Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: In NHL circles, the word of the day is “fighting.” Today, you can’t swing a hockey stick without hitting a tweet or a Facebook post or a comment at the bottom of an article like this one that questions whether fighting in hockey is acceptable.
(Unless you’re Phil Kessel, in which case you just hit John Scott.)
This time, the fighting conundrum has been brought into focus as a result of the injury suffered by Montreal Canadiens RW George Parros. (If you haven’t seen the clip, it’s not easy to watch. Seeing a woozy Parros in other clips is even tougher to stomach.)
If you’re not a fan of watching people get concussed, here’s what happened: Parros got into it with Toronto Maple Leafs enforcer Colton Orr during the game between the Leafs and the Canadiens on Tuesday night. During the second—yes, second—fight between the players, Parros threw a punch that missed Orr, but caused Parros to lose his balance and fall face-first to the ice.
Because he was tied up with Orr, Parros was unable to protect himself as he went down. His chin took the full force of his impact with the skating surface, causing him to suffer a laceration and a concussion. Orr immediately waved for the trainer to come off the bench; Parros was eventually taken off the ice on a stretcher.
The good news is that Parros looked to be alert and was talking with the medical staff as he was being carted off. The bad news is that the future of his season is in jeopardy. And because of the seriousness of the incident, the national debate on fighting’s place in the NHL has again taken center stage.
Let’s make one thing clear: this piece is in no way trying to downplay the seriousness of Parros’s injury or any injury suffered by a hockey player during a fight.
Fighting is dangerous because it’s fighting. It’s two men agreeing to use their fists to enact bodily harm on one another in a pseudo-civilized manner (if that can be said). There’s a certain etiquette to a hockey fight—which has been somewhat altered by the recently implemented “take-off-your-helmet-and-get-an-additional-two-minutes” penalty—that adheres to certain unwritten rules (e.g. “The Code”), and places the fight squarely within the larger context of the game at hand.
Fighting can serve a purpose, but the risk of injury during a fight is inherent and unquestioned. I get that.
But because Parros was injured during a fight—albeit an injury suffered under freak circumstances—and not during the course of a normal shift, the debate around fighting in hockey is again a major news story. The only problem is that the debate seems to be about whether to ban fighting or whether to ban fighting right now.
In this type of debate, nobody argues to keep fights in the game, because that’s unthinkable.
The people who want to keep fighting in the game are probably savage, bloodthirsty hockey fans that fear a slippery slope that leads to things like body checks and trash talk being subsequently removed from the NHL once fighting is done away with. (At least, that’s how the people who want fighting eradicated view them.)
Because fighting is as much a part of the game as passing and scoring are, it’s incorrect to assume that a single case of injury is the be-all, end-all when it comes to deciding whether fighting should be outlawed.
Parros isn’t the only player to be injured during a fight, and he likely won’t be the last. To ban fights because of the incident involving Orr and Parros would be short-sighted; by that logic, slap shots should be removed from the game because they sometimes get deflected into players’ faces and cause injuries.
Granted, fighting is a conscious choice—two players fully aware of the risk of physical harm deciding to get into a scrap—whereas a deflected slap shot is the result of unlucky stick placement. But that doesn’t mean the logic behind banning fighting based on Parros’s injury makes sense.
Similar to how the rash of end-boards collisions on icing touch-ups has brought about the adoption of hybrid icing this season—which is a topic for another column—the increase in scary, Parros-type injuries will likely push the NHL towards adopting a stricter policy towards fighting, if not removing it from the game entirely.
I’m not arguing that fighting should or shouldn’t be banned; I’m saying that a single case shouldn’t tip the scales one way or another. Yes, Parros’s fall is enough to reignite the debate about fighting’s place in the game (since everyone has a Twitter account), but certainly not enough to be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Players are bigger, stronger, and faster than they were in the 1980s, when Clark Gillies and Terry O’Reilly would wail on each other for a few minutes, then skate to the penalty box to cool down. Today’s fights have a greater risk of injury because the players engaging in them can do greater harm to one another.
But, there are plenty of fights that take place in today’s NHL that end just as calmly as the bouts between Gillies and O’Reilly: Two players in their respective penalty boxes with no significant injuries to speak of.
Like the first Orr vs. Parros fight from Tuesday night.
Hockey players understand that hockey is a dangerous game. No one makes them fight, so it stands to reason that they’re aware of the risks involved with fighting. Public backlash around fighting’s place in the game will in all likelihood shape the NHL’s stance on it going forward; all I can hope for is that the league takes all possible factors into account when determining how to address the issue.
As always, thansk for reading us at Eyes On Isles. Be sure to follow me on that Twitter thing (@MichaelWillhoft) so we can debate the merits of fighting. Or, you know, just talk about the Islanders. Either one is cool.