Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why Do They Fight in Hockey Anyway?

Once again, the annual meeting of NHL General Managers this month focused on a topic that’s been the source of much controversy over the years: fighting. Like it or leave it, fighting has (since the early origins of hockey back in 19th century Canada) and probably always will be a part of the professional game.

But one of the questions that’s sometimes posed by hockey fans is “why do they fight anyway”? As the mom of twin thirteen year-old hockey players, my first guess would be the testosterone. Some days we have enough roughhousing and tussling in my house, it’s like an Ultimate Cage Fighting (of which Mike Green is a big fan, by the way) marathon on the Versus network.

In all seriousness, that has very little to do with why players fight in hockey. The fact that you have very large guys speeding around and checking each other at speeds faster than I roll along on my daily commute sometimes adds fuel to the fire, but there are other reasons that result in fisticuffs on the ice.

I recently posed a few questions on fighting to one of the most feared enforcers in the game – the Capitals’ own Donald Brashear. Donald started playing hockey when he was eight years old and dropped the gloves for the first time at the age of 17 when he was playing Junior hockey in Quebec. Because of his size and very physical play, it was no surprise that he assumed the role of enforcer in his professional career early on. When asked why fighting exists in the game, Brashear gave several reasons: “Sometimes fights occur to give the team a little spark, to wake up the guys and energize them and of course, to defend your team mates.”

Brashear also gave some insight into how a fight evolves. “I don’t know why they keep trying to take fighting away because the two guys fighting are two guys that agree to fight together. If it happens between a guy who doesn’t fight much and a guy who fights, it’s because the other guy must have done something wrong and when that happens he gets penalized.”

We saw several examples of fighting to defend a team mate in the game against the Nashville Predators (Brashear hasn’t been on the ice since that game after hurting his knee after a fight). These days, the league is seeing too many fighting incidents resulting from clean hits to players that are perceived as “dirty” by the opposing team. The General Managers are proposing new rules to cut down on these occurrences as well.

Every now and then, you’ll see the two tough guys drop the gloves and duke it out right at the face off. The GMs look at many of these types of fights as “staged” and are considering stricter penalties for such incidents. Brashear agrees with his frequent sparring partner from the Philadelphia Flyers, Riley Cote, that it may be hard for referees to determine whether or not a fight is staged, as many times fights occurring at the faceoff are a result of an incident that took place in a previous shift or even in a previous game.

One of the main reasons you see fighting is an effort on the part of the big guys to protect the star players. Example, if Alex Ovechkin had to drop the gloves every time another player took a run or cheap shot at him, he wouldn’t get a whole lot of scoring done. Now when opposing player who takes out of bounds liberties with AO or Nick Backstrom during the course of a game knows that the tough guy on his team will have to pay the piper with the “Donald”, Matt Bradley or John Erskine – that guy might think twice about taking that course of action. I know I would….

As volatile and spur-of-the-moment as some of the on-ice “dances” may seem, there are actually age-old rules of etiquette that players engaging in fights are expected to adhere to. Brashear mentioned the level of respect that enforcers have for each other and that their team mates have for them. He said “We have respect for the guys doing it. It’s a tough job, a hard job and a dangerous job. It’s a role you play and not everyone can do it. Most of our team mates respect what we are doing and the guys who are doing it respect each other.”

If you want to gain a better understanding of fighting in hockey, pick up a copy of the book The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL by Ross Bernstein. Unfortunately I can’t lend out my copy as it’s already making the rounds of some of my fellow hockey moms at the rink. I can tell you that the book provides a really interesting glimpse into the world of hockey and features some quips from Brashear himself.

One thing’s for sure, the debate over fighting in hockey is sure to continue. It’s especially interesting to hear the female fans perspective on fighting as there seems to be two extremes – gals either love it as part of the game or hate it and want to see it banned. As for me, I’m okay with fighting – it’s part of the game. And I’d rather NOT see it in my living room boys!

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