The Verbal Brawl over Fighting in Hockey

Zaza Pachulia head butted Orlando Magic’s guard Jason Richardson and was ejected from the game. Andre Johnson and Cortland Finnegan were both fined $25,000 from the National Football League for their slugfest in the fourth quarter of a 2010 matchup. Benches cleared in a Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves game and saw two players thrown out for the day thanks to their roles in the melee. Therefore, that leaves hockey as the only major league sport that involves and even encourages fighting. It’s been a part of the game for as long as anyone can remember and many tough players continue to make a living out of being the team’s enforcer. The issue then becomes weighing the pros and cons of continuing to allow fighting in the league. It’s fun to see two guys jab at each other and definitely adds to the uniqueness of the sport. However, you have to ask, are the potential negative outcomes such as bodily harm and questionable intent worth a little entertainment? There’s a case to be made for both arguments.

One of the most prominent examples of how detrimental fighting and even just punches can be is the Todd Bertuzzi – Steve Moore incident. In a 2004 game between the Vancouver Canucks and Colorado Avalanche, a controversial play happened that shook the hockey world and continues to have its effects to this day. Steve Moore fought Vancouver player Matt Cooke in the first period. After two periods filled with more fights and a large Avalanche lead, Bertuzzi was sent out to the ice but was unsuccessful in attempting to get Moore to fight. Obviously not leaving the game until his job was fulfilled, Bertuzzi skated after Moore, grabbed his jersey and then punched him in the back of his head. Bertuzzi landed on top of him, which drove Moore face first into the ice followed by two of his teammates. Moore would then lay unconscious and motionless for ten minutes until he was carried off on a stretcher. The hit, fall and piling-on combined to result in three-fractured neck vertebrae, facial cuts and a concussion for Moore. He would never play another game in the NHL. Bertuzzi on the other hand continues to play but faces a pending trial for his actions.

Judging from this incident, many may be quick to agree with the notion that “fighting is a useless, vicious anachronism providing no benefit to anyone”(MacGregor, 2013). Would we really lose any of the NHL’s beautiful passes, magnificent saves or extraordinary skill if we were to eliminate a few punches and tussles? Ken Dryden, former NHL goaltender and Hockey Hall of Fame member, says no and that fighting isn’t necessary to the game. He calls the claims that losing fighting would mean losing the fight in the game as completely backward. He believes if you take fighting away, everyone has to fight in their own way and the way they do best – with their talent.

Some critics seem to think the only real reason fighting is left in the sport is because we let them. 150 years of North American hockey have demanded and cheered it on. You fight because it may be the only reason you’ve made it so far to the NHL. You fight because it’s what you were taught in peewee or junior. Whatever excuses you can make, there’s always one to why you should fight. The amount of money, fans and players that fighting has cost hockey is “incalculable” though. Kids were never allowed to play, tickets were never sold, television deals never made. Any argument that fighting in hockey is the cause and effect for stopping even dirtier violence committed by sticks and skates has no support.

Pierre LeBrun, esteemed hockey writer, used to write weekly columns ranking the top fighters in all leagues including the AHL and ECHL. Most of his favorite players were the tough guys. However, slowly his opinion changed. He credits a 2007 game as the catalyst, where he honestly thought a player who had had his face punched in might die right on the ice. LeBrun realized that the tough guys were punching harder than ever, they were bigger than ever and he wondered if fighting was safe anymore. He doesn’t believe that fighting will ever go away completely but that necessary changes will be made.

On the other side of the argument, Bobby Orr would like you to remember that fighting is “still a natural and necessary part of modern hockey.” Who better to support that than one who is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest hockey players of all time and is responsible for revolutionizing how defensemen play the game? Orr mentions that many times he fought because he felt it was his “duty” to do so. Not that he particularly liked fighting, but he knew it had a place in the game and he understood that. He also pointed out that it’s a way for players to earn respect, especially rookies. One fight in your first season and you earn admiration from your coaches and teammates. Orr is quick to make note of how much fighting or even the simple threat of a few punches can make players think twice before getting chippy. Any retaliation “always has been and always will be” reason for deterrence. As Orr said, fighting is a way of holding players accountable for their actions. Star players, a la Sidney Crosby who has been involved in just six fights in his 9-year career, are protected and don’t have to drop the gloves. Should a team find themselves down a point or two, a fight can give them a boost of momentum. Fans are excited and attracted to a fight and the core audience is kept happy.

For George Parros, currently playing for the Montreal Canadiens, fighting is his livelihood. So why stop? He has his tough-guy methodology down to a science in it of itself. Parros knows exactly when to incite a scuffle. He fights to protect his teammates and to pump up his team and calm it down. He will fight on his first shift if he’s outsized. He will fight after he misses a goal and after he scores. Sometimes he even fights as a favor to other fighters. Just as much as he knows when to fight, he knows when to stay away. He won’t fight if he’s angry or if for some reason feels he needs to. Maybe weirdest of all, he doesn’t fight to win and wont fight until the bloody end. If their approach to fighting is that detailed and thought-out, shouldn’t we just let them continue doing what their doing? It’s what makes them the best at what they do.

Both sides do present telling arguments. Those who are for the removal of fighting from hockey feel a need to prevent any more injuries. It’s seen as a vicious and barbaric act that really doesn’t serve to enhance the game. Others will be quick to stop you there and remind you of the adage of “why fix something if its not broken?” Fighting has been in the sport for hundreds of years and it’s not time to get rid of it. It adds something to the game and would be wrong to strip it from the NHL specifically. Hockey players, personnel and fans alike will wait to see which side wins the fight in this battle.

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