On the heels of this weekend’s two–part series on fighting and enforcers by John Branch, one of our own weighs in on this controversial issue. Vinny prepared this paper as part of his graduate work. This historic analysis is nearly as weighty as the NYT piece and we offer it in installments.
Game Misconduct: The Past and Future of Fighting in the NHL
Hockey is more than a game; it’s a way of life for our neighbors to the north and large percentages of the Northeast and Midwest of this country. The fundamental question to look at with that in mind, is does the role of fighting help hockey or hinder it’s growth at this point? Has it outlived its usefulness? First, we shall look at what role it’s played in shaping the game so far. Then we’ll move on to the current parameters of the debate and finally, my own conclusions based on everything I’ve absorbed.
“I had the idea that I should beat up every player I tangled with, and nothing ever convinced me it wasn’t a good idea.” – Ted Lindsay, Detroit Red Wings Hall of Famer.
Hockey is a sport unlike any other. It’s designed to incorporate several skills which show off the otherworldly abilities of its participants. One aspect of hockey that separates it from the other 3 major sports is speed.
Typically, with commercial breaks, the average NBA and NFL contests (that end in regulation, of course) run approximately 3 hours. In baseball, a typical MLB game now hovers around the 4 hour mark. In the NHL, the game will be done, again barring overtime, in 2.5 hours. The reason hockey moves with such speed as compared to the other sports is that player substitution occurs during play, and isn’t confined to stoppages or to delays in the flow of the game.
Typically, a team will dump the puck into the attacking portion of the ice and change all 5 (or as many skaters are feasible) before the opponent can retrieve the puck and manage to move it the 200 feet back towards the net the changing team is defending.
This process of changing ‘on the fly’ as it is known in hockey parlance dictates that each team must have upwards of 11 forwards and 6 defensemen who can play their fair share of minutes out of 18 skaters they dress on a given night (The goaltender does not change, unless performance or injury dictates, so your starting goaltender remains in your net all night and your backup goalie plops down at the end of the bench or in the tunnel, merely an interested spectator).
If you do some quick mental calculations, you will note that I mentioned 18 skaters, and proceeded to say that 11 forwards and 6 defensemen take regular shifts on most NHL teams. That means there’s an 18th guy on the bench, usually sitting next to the backup goalie. Now, I’ll explain who this guy is and why his job sucks.
Fights and the Fighters Who Fight Them
This gentleman has one of the most thankless jobs in sports. Depending on what side of the debate a person falls on, this player is typically referred to as a ‘goon’ or as an ‘enforcer’. It’s pretty easy to figure out which side uses which term. We will get into the sides of the debate shortly, how the terms of engagement and the battle lines have changed over time, and where it stands today all in due time, but for now, we’ll get a microcosm of the player him self’s world view.
He is typically the guy at the pregame skate in charge of getting everyone else fired up. He is typically one of the loudest voices in the dressing room. He functions as the DJ on the radio most nights. He’s charged with getting the team amped up while keeping them loose. He’s charged with watching the ice like a hawk for anything that