You Couldn't BE More Wrong About: Fighting in Hockey by @griffTHW and @BrianK_PI - PensInitiative | Pittsburgh Penguins Blog | Rumors | News

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Friday, November 21, 2014

You Couldn't BE More Wrong About: Fighting in Hockey by @griffTHW and @BrianK_PI

Well, Brian, it's been a few weeks since our latest installment of You Couldn't BE More Wrong, so it's probably about time to prove you wrong, once again. And, with the news of a hand injury Connor McDavid sustained in a recent fight, we may as well weigh in on the raging debate regarding whether or not dropping the gloves still has a place in hockey.

Now, don't get me wrong. I hate seeing someone get jumped just for landing a clean, hard hit on an opponent. What's more, the extinction of a "traditional" enforcer only improves the speed and quality of the game. That being said, I still believe fighting has a place in hockey.

So, tell me, why ban the fisticuffs?
BRIAN: Well Sean, I think the best argument I can make is to let McDavid's play on the ice do the talking. Oh wait, NEWSFLASH!! He won't be on the ice for five to six weeks. But I'm sure this has earned him the respect of his teammates - ya know, because teenagers are so fickle as to not respect the prodigious talent of a generational talent. At the very least, this will teach opposing teams a lesson and get them to stop taking liberties, since this instance of him losing his temper would never be something another team would try to take advantage of to throw him off his game.

It's not just a McDavid issue, though we live in a wonderful society that wants to overreact to current events and turn them into referendums on all sorts of issues. That being said, it is an issue that moves slowly without instances such these, as the rush to remove the cavemen from the game is moving about as quickly as the actual cavemen giving way to modern humans, though the past couple years have been promising.

The problem with any movement to ban fighting is that it's going to be an uphill battle. It's already apart of the game, and unless the NHL and NHLPA want to jump to a 20 game, zero tolerance policy, there are still going to be fights in the games. It's illegal in baseball, players will get suspended, and batters still charge pitchers. The objective needs to be to put deterrents in place to make the fighting not worth the punishment.

Hockey is an exciting enough sport without having a pointless sideshow breakout; it'd be like if a spelling bee broke out during a boxing match. Although if that was a Floyd Mayweather bout that'd be well worth the price of admission. But tell me Sean, why haven't you jumped on the bandwagon yet? It's moving forward, with or without you; why dig your heels in and fight (#rimshot) for something on its way out?

SEAN: First of all, I love the irony of using a boxing analogy when you're speaking out against fighting in hockey. It seems to me, however, you're going a little overboard there, fella. I mean, the violent nature of hockey almost automatically elicits the occasional scrap when tempers reach their boiling point. And, like it or not, it's a reality that comes with the territory in pretty much any competitive sport (as you alluded to when you mentioned the altercations that take place in baseball). I have a difficult time, however, picturing a jab to the jaw of a boxer evoking a sudden urge to take a stab at spelling "colonel". Maybe that's why we can still discuss fighting's place in hockey but you'll never see Mayweather prancing around with a bunch of "good effort, champ" participation ribbons.

Secondly, with regard to your point about McDavid, it's entirely possible (probable) that future opponents will attempt to knock the budding star off his game after seeing him lose his temper like this. But McDavid needs to use the incident as a learning experience, to understand that dropping the gloves probably isn't in his best interest. His coach needs to make sure McDavid realizes he SHOULD NEVER DO THAT AGAIN and that, if the officials won't intervene when McDavid finds himself hacked, whacked and abused, then a teammate sure as hell will. Because, it's not about whether or not McDavid earned respect in the room here. It's about the Erie Otters realizing it's on them to stand up for McDavid, to allow him to do what he does best so the team as whole can best position itself for success.

To (finally) answer your question, though, I guess I'm not jumping on the bandwagon because I can still see a purpose for fighting in hockey. Now, I could argue that the ability to drop the gloves with minimal punishment provides at least some sort of deterrent, some sort of retribution for an opponent intent on abusing a star player.  After all, for whatever reason, the referees and the league seemingly refuse do a good job of it.

That, however, isn't why I've dug my heels on the ground on the issue. Because, in reality, one could accomplish virtually the same thing with a clean, bone-jarring hit to any opponent judged to have wronged a teammate. 

