Recently on a sports network, a whole week was used to feature violence in sports. Views from medical, to the players, to the fans, to the owners, all were aired and not surprisingly a lot were vastly different. While Lacrosse is the national sport of Canada, Ice Hockey is number one in the hearts of Canadians.
Perhaps the most hotly debated issue of fighting in hockey. The ‘traditionalists’ claim that fighting has always been in hockey and without it, the game is simply not hockey. Did these ‘traditionalists’ also claim that enforced wearing of helmets would result in the softening of the game? How about goalies wearing masks? Until Jacques Plante put on a mask in 1959, goalies didn’t have facial protection, often relying on a network of scars to protect their questionable looks. I cannot seem to find any recorded outcry that protecting the goalies will lead to a softening of the sport so why is fighting so embedded in hockey?
Even though my own personal playing history of the sport is rather pathetic, Rugby is, and has always been my first love. In it you have 30 players who will run full speed into each other, not stopping every few minutes, not being able to sit out a couple of plays, not wearing a helmet, gloves, or any protection. It is a violent sport, the impact of some of these tackles are incredible. While in ice hockey very few players are over 6’4 feet, you often have five or six players per team over that height. While fighting isn’t as common as in hockey, the in game punishment is nearly always the player(s) being sent off and their team playing with less players for the rest of the game. What more deterrent would a player need to avoid fighting?
It hasn’t always been this way though, in rugby tours in the early 1970s, some teams even had a code such as ‘QQQ‘ which would mean that every player on the team joined in the fight. While these games and tours are considered legendary, they are also part of a by-gone era.
If you want a more violent team sport, try Australian Rules Football where 18 players a side collide, block, smash, hit, and also try to score more points than the other team. If you search for some highlights of Aussie Rules, you will see a game that apparently has no rules other than being very physical.
If sports that are arguably more violent than Ice Hockey do not have fighting, why is it still acceptable to fight on the ice? The rules may be part of the issue. If you fight and then are given a five minutes penalty, there is not much incentive not to fight. Supporters of fighting will point to the fact that whenever there is a fight, the crowd go wild, but they don’t point to the fact that drivers always seem to slow down to look at a car crash, videos of disasters capture the imagination of viewers.
Violence sells, just as Don King or Dana White. Just because primarily UFC and boxing have huge fan bases, it doesn’t mean that other sports should have fighting to attract more fans. No other team sports has rules with fighting seemingly built in. Soccer, the largest team sport in the world doesn’t accept really bad tackles, let alone fighting.
On top of the fighting issue in hockey is the recent deaths of three ex-hockey enforcers as well as comments from other ex-hockey fighters who have battled mental health issues since playing hockey. While there is still no concrete evidence that fighting can cause problems later in life, it is difficult to ignore what seems to be happening.
In terms of attendance, the three other major leagues in North America (NFL, MLB and even NBA) all have higher numbers. Part of it may be that the arenas are smaller than NFL and MLB but the NBA plays in the same arenas.
For every person who questions the validity of fighting in Ice Hockey, there is someone who believes that it is part and parcel of hockey and it should never be taken out of the game.