As someone who learned about fighting from martial arts and learned about hockey from a pair of pacifistic parents who worshipped finesse players and tolerated only the cleanest of hits, I've spent most of my life struggling to understand hockey fights.
Where they belong in the greater context of sports is baffling at best. To invoke Mike Myer's old Coffee Talk skits, they're neither hockey nor fight. They happen on ice in hockey skates, but they're not officially part of the game. They involve moves that can be used in actual fights, but they're not sanctioned bouts. But then they're not street fights, either. They exist somewhere in between the real world and the sporting one, somewhere on the periphery of both the sport they happen in and the sport they sort of mimic.
Beyond their place, I've also struggling to understand what makes them satisfying. The way I was raised leaves me seeing fights as a blight on the sacred sport of hockey. A boorish way to rope in unsophisticated fans and cater to the lowest common denominator who will never appreciate the finer, more important parts of the game like, say, the geometrical genius with which Jacques Plante guarded his crease.
The fight fan in me just finds them silly. Although a number of hockey players include martial arts in their cross-training now, adding lessons in Muay Thai to improve their balance on skates or MMA to keep their reflexes sharp, few manage to display anything in the way of halfway decent technique. The punches are mostly ill-timed and flailing. The footwork is about as good as you can expect for any form of combat executed almost literally on knife edges on a slippery surface. The gripping of hockey sweaters sometimes lends a nice one-stripe white belt Jiu-Jitsu charm to the proceedings, but anyone with any expectations of method or skill is bound to be disappointed.
My husband, a lifelong goalie with a vengeful streak, has spent years trying to convince me that I'm not watching the fights properly, that they're part of a complex psychological game. Because he's probably the closest thing that rec hockey will ever have to Sun Tzu, I'm inclined to trust his vision on this matter. I just can't manage to share it when I actually watch games.
While I don't find hockey fights entertaining, though, I am developing a taste for entertainment about fighting in hockey. And it's through that kind of storytelling that I'm starting to be able to appreciate the parallels between the hockey enforcer and the martial artist.
Slap Shot might have treated the on-ice hijinks of the Hanson Brothers as a sideshow to exploit 40 years ago, but its cinematic heirs like Goon (and Goon: Last of the Enforcers, which comes out in theaters today) treat its fights and its fighters as a more central part of both the game and the film. When bouncer Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) is plucked out of bar and placed on a minor league team in Goon, he faces a lot of the same challenges, life lessons and philosophical issues that you'd find in a Rocky or a Karate Kid. It might be more comic and crass in a Fubar-esque way – a hoser's hero journey, if you will—but it's still a movie about discipline, glory, fighting for yourself and your loved ones, and having the discipline and the skill to face down your enemy in the heat of a battle.
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