Fighting in the NHL – part of the game or revenue?

January 28th, 2009 by Baxter Leave a reply »

It’s Friday night. Late. Just got off the ice with the boys after our weekly pickup game. I’m tired, but in a nice way. I’m starting to run out of decent excuses for my embarrassing play: my contact lenses were bugging me, the puck was bouncing too much, the sun and Venus were in the wrong celestial quadrant. I’m playing a game with a bunch of upstart twenty-somethings, whose priorities in life are hockey, beer and girlfriends. Pretty much in that order. I left my twenties almost a decade ago.

Drinking a beer, looking at the TV screen and something caught my attention. TSN was airing the replay of the AHL fight. We all stop what we were doing and watch.

Flashback to almost six years ago. Sitting with a friend who has moved here from England. Cool accent and everything. Why do people with British accents sound more authoritative? George Bush should have gotten a Brit to say that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

So my friend tells me he is trying to understand the game of hockey. Grew up watching rugby, and Premier League football (aka soccer). Asks me why there is fighting in hockey.

I don’t have a good answer. Its about a bunch of guys playing in a confined space, I tell him. Frustrations spill over, someone feels wronged, and they have a score to settle, I hear myself saying. Sometimes it is better to have two guys fight it out than to have them spearing each other all night. He looks at me with skepticism and says with his British accent: “Really.” Now I feel like I have to pull his sweater over his head and start the jackhammer action.

Flash forward to now. Philadelphia Phantom’s forward Garret Klotz winds up lying on the ice for 10 minutes after an AHL fight, goes into convulsions and is rushed to the hospital. The game is resumed shortly afterwards to a largely subdued crowd.

Saw an article the other day where NHL commissioner Gary Bettman admits that fighting is entertaining and sells tickets. Like most hockey fans, I’m no fan of Bettman. But he’s right in saying it sells tickets.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t much matter because fighting’s place in hockey is what really matters.

“Fighting is part of the game”

True, we have had fighting in hockey forever. There are specific rules and penalties surrounding fighting. There is a certain etiquette among players as to who fights and who doesn’t, who are the franchise players, who are the goons. Teams routinely set their lines and and fill their rosters to “protect” their key players.

The problem is, it doesn’t make sense. Before you get all excited, honestly ask yourself these questions:

1) If there was a high intensity hockey game where fighting was not permitted, would you not watch it? Think of Team Canada at the World Junior Championships earlier this year.

2) If fighting is such an integral part of hockey, why is it not something we teach in minor hockey? Ooohh…that was a good question, wasn’t it? I have been involved with minor hockey for over 7 years, and I’m pretty sure I never saw a drill called “Pull the guy’s jersey over his head and give him the Inglewood Jack“. We spend our time teaching kids how to give and receive body checks, how to skate, pass, shoot. Call me crazy for not using our practice time effectively.

If there was no fighting in the NHL, what would be the profile of a typical NHL player? I’m thinking of more like Ryan Getzlaf and less like Jason Spezza. More like Edmonton Oiler Jason Smith than Ottawa Senator Jason Smith. More Zdeno Chara than Wade Redden. You know what I mean. Someone with all the skills necessary to make it to The Big League, but can also hit and be hit. The last time I saw Spezza throw a check was when…hold on…wait…ah, forget it.

Are people who go to hockey games to watch fights the kind of fans that Bettman wants to attract? Does he really care about the game or league revenues? If you think you know the answer to this one, then ask yourself why Bettman felt that expanding into Nashville or Florida was a good idea. Is it about the money, or about the game? Don’t kid yourself…

If you went to a game in a non-traditional hockey market, you would know what I mean. I saw a game once in Phoenix about 8 years ago. Yup, good old hockey-mad Phoenix. Not a bad game, lots of scoring, some end-to-end rushes. I was sitting up in the 200 level, hearing the other fans. It went something like this:

“When will a fight break out?”
“This is boring.”
“Who do you have for the Giants-Steelers game on Sunday?”
“C’mon, fight already!!!”
“That hot dog was gross.”
“Why don’t they just fight instead of playing hockey?”
“Why did the whistle go?”
“I can’t see the puck!”
“What quarter is this?”

Yes Bettman, they did pay money for their tickets. Your league revenues are safe.

On the other hand, ever been to a game in Montreal or Toronto? It is like night and day. And those fans paid for their tickets too.

Think about it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t follow hockey, but is, say, a football fan. Players get frustrated. Check. There is physical contact. Yup. Emotions run high. Uh-huh. When things boil over, you can fight, sit for five minutes and then get back into the game. Huh?

MLB – fight and you get tossed
NBA – fight and you get tossed
NFL – fight and you get tossed
MLS – fight and you get tossed
NHL – fight, sit for five minutes, resume playing. Sounds like giving a time-out to a five-year old for throwing a toy at his sister.

If Bettman thinks that having fights sells tickets, are the commissioners of all the other leagues missing out on a great revenue opportunity? Wow, that Gary sure knows how to sell tickets! Maybe we should allow fighting too and then we can attract a whole new fan base! Like, maybe even getting some hockey fans to come watch our soccer games!

“It has been in the game forever”

Yes, but so has goalies with no face masks, two-line offside passes, and a myriad of other rules that have since changed. No-touch icing is another rule that might change the game. Don’t get me started on that one. Too late…watch for another blog soon.

“We could change things to make fighting safer”

We can make fighting safer??!?! WTF??? Wait, I got it. Let’s make sure the players wear boxing gloves instead of bare fists. Let’s make them take off their skates first, roll out a carpet so no one wipes out on the ice, and then let them go at it. Let’s have attendants, like at a boxing match, so that between rounds, the players can sit on a little stool, take in some water, have a doctor look at them and get that nasty cut over the eye closed before we start fighting again.

“You’re just a wuss/pansy/pacifist”

Perhaps, but I’m also a fan of the game. A game that is played well, with skill and precision. With speed and intensity. With hard-body checks and well-timed mid-ice hits. Ask Ottawa hockey fans what it was like to watch the World Juniors. Or the Salt Lake City Olympic Ice Hockey games (men’s and women’s).

Look, I’m not going to lie. A fight is exciting to watch. MMA/WWE have legions of fans. Bettman, instead of going after those fans, let’s go after real HOCKEY fans.

C’mon. Bring on the comments. I’m ready with my helmet off to take you on.

Don’t leave cheese in your fridge…

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  1. Mantooth says:

    You’re so wise. You’re like a miniature Buddha, covered in hair.

  2. shedge says:

    I’m not going to lie, I enjoy a good fight. I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and “soosh” everyone in the room when a fight breaks out. I’d rather see two guys settle a disagreement by dropping the coopers, rather than retaliatory slashes, spears or sucker punches.

    I think there is a place for fighting. Even the Channel 4 News Team knows they need to keep their head on a swivel when they find themselves in the middle of a cock fight – {(Burgandy)…you all kept your head on a swivel, and that’s what you gotta do when you find yourself in a vicious cock fight.}

    I think it keeps players honest. I don’t agree with teams adding to their payrolls a skilled fighter who probably can’t do his own skates up, barely knows how to hold his stick and does most of his intimidating from the bench. But players like OTT’s Chris Neil who are 3rd liners who can actually skate and shoot the puck, maybe even get 20 +points a season, certainly have a place. They don’t intimidate from the bench, only getting 1 – 2 minutes of ice time a game. They get 10+ minutes and have two roles: 1) skate your a$$ off and 2) Hit anyone not wearing a different jersey…including dropping the mitts when asked or needed.

    I gotta respect the fighters with skills, that keep their teams from getting walked on.

    Keep up the great work Channel 4 News Team!


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