Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fighting the Fighting Issue

The Governor General of Canada, David Johnston, has spoken out against fighting in hockey, saying that it doesn't have a role in the game that he so loves as a Canadian. He underlines the skill aspect of the sport as being one of its virtues, along with speed and playmaking. While it's admirable that the Governor General takes an interest in the game as a sport and cultural mainstay, this oversimplification of the issues which are fighting and concussions does a great disservice to the world of professional sports.

The first thing to do is separate the issues of fighting and concussions. First, because concussions are too poorly understood in the field of medical science to be at the cause of all injuries being reported as concussions this season and secondly, because concussions are often not caused by fighting. The rash of concussions that the NHL has seen this season are largely the result of incidental contact within the neutral zone, often with another player looking the wrong way. It has happened more than once that a teammate on teammate accident in this zone is the cause of the concussion and not fisticuffs.

Furthermore, this type of incidental contact in the neutral zone is the result of the game getting faster. Speed may be what's killing the game today. When the NHL decided to make the game more exciting by decreasing the rink size and eliminating the red line, putting the trapezoid in to decrease the role of goaltenders and create more crease scrums, all of these decisions sped up the game. The very speed of the game, as well as the increase in the size of the players, coupled by the smaller ice surface, has caused more contact, wanted or not.

The most severe injuries usually are the result of this incidental contact because players are not prepared to receive the impact. A legal check into the boards, and yes, even a staged fight at centre ice, are all things a player can brace themselves for and this often prevents serious injury. It's the very unpredictable and unexpected nature of incidental contact which aggravates these injuries.

Take both of Sidney Crosby's cases: in case one, during the Winter Classic, he takes an unintentional elbow to the head while looking the other way from Dave Steckel. No dirty play there. In case two, he takes one in the numbers on the boards during a game, an offense which is a minor at best since the offending player did not leave his feet. In case three, he and another teammate get mixed up in the neutral zone. Not a single of these cases involve fighting, but they all involve concussions. This is another reason why the two issues should not be confused. Fighting can lead to concussions, but they are not the root cause of concussions and they don't even begin to explain the spate of injuries this season in the NHL.

Fighting is its own serious issue in the NHL and it's not to be taken lightly either. First off, you cannot make the argument that there is no role in the game for fighting. Ever since the game was first played, fighting has had its role. There are also different kinds of fights with different purposes. There's the stage fight, which is done on principle, usually by two heavyweights, which is just as much for entertainment as it is for showing off who's a tough guy on the team. There's the fight to defend another player who may be pushed around or wronged, sometimes while the ref is not looking. Then there are those frustration fights which occur because the game is going badly and sometimes it can be a momentum shift for the losing team- it is a statement fight more than anything else.

So whether or not you agree with it or like it, fighting does have a role in the game of hockey. The decision can be made to cut out this role and leave the policing of the game to the refs, but even that will not prevent a frustration scrum or just bad blood when emotions are running high. Hockey is a physical sport with passionate players; fighting, like violence in the real world, may just be a reality that people will have to deal with.

The so-called cultural war between fans who want a tough game of old style hockey and those who want to see a safer game is oversimplifying the issue. There are no easy answers, but there are decisions that can be made. The one thing that is certain is that all people who love the game want it to be safe for players, whether it be the NHL or their own boys and girls. The only way to make progress in this debate is for people to acknowledge the complexity of the issues and not take a black and white stance such as 'stop fighting'. This stance doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the issue and it doesn't offer a lot of solutions to the ever-increasing issue of player safety.

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