Fighting in the NHL: The Discussion We Aren't Having
This article was originally published 13 October 2013 on The Referee Developer.
Some people, including myself, think that the NHL’s hardline stance on hits to the head comes far too late. Nevertheless, the past is the past and it makes no sense to look back and judge the NHL on its decisions; they introduced severe penalties for dangerous hits designed to protect players, and they should be commended for it. In the week between 19 and 26 September, four players were suspended a total of 15 games for dangerous hits that had the potential for head injuries. I would expect nothing less.
What confuses me is that fighting isn’t punished the same way. Rule 44 states that “contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted.” It seems to me that a player striking another player in the face with his fists constitutes an “illegal check to the head”. But the contrast in consequences between fighting and other forms of contact to the head are massive: penalties for illegal checks to the head include multi-game suspensions; but a player isn’t even assessed a Game Misconduct for fighting unless its his third fight of the game.
It seems so strange to me that in the same week that four players were suspended for a total of fifteen games for making “illegal checks to the head”, there were fifty-two fights, 16 of which included additional roughing or instigator penalties to only one of the combatants*, yet none of the fighters received suspensions.**
A common defence of fighting in hockey is that fighting has always been a part of the game and it would be an affront to the sport to remove it. I’ve always been vehemently against this argument, because it allows proponents of fighting to avoid a pragmatic discussion about the danger it poses to players. Besides, referees used to wear neckties, players used to play bare-headed, and games used to be broadcast only on the radio and I don’t think anybody is still complaining about changes in those areas.
Another oft-heard reason to keep fighting in the game is that fighting is willing combat between two individuals, whereas an “illegal check to the head” clearly victimizes one player over the other. This is probably true – but the reality is that it shouldn’t matter whether the players are willing or not. The potential for serious head injuries is so great when a fight occurs, that the NHL needs to take leadership over the issue regardless of whether or not the players object. One only needs to view the history of boxers to understand the long-term effects of blows to the head; but even so, the greatest danger from fighting doesn’t come from the opposing player, it comes from what the players are standing on. If a player is knocked unconscious during a fight or even loses their balance, they have no way of protecting themselves from striking their head against the ice.
I am not personally in favour of viewing athletes as role models when it comes to their personal lives. I don’t think athletes should be held to a higher moral standard than the average person because they’re expected to be role models for the kids that watch them on television. However, the on-ice behaviour of hockey players certainly sets an example for the hundreds of thousands of children who play ice hockey in Canada, the USA, and around the world. Kids are told to skate like Crosby, stickhandle like Datsuyk, defend like Lidstrom, make saves like Hasek, and hit like Kronwall; its not a stretch for them to think they should also fight like Laraque. Even though fighting in minor hockey is punished with a major penalty and a game misconduct penalty, plus an additional suspension, young players then go home, turn on the TV, and see “enforcers” making millions of dollars for fighting in the NHL.
In 1987 the NHL introduced still penalties aimed at ending bench-clearing brawls because they were an embarrassing spectacle that slowed down the game and weren’t a part of the sport hockey. Neither is fighting – it's time to start mandating suspensions for players who participate in fights and escalating sanctions for players who are classified as repeat offenders. Because what people still struggle to understand is that anytime a player suffers a concussion, that night could be the end of their career; and even then, the effects of a concussion don’t stop once you leave the ice. It's time to take the next step in protecting our hockey players.
*If an instigator penalty is assessed to only one of the combatants in a fight, that player was adjudged to have clearly started the fight, rather than there being two, equally willing combatants. If only one of the players was assessed a minor penalty for roughing in addition to a major penalty for fighting, then the penalized player was guilty of persistent, unnecessary roughness either before or after the fight.
** David Clarkson of the Toronto Maple Leafs was given a ten-game suspension on September 22 for his participation in a brawl, however the penalty was assessed for leaving the bench to start a fight, not for the fight itself.