The Culture of Fighting
By Launy "The" Schwartz
Hockey is similar to a society. It has its own culture. It has rules. It has people who break the rules (and noses). Interestingly, the game’s rules breeds a certain culture found in few other team sports: the culture of fighting.
On December 12, 2008, Don Sanderson of the Senior AAA Whitby Dunlops participated in a cultural ritual by dropping the mitts and chucking some knuckles. When the fight ended Sanderson’s head was without its trusty bucket. His skull hit the ice. For three weeks he lay in a coma. Sanderson died on January 3, 2009.
That death brought an old debate to life. And now, I found myself arguing from another side.
Twenty-two years ago, when “The” Schwartz was more like “Little” Schwartz, I called in to a talk-radio station to chat it up with NHL legend Mike Bossy and defend the merits of fighting.
The former Islander superstar has long been an opponent of fighting, and since my radio-talk with #22, things have changed. I don’t deny its history. I can’t deny that I will watch a good tussle. But, at the risk of being called “un-Canadian,” I wouldn’t miss fighting if it were eliminated from the game.
The NHL has used band-aid rules and bubble gum excuses to maintain that brawling should remain a part of hockey.
Here are two new additions to the League’s First Aid kit: 1) A ten-minute misconduct for “staged” fights. 2) Consistently enforcing the “instigator rule” when retaliating against a clean hit.
Well, I’ll stick with Bazooka Joe, because the NHL’s brand tastes worse than chopped liver while dining in a sulfur mine. It offers no satisfying solution to the problem, because it doesn’t discourage anyone from fighting.
First, those who engage in the staged fights are usually “enforcers” who rarely see more than ten minutes of ice time in a game. Second, the player who takes someone to task for a clean hit doesn’t care about the extra two minutes, because he just defended his crumpled teammate’s honor
As no one has offered a real solution, The Schwartz now takes it upon himself to help resolve the issue.
To eliminate a problem that is so deeply rooted, starting at the top of the food chain - in this case the NHL - is difficult. After all, these men grew up in a culture that accepted fighting. By this logic, you would either have to retool the DNA of every player or go back in Doc’s Delorean.
The only option is to apply new rules to youth hockey. When young boys start to play in leagues where contact is part of the game, the testosterone begins to boil and can lead to fighting. If the governing bodies of these leagues adopted a policy that was to be carried out in Canada (and the U.S.), the culture of fighting would start to change. For example, one fight would lead to a ten-game suspension. A second bout would land the combatant 25 games without lacing em’ up. The third infraction would result in a season long ban from the entire league.
As with any bit of history, it will take time to make the right adjustments.
To eliminate the problem, we have to stop saying it’s acceptable. Segregation seems like a lifetime ago, when it was perfectly acceptable to seat black people at the back of the bus. Over the years enough people have said that is unacceptable, and so such a culture is no longer tolerated. And today, it’s a punishable offence.
Now unless you are thicker than a frozen pint of Guinness, the point should be clearer than a Coors Light. Fighting cannot be tolerated, and the penalties should reflect that sentiment.
There’s an unwritten rule, aka “The Code”, that states the players police the game. So how will this be done? The formal answer is that referees preside over the game, and despite some missed calls, they do a pretty good job. A cross check that causes injury usually leads to some significant time in the box of shame, or even an early trip home with some extra time on the couch to reflect. To some, that isn’t good enough because the “code” must be obeyed.
So how about changing the unwritten rule of retaliation by using a tool that is equal parts physical and captivating?
The bodycheck is possibly the most brutally eloquent weapon in a player’s arsenal. Any true fan would be lying if he said he couldn’t handle watching Scott Stevens’ highlight reel. The path of destruction he left was like a da Vinci painting: breathtaking, artful, and everything that exemplifies the full contact game. Most important, it’s legal.
It is quite the deterrent just knowing a player like Stevens is out there to remind you of a past indiscretion overlooked by the stripes. What’s more, when he’s done, you may not even remember what you did.
Better than NHL band-aids and bubble gum, these constructive ideas work towards something concrete, long term, and still longer lasting with flavour flavour.
When a member of the brotherhood dies, it deserves more than just a band-aid. We need to take a closer look at the society that has bred this culture for far too long, and give it a shock. It may take time, but it’s time well spent.