WRITTEN BY SENSCHIRP READER- HAX
The topic of fighting in the NHL can be polarizing. But is fighting itself the actual problem or is that too general? Those who petition for a fighting ban generally point to three main things: concussions, mental health issues for retired fighters and staged fights. The argument often used from those who want to keep fighting is the need to have someone to keep the “rats” honest. In a way, both sides are right.
The recent NFL class action suit has certainly gotten the attention of owners and governors from all the major sports leagues. While a major part of the NFL story revolved around doctors literally lying to players, everyone in the sports ownership/management world is looking to make sure they’re not perceived as neglecting player safety.
While it seems a logical conclusion that bare-knuckle blows to the head can cause concussions, there just isn’t significant proof that a single fight leads to more concussions than legal (or illegal) hits during play. I submit that if you remove the top heavyweights who only dress to fight, the chances of someone getting concussed from a punch are minimal. The PLoS One report tracked concussions for random weeks of three seasons (2009 through 2012). Only 11 of the 123 concussions in that study listed “Fighting” as the cause, 4 less than the 15 caused by “Hit by Puck”. There was no further clarification on how many of those 11 concussions were caused by a punch (as opposed to a fall to the ice), much less any indication if the player doing the punching was a one-dimensional fighter or if the fight was a “staged fight” etc.
The study does however cite that “secondary contact”, such as a player hitting the boards or ice after being checked or punched, accounts for over 50% of all concussions. This season, the NHL introduced a new rule penalizing players who remove their helmets during or before a fight. Linesmen will even apparently jump in if players remove their helmets. The idea being that if they keep their helmets on they’re less likely to get a concussion from falling to the ice. The punches, however, are still likely to land on the jaw.
Conclusion: The only significant risk of concussions from punches are to career fighters or those people unfortunate enough to have to fight them often – and even then it’s rare.
Mental Health Issues
Another rising trend in the NHL is the increasingly louder voices of retired enforcers telling their stories. Both of the pressures of being expected to fight every night and the long-term brain damage suffered from going toe-to-toe on a regular basis with other goons. But none of these retired players with health problems were 30-goal scorers.
Conclusion: Nobody in the top 9 forwards on any team is likely to have lingering mental health issues or develop any sort of drug or alcohol dependence as a result of the pressures of fighting. The one dimensional enforcer, however, is at significant risk.
Visiting teams must submit their roster before the home team. The visiting coach will often dress his goon so the home team coach won’t take advantage of a smaller lineup. Of course that means the home team coach has to dress his goon. That often means those two goons may as well fight to prove their worth. It’s a vicious cycle.
Some have suggested an automatic game misconduct for fighting. This is another over-reaction. I think that discretion should be left to the referees instead. The refs know who these guys are. But to toss a guy simply “standing up for a teammate” who might have been hit late would only encourage the rats to be more, well, rat-like.
Conclusion: Empower refs to hand out game misconducts for staged fights. Go one step further: if you think a goon is instigating a fight with a skill player who clearly cannot fight (see: Kessel, Phil) give the game misconduct to the goon only. Add in suspensions and fines for staged fights as well.
The Real Solution
The best way to get rid of staged fights, and for that matter career fighters and even reduce the number of concussions in the game overall, lies with Brendan Shanahan. Or more generally the Department of Player Safety. Eliminate the need for goons. Leave hockey to guys who can skate a regular shift. Lose the rats and you’ll lose the goons.
Easier said than done.
I honestly don’t know why Shanahan’s job is so impossible. But it must be. Colin Campbell couldn’t do it either. To his credit, Shanahan has used Twitter to release videos explaining his decisions but that hasn’t allowed anyone I know to actually understand them – let alone find any rhyme or reason. When Shanny took over, most fans felt a sigh of relief and thought we’d finally have some justice. But for whatever reason he hasn’t delivered.
Whatever goes on behind closed doors we’ll never know, but the NHL absolutely must find a way to make sure the rats in the NHL are properly punished and either disappear or mend their ways. That’s the only way any NHL team will feel comfortable cutting a guy like Jared Boll in favor of a promising young player ready to learn the NHL game. If it can be done, you eliminate the cheap hits (keeping the clean hits), you eliminate the career fighters (who learn to skate or find other work) and you eliminate the staged fights (while keeping the tension-defusing dust ups that we all love).
Easy? Not by a long shot. But instead of trying to take fighting itself out of the game completely, the NHL needs to solve the real problem: Get rid of the rats which will, in turn, eliminate the need for the goons.