SANTA CRUZ, November 3, 2013 — Friday night’s Flyers/Capitals game has reignited a passionate discourse on the place of fighting in hockey. The Flyers, being stomped at home, 7-0, decided to goon it up late in the third period and the game got ugly in a hurry.
Maybe its because it was the Flyers, maybe the Capitals were egging them on. Who knows? The only thing certain after the show these two clubs put on is that the National Hockey League is miles away from a solution on fighting.
It is as if nobody knows quite what to do anymore. Guys are unsure when to fight, when to retaliate, and when to restrain themselves. The league metes out punishment arbitrarily, with no clear standard, creating a dangerously ambiguous environment within the more hotly contested games.
Players are attempting to adjust to what many consider a kinder, gentler NHL, while retaining their competitiveness and snarl. The line has never been finer between what the league considers an acceptable fight and antisocial behavior.
In the seventies, eighties and into the nineties, line brawls were commonplace and every team had a couple of guys whose only function was to pummel opponents with their bare fists. Players fought in the penalty boxes, in hallways between locker rooms and even scaled the glass to attack opposing fans. It was a dark time for the league.
Eventually, the NHL realized, if it wanted to attract more fans, it would need to shed its reputation, perhaps undeserved, as little more than wrestling on skates. The league wants to feature speed and skill, not blood and guts. Over the last two decades, the NHL has made strides to celebrate its strengths and highlight its star players, and its popularity has grown as the result. Now, it faces a public relations challenge with each ugly incident and attendant fallout. The voices who cry for an outright ban on fighting have never been louder, and those with a more reasoned view are finding it more difficult to qualify their arguments.
Guys are fighting over clean hits and goalie snow showers, rather than for any semblance of a legitimate reason. They are doing what they thought they saw pros do when they were kids. They are confusing senseless fights with toughness, mistakenly believing there is some honor in it.
Maybe it is hockeys culture which has done these players wrong. Years of being told by fathers, coaches, and fathers who were coaches that they needed to toughen up, be a man, and make the other guy pay.
Fighting should and will always have a place in hockey. The NHL is facing an exciting time of growth and popularity, but along with it comes a greater scrutiny by new and casual fans into its more curious traditions, such as fighting. If you are a hockey fan because you fancy yourself a tough guy and you claim you like the fights, then you are watching for the wrong reason.
In order for fighting to assume its proper place in the game, it must be incidental, an explosion of tempers stemming directly from the game, or having to answer the bell and be accountable for cheap play. The NHL has a bright future, but it has come too far to be dragged down by misguided thugs, and the delusional fans who abide them.
Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.
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