After a particularly brutal fight in Toronto last week, Jeremy Allingham questions whether or not hockey needs fighting in the first place.
One of the more recently brutal examples of bare-knuckle hockey boxing.
On March 6th, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators faced off in a highly anticipated matchup between two of the NHL's most celebrated rivals. 26 seconds into the game, a fight broke out between Toronto’s Frazer McLaren and Ottawa rookie Dave Dziurzynski. After four or five punches were thrown by each player, McLaren landed a devastating blow. Dziurzynski crumbled to the ground, knocked unconscious at the hand of his opponent. He lay motionless, face down on the ice as the referees frantically called for Ottawa’s medical staff. The crowd roared with approval. It was Dziurzynski’s first fight in the National Hockey League.
No reasonable human can argue that watching the hulking 23-year-old topple limply to the ice was enjoyable. Breathtaking and nauseating, yes. Enjoyable or entertaining? Perhaps, but only for the vulgar and the bloodthirsty.
While this is an extreme example, fights like these happen all the time in the NHL. Through March 6th, there had been 184 fights in 435 games this season (according to hockeyfights.com). That means you have a 42% chance of seeing two men bare-knuckle box each other on skates should you be lucky enough to hold a ticket to an NHL game in your hot little hands. And what will happen when that fight breaks loose? Invariably, the crowd will leap to its feet at the sight of two titans exchanging massive and possibly catastrophic blows.
But who, in the year 2013, still wants to consume the great sport of hockey with a side of fighting? Who still lusts for the blood spattered ice and the knocked out teeth?
There are not as many supporters of fighting as you may think. A study conducted by Ipsos Reid back in 2011 showed that 54% of Canadians would like to see fighting gone from hockey. You wouldn’t know it from the narrative online and in the media, but supporters of fighting are in the minority, though an admittedly large and vocal one.
The issue of fighting in hockey carries great weight. Forget abortion or gun laws or aboriginal treaty rights, if you want to start a heated bar room discussion, or maybe even an exchange of fisticuffs, just float the idea of taking fighting out of hockey. The pugilistic defenders will be ready to line up behind their man, Don Cherry, in shouting down anyone who dares question the nobility and necessity of men assaulting each other in between whistles at a sports game.
The crude and inarticulate Cherry is the engine that continues to drive the idea of fighting in hockey forward. The xenophobic blowhard is 79 years-old and last played the game in 1972, but he is still the first to call a world class millionaire athlete a “chicken” for not stepping up to drop the gloves and smash face with an opponent. And his legions of fans are eager to follow suit.
Don Cherry: an old man with several opinions.
There are plenty of arguments to support fighting in hockey. They’re narrow-minded, appeal misguidedly to tradition and, in the end, make very little sense. They have also been kicked around ad nauseam, so let’s whip through them as quickly as possible.
"It's part of the game."
No it isn't. The game is played between puck drop and whistle. The whistle blows and the play, literally, stops when a fight breaks out.
"It provides a way to create a momentum change.”
Possibly true, but you can also change the momentum of a game by, you know, scoring, skating, hitting and even being a better team.
"Enforcers protect the superstars."
Firstly, it is the referees' and the league's job to protect the superstars by enforcing the rules with penalties and appropriate suspensions. Also, it was just two years ago that Sidney Crosby (the biggest superstar in the world) was forced to miss the better part of two seasons because of a cheap shot to the head. Fighting neither deterred the hit nor provided any kind of retribution that would stop another similar hit from happening in the future.
“If you don't like fighting in hockey, you can't like boxing or mixed martial arts.”
Absolutely true. I don't personally enjoy either sport. But even still, both of those sports have their athletes wear padded gloves for protection, and they feature a style of fighting that involves extensive training in defensive tactics that give the fighters’ brains a chance at survival. The fact that there is fighting in hockey, at all, is an absolutely insane proposition in and of itself, but the STYLE of fighting is even batshit crazier. Left hand on jersey. Right hand throwing wild haymakers. If one lands, well, you saw what happened. A young man like Dave Dziurzynski ends up face down on the ice.
“Fans love it.”
Many do, but the majority would like to see it out of the game, 54% according to a recent poll, as mentioned earlier.
“The game will die in non-traditional U.S. hockey markets without fighting.”
If the game is only popular in Phoenix, Florida and Columbus because of fighting, then it should never have been there in the first place.
“It entertains the vulgar and the bloodthirsty.”
You’ve got me there.
The cautious referee.
But let’s get back to the culture of fighting in, not just the National Hockey League, but the sport of hockey in general. Professional athletes beating the living hell out of each other for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars is one thing, but beneath the culture of hockey fighting in Canada is something far more insidious, depraved and frankly, mind-boggling.
Imagine if tomorrow, you were to pick up the newspaper and read about a multi-million dollar corporation that, not only allows, but also promotes and profits from bare-knuckle boxing between 14, 15 and 16 year-olds. You would be shocked and appalled. How could they get away with this? Why have the police not intervened? Who’s taking advantage of those kids?
You would assume that this must be happening in dingy underground fight clubs and suburban barnyards, organized by the sleaziest gangsters and officiated by their even sleazier associates.
Unfortunately, you would be wrong. What we’re talking about here is junior hockey in Canada, specifically the Canadian Hockey League, where every night, thousands of people rise to their feet and cheer as children bare-knuckle box each other on skates. These kids who are violently trading punches are not allowed to drink or smoke, some cannot drive and others haven’t even finished high school. Fighting in the CHL, if you can believe it, is even more prevalent than in the NHL. This year there have been 1,449 fights in 1,928 games. That there folks is a staggering 75% chance two teenagers will beat the living shit out of each other at the upcoming junior hockey game.
These ridiculous fights are supported, not only by the teams and the league, not only by the fans, but by massive multi-national corporations that pay to have their logos front and centre as two adolescent boys fist fight to "give their team a spark".
And that brings us back to Dave Dziurzynski laying face down on the ice. Forget the fans, the owners, the players and the coaches. What are the CEOs and brand managers at these corporations thinking? As Dziurzynski lay motionless, receiving medical attention for something that will likely never be cured, ads for Reebok and Lotto Max were nicely framed just above the fallen fighter’s limp body. Once he, thankfully, regained consciousness and rose to his feet, Clamato and the Keg were featured. A juice and a steakhouse tacitly and proudly supporting the event that had just happened. How does that fight support brand synergy? Where do brutal violence and lifelong brain injuries fit into corporate branding models? These companies want family friendly? The fight that happened at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto was anything but.
As hockey fans and Canadians, we should be ashamed of what happened on the ice in Toronto. We should be embarrassed every time thousands of people spring to their feet to cheer a fistfight between two hockey players. We should be mortified when those two players we’re cheering are children. That embarrassment should be natural and true, because the sight of a massive man crumbling to the ice from a devastating blow in a hockey fight should only be enjoyable for the vulgar and the bloodthirsty.
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