Astoria, NY – Let me stop you right there; I know what you’re thinking. Before you jump to conclusions, let me set some expectations before we get going.
This is not a piece in which sports-related violence is extolled as some kind of virtue. This column is not a soapbox upon which I stand, preaching to the masses while trying to convert the non-believers and yell to the sky that fisticuffs in hockey should never be outlawed BECAUSE HOCKEY IS ABOUT BEING TOOTHLESS AND TOUGH.
The following is just an attempt at reason.
(And if you’re about to make a, “Hey, can I get you some GIANT sugar cubes for that HIGH HORSE of yours?” joke…I just beat you to it.)
Ardent fans of the NHL have long understood that fighting has its place in the game of hockey, particularly at the elite level. Even if it’s not exactly condoned, fans generally react to a fight in one of two ways: 1) standing and cheering (“LET’S GOOOOO”); or 2) nodding with understanding (“He had to fight there, just part of the game.”)
For all the non-NHL fans, hear me out on this one.
The NHL is somewhat of a self-policing league. The players – with a few exceptions – adhere to a general code of conduct when it comes to physical altercations. Because hockey is a contact sport, it’s inevitable that tempers will boil over at times. When this happens, there’s an accepted method of dealing with it.
Each team has a player who will step up to protect his teammates if things are getting out of hand. Each team “has a guy,” if you catch my drift. Sometimes, teams may carry more than one, but it’s implied that when he suits up, the team is preparing for a physical game.
Players like Matt Carkner and Eric Boulton of the New York Islanders, for example.
They might not be the best stickhandlers, or the fastest skaters, or the best playmakers. But their role on the team cannot and should not be understated. As Isles fans saw last week in the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a well-timed fight – or two – can go a long way in changing the momentum of a game.
Other Islanders players were quick to credit ‘Carks’ and ‘Boulty’ for their willingness to drop the gloves and challenge an opposing player to a scrap. All of the postgame interviews touched on the subject of the Carkner and Boulton fights at least tangentially; most of those interviews focused on the bouts as their main subject.
Six minutes into their game against the Leafs, the Islanders found themselves down 0-2 on the road in front of a hostile crowd, playing against a team that had everything going its way. The situation needed something.
It needed a fight.
Carkner decided to initiate the first one. He might have been atoning for his poor defensive positioning that allowed Joffrey Lupul to score the first Leafs goal; he simply might have realized that his team needed a jolt. To that point in the game, the Isles had been playing uncharacteristically poorly.
Regardless of his motivation, Carkner fulfilled his role as team enforcer. He got five minutes in the penalty box for his trouble, but the fight served a purpose.
Boulton, too, decided to show his teammates that his team wouldn’t be pushed around. His fight came seconds after Carkner was escorted to the sin bin and served as the motivating factor the rest of the Isles needed to jumpstart their game.
By the time Carkner and Boulton left the penalty box, the Islanders had cut the Leafs lead in half. They would go on to score four more unanswered goals en route to a 5-3 victory.
Obviously, every game doesn’t require a fight. But in the game against Toronto, the Isles were in desperate need of some motivation, playing against a bigger, more physical team. Carkner and Boulton were the ones to provide it.
Back to the concept of the NHL as a league in which the players police themselves.
Dirty hits, cheap shots against star players, taking extra whacks at the goalie as he covers the puck: these are all reasons why fighting is necessary. Of course, the referees are there to protect the players and mitigate any unfair advantage for either team.
But ‘The Code’ stipulates that as hockey players, there are certain unwritten rules by which everyone must abide. (Besides, have you seen the quality of NHL officiating lately? Sometimes it’s best left to the players to regulate the on-ice action themselves.)
Sometimes a fight is required in response to a specific incident or to send a message that the next game won’t be a lighthearted affair. It’s tough to explain, but fans of the game know what’s acceptable and what isn’t. For the most part, the players do too.
Yes, there will always be outliers. Players like Marty McSorley, Chris Simon or Matt Cooke who draw negative attention – and rightly so – for committing acts that have no place in the game. But these incidents shouldn’t be the only things cited as proof-positive that hockey is a “barbaric” sport.
Causing physical harm to an opponent is not the goal in an NHL game; on that basis, comparisons to sports like boxing or mixed martial arts are lazy ones. Fighting is only a minor part of hockey and it serves a specific purpose.
Nothing more, nothing less.
Fighting in hockey is OK, believe me. If the NHL was a person, fights would be more ‘idiosyncrasy’ than ‘major personality disorder.’
For fans of the game, fighting will always have its place as long as it occurs within the bounds of the sport’s social contract. It will always be okay if a player does it as part of his job. (Or if that player is Mike Milbury. Then it’s OK no matter what. Unless you’re the guy who loses his shoe.)
A clear indication that fighting is an accepted aspect of hockey? After engaging one another in a fight, the two combatants will never hit each other after they fall down or the linesman intercedes. Sometimes, you’ll even see the players congratulating one another on a good fight.
Because it’s all part of the game.
And despite what you’d think, there are fewer fights in the playoffs, where the pressure is higher and the intensity is magnified. Proof that the players can differentiate between the purpose of the game and the antics that sometimes accompany it.
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