No, the real reason fighting still belongs is simple: it's a tool. Now, do the "pointless sideshows" you referred to still break out? Sure. And those can admittedly come off as ridiculous and embarrassing. But what about the altercations that swing the momentum, the fights that get a bench fired up or an arena rocking?

Need an example? All you need to do is look back on a familiar scene that took place during the Pens' 2009 first round matchup against the Flyers, a moment that set the table for Pittsburgh's third run to a Stanley Cup championship.

With the Penguins trailing 3-0 and staring down a seventh and deciding game, Max Talbot took on a barrage of Dan Carcillo blows to the delight of the Philadelphia crowd. But it was Pittsburgh who ultimately responded, notching their first tally of the contest a mere fourteen seconds after the bout (thrashing, depending on who you ask). With new life breathed into the bench and momentum shifting as a result of Talbot's efforts, the Pens quickly tied the score and dominated play for the balance of the contest, ultimately securing the series with a 5-3 triumph before a shocked Wells Fargo Center.

Are all fights like that? Of course, not. But the ones that are live on forever in hockey lore.

BRIAN: So let me get this straight: McDavid SHOULD NEVER DO THAT AGAIN - his teammates should. Meaning he's too talented to be doing something as trivial to the outcome of the game, his lesser talented teammates should. And by lesser teammates, not guys who are actually good at scoring, or playing defense, or important stuff like that. So then you get guys who can barely skate, like John Scott, not only taking roster spot but a spot in the lineup.

And when you basically say that fighting comes with the territory in pretty much any competitive sport, are you trying to say football isn't competitive? Basketball? Soccer? What about Olympic hockey? Do the players treat that as a series of exhibition games, or do they actually try hard? How do they ever come back from being down if they can't swing the momentum by fighting? And when you used fighting in baseball to back up your point, were you just ignoring the fact that those players aren't given 5 minute timeouts but are suspended for multiple games? You can go weeks and sometimes months without seeing a brawl in baseball; it's more rare to see days go by without any fights in hockey.

You mentioned clean, bone-jarring hits as a means of retribution against players taking liberties. Big, clean hits can also swing momentum in a team's favor as well, much like in your argument for fighting. Take a look at some of Scott Stevens' greatest hits. Notice something? Some of those hits that were "clean, bone-jarring hits" back when he played would be textbook examples of illegal contact today. And why is that? Because we don't sit around stupidly doing the same things we've always done. When they realized that wearing helmets would protect player safety, they made wearing helmets mandatory. When eye injuries became a problem, they made wearing visors mandatory. And when the damage of repeated blows to the head and concussions became clear, they banned hits that targeted the head.

Wake up Sean. You're talking about keeping something in the game that doesn't help teams win, generally involves players awful at playing hockey, and has been implicated in the deaths of several NHL enforcers. You know what also can cause momentum? Class action lawsuits, and it would be very bad for the league if they had to pay out substantial damages. You make a good point when you say the league and its referees do not do a good job at stopping the abuse of star players. However, instead of coming to the logical conclusion of "start having the referees call the penalties that are on the books and let the star players fill the net with power play goals to get revenge and act as a deterrent" your solution was "let other players not involved punch people". Because, ya know, that's worked so well for the past 30 years or so of actually accomplishing the objective.

SEAN: First of all, nobody said anything about delegating an "inferior" or "less talented" player to fight the battles of his more skilled teammates. Nowhere above does it suggest a coach look down at his bench, tap a kid on the shoulder and say, "Hey, you handle the puck like your chopping wood out there. How about hopping over the boards and knocking somebody out if you'd like to see the ice again?"

So let's not get too sensitive about who plays what role.  Because, the reality is, hockey is a pretty violent game, one in which star players will always face abuse. That's never going to change, regardless of whatever rule changes the powers that be put in place. Opponents will test the limits, hoping to disrupt whatever elite talent they're facing. So, at some point, a teammate (we'll go with any teammate for fear of causing some sort of inferiority complex) needs to step up in an effort to stop the nonsense. Because, in the end, it doesn't do the team any good to have its best player sitting in the box or (in this case) on the shelf because he stepped out of his element when he finally reached his breaking point.

And, before we move on from taking things out of context, who suggested guys like John Scott still have a place in the game at its highest level? It's pretty obvious that the role of the "traditional" enforcer no longer exists given that there's just not room anymore for a guy who can't skate or contribute something besides the occasional fight.

But, shockingly enough, you can find guys capable of both fighting and actually playing the game.  Evander Kane, for example, isn't one to shy away from dropping the gloves and that kid can fly. Jamie Benn will fight and he's one of the game's premier power forwards. Looking back a few years, Brendan Shanahan fought nearly 100 times in his Hall of Fame career; he's 25th on the NHL's all-time scoring list. Hell, Bobby Orr could fight and you can make an argument that he was the greatest player ever to live.

So, how exactly does the presence of fighting dilute the talent on the ice? After all, the days of someone filling a roster spot solely to fight seem to be behind us but we're still seeing guys drop the gloves.

I'll admit, the threat of a court case could ultimately bring fighting in hockey to its knees.  After all, the prospect of a class action lawsuit will strike more fear into the league than anything else. But couldn't one argue that, with regards to the court system, the bulk of the damage has already been done, that banning fighting at this point will prove too little, too late. Because, when you think about it, the real threat stemming from that lawsuit comes from whatever information may have been withheld from players with regards to their health. These days, however, players know more than ever about what they're getting into. At least, they should.

Now, it's caveat emptor; buyer beware. If you smoke, you run the risk of developing lung cancer.  If you drink, you're susceptible to liver disease. And, if you fight, you could subject yourself to some sort of brain trauma.

So, as more and more information becomes available, individuals need to decide for themselves whether or not fighting is worth the risk. If it's not, fine. But, if it is, there's enough information out there about the potential ramifications to reasonably hold a player accountable for his actions.

Look, I'm not saying fighting comes without consequences because it obviously does. Nor am I suggesting that dropping the gloves represents the only way to swing momentum or should be forced upon anyone. At the same time, though, I don't have a problem leaving things up to the actual players rather than banning fights from the game.

BRIAN: Sean, HOW naive can you be?! Because to act like there haven't been, and still are, scores of players in the league solely on their abilities to drop the gloves suggests your head hasn't seen too much sun. If John Scott doesn't have a place in then why is John Scott still in the league? And how exactly is Evander Kane or Jamie Benn best serving his team? Throwing punches and sitting in the penalty box for 5+ minutes? You said yourself it doesn't do a team any good to have their best players sitting in the penalty box yet you've named players who can both fight and play the game at a high level as an argument for keeping fighting in the game. Congratulations - that's known as a "red herring".

As far as the legal issues are concerned, I'm sure the plaintiffs will never try to claim the league was negligent by continuing to allow fighting even after the spate of tragic deaths and even after knowing the risks caused by brain damage. To suggest the league should just continue letting players pummel each other because "the damage has already been done" is a tenuous position to take. Research has come a long way in just a few years - what's to say that the next five years won't involve findings that will be even more damning considering the increased insight the league possesses today?

It's a moot point anyways - you've readily admitted there are other ways to accomplish the same things that fighting does today, and to try to frame the argument as sticking up for elite athletes is disingenuous at best. Wooden sticks were a part of hockey, mask-less goalies were a part of hockey, chicken wire instead of plexiglass was a part of hockey. And one day, sometime soon, fighting will join that list. There's a reason why fights in playoffs are much more rare in the playoffs than they are in the regular season - when the chips are down, and it matters the most, they cut the useless crap.

SEAN: Sure, maybe more information will become readily available. But there's already enough out there now that players should be aware of some potentially serious consequences down the line. Knowing that, why should't it be up to the player to decide whether or not he's willing to take that risk? Why should the option be taken away by the league?

And, if you're going to take things that literally then, yes, John Scott is still in the league. But he's also bounced around thanks largely to his inability to keep up with the play and, moving forward, it's hard to imagine him holding down an NHL job for any kind of extended period of time.  Simply put, he is of a dying breed, one that seems destined for extinction in the modern NHL.

Will fighting follow suit? Maybe. But it doesn't have to.

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