Last season 38.46% of regular season games saw a fighting major called with 143 games seeing multiple fights, up from 31.22% of games and 87 multiples the season before. Where the statistics spiked were less than 3% down on the season before the lockout and the “new” family friendly NHL. The big project of castigating the enforcers on the ice whilst remaining cryptic off it has begun to backfire on the league and there is a stonewall reason behind the increase that defies the concepts of entertainment and goonery.
Post-lockout the NHL was looking to rebrand itself, the pre-lockout game was getting bogged down with obstruction plays and slowing the sport that marketed itself as the fastest game in the world. The remit was to tighten holding, hooking and interference calls and open out the game, showcase the talent and make the sport a more family orientated spectacle. There is this perception that if they took the hard stuff out of the game the fans will suddenly flock; of course this could be dubbed as more league chicanery in the face of next-to-zero TV coverage. After all, how are you going to promote the friendlier NHL when nobody gets to see it and furthermore why oxymoronically support the divisional schedules with phrases like “familiarity breeds contempt” and then complain if it becomes violent? But I digress.With the post-lockout game opening up the ice the game certainly became faster and players such as Peter Worrell, Gordie Dwyer, Chris Dingham or any enforcer who possessed little to no skating ability, puck handling consistency or offensive flair were rendered extinct either in the first year or after the instigator penalty was brought in and that was not entirely a bad thing, after all even Bob Probert or Tiger Williams could post nigh on 30 goal seasons. What the death of the barely-skating-fists brought in however was an entirely new type of enforcer designed for an entirely new NHL.
With the prototypical goons rendered obsolete by the rule changes and antsy officiating calling chincy penalties left right and centre, the NHL has become blighted by the agitator. Generally smaller players who won’t think twice about drilling players head first into boards or laying stupid charging hits in vulnerable positions, with the emphasis on stupid and not “a hit.” Players who to name and shame include Hollweg, Janssen, Tootoo, Avery and Cooke have become cheap shot merchants with free reign.
Now the agitator isn’t a new breed, but time was their job to draw penalties could be negated by the threat of a hulking player like Worrell or Dingman offering them a beat down for their insolence. Now there is a lack of respect and the hitting is getting out of hand, the fact that an instigator penalty can give the cheap shots a power play is drawing significantly closer to a bad injury and not one brought about by fists.
In fighting there is a code and honor, but hammering players head first into boards is downright dangerous. One of the anti-fighting schools of thought is that eventually a fight is going to end in tragedy, and of course as a Toronto fan, I and the rest of the league held our collective breath when Kris Newbury hit the ice head first after a series of haymakers from Ronald Petrovicky in 2007. The fact that Newbury, a competent scrapper, came out of hospital amidst the moralizing and said “I think it [fighting] belongs in the game, it's just a freak accident that happens every once in a while." Seemed to have been lost in the moral panic, meanwhile think back to Hollweg’s head high cross check on Sergei Kostitsyn or Cam Janssen’s frankly pathetic über late jumping hit on Tomas Kaberle and its hardly surprising that a new talented breed of enforcers are making their way back into the game.
Of course the whole deal became a lot smoother for the contemporary goon after Anaheim’s cup winning triumphs atop the record of most fighting majors by a team, a fete fronted by fan favorite George Parros. Not only popular with the fake moustache wearing crowd, Anaheim showed that fighting could still be used as an integral part of a winning formula be it as a momentum breaker/builder, keeping dirty players in check or bringing the crowd into the game whilst mocking the ambiguity of the instigator rule. What Anaheim did was set the wheels moving towards intense offensive hockey, supported by a heavy core of players who could be called upon to intimidate if needed, basically hockey where it was prior to the lockout. Of course a return to fighting would clearly result in fans marching out of the arenas in utter disgust, but low and behold the NHL saw a 2% increase league wide in attendances in 07-08’. To note this simply to the increased proliferation of gloves on the ice would be trite, but to say the trend, which started early in the season, was damaging to the game would be plain wrong. As Mr. Hockey himself, a.k.a. Gordie Howe once said:
“I have always believed that far more people come to games to see the fights
than stay away.”
And in this sentiment belies the paradox that stereotypes the act. Hockey is not solely about fighting and those reputed fans that come to see the fighting alone, if such a fan base exists, are not fans of the game, but there are almost certainly more of them out there than this phantom crowd that are put of by the “nature and barbarity of the game.” The nature being the important phrase and not one implicit to the act of fighting alone but owing to the history, traditions and stereotypes of the game, draw from its necessity. Basically if you don’t like fighting and physicality, chances are hockey is never going to be your cup of tea.
Perhaps it’s easy to wax lyrical in the face of naysayers about the good ol’ days, the Broad Street Bullies and the Big Bad Boston Bruins, but the fact of the matter is that fighting is still an important part of the game, both in play and also in the marketing of it. Whilst I don’t believe in pandering to a crowd of fight hungry meatheads, many would argue that the NHL’s inability to pull a major US TV deal lies in the decreased marketability of the game sans fighting in the American market. The fact the league uses this as a springboard to usurp much of the physicality in the game for endless power plays shows how out of touch the league is in marketing itself to even the most fervent followers.
If you were to take an example, one particular to my argument, say the Columbus Blue Jackets. Their season was all but over with a couple of months to spare, in the face of a miracle. The fact they had the league leader in fights, the small but ultra willing Jared Boll provided some pull for crowds in a quiet market. Pair that up with the fact that Boll and fellow fighter Jody Shelley are amongst the fan favorites after Rick Nash and that after Nash are two of the most enthusiastic players to skate in the Jackets teams and its hard to see how these power players can’t be a pull of a mainstay demographic.
Subsequently fighting is a part of a multi faceted sport and that is what makes hockey the spectacle it is. The various roles of the players, the strategy, the scoring and the physicality, its all part and parcel of what makes hockey the greatest game in the world and the NHL the greatest league. A wise man would market fighting for what it is, a part of the game and stop placing it on a pedestal of evil as if the debate were more prevalent than the sport itself. A great fight, especially if it were for the right reasons, can be part of a spectrum of experiences that can occur in hockey from the nasty to the sublime and we should stop striving to remove the various layers of the game as if to leave it bare and bleak.
For me I don’t find a place for marketing in the debate of hockey fighting. Hockey fights happen for a variety of reasons, some good and noble, some bad and pointless they are never there to be a circus sideshow attraction and the guys dropping their gloves are not performing monkeys. It happens down to emotion and protecting your team mates and god forbid if those elements are ever removed from the game.