payback takes a back seat in order to get on the podium.
What the NHL has leading into the most grueling postseason of any major sport is a rivalry saturated schedule where a single game can mean a team is playing in April, or cleaning out their lockers. These games are heated, and mutual disdain for the opponent can often lead to this:
This is passion. This isn't a staged circus act meant to rile teammates and fans into a frenzy. These are two teams working their collective rear ends off to achieve the ultimate prize.
The brawl in the Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia game is a far cry, however, from what fighting has devolved into over the recent past. What I am speaking to is the "Wanna go?" fights. Too often each team will send out their enforcer to put on a staged dance, satisfying the collective blood lust in the stands. Most of these fights start with a light slash on the shin while awaiting the face-off, followed by the simple question, "Wanna go?" Sure there may be history behind the fight, but true fans of the game don't mistake this charade as passion. It is these bouts, however, that are the most damaging to the participants. Enforcers have spoken of concussions, anxiety, and yes?even fear, when confronting their role on the team. They know, though, that without this role, they are likely out of a job. But is the toll that is taken on the designated enforcer, both physically AND mentally, worth that occupation?
So what is the solution? The league and players association have their work cut out for them. I would argue that designating the enforcer roster spot for a more skilled but tougher player is a start?sacrificing a few for the good of many. A small group of players will lose their jobs. They may also maintain their sanity, families, and futures. Another approach would be to hit the players where it matters. Heavier fines and suspensions could be levied for the "Wanna go?" fights, but that becomes nearly impossible to regulate.
The simple truth is that even with the recent tragedies, hockey will never be confused for ice dancing. No amount of fine or suspension will ever completely neuter this sport. It is a tough game played by tougher men. Understand that the players know what they have signed up for, and are willing to assume the risk if it means they have a shot at hoisting that cup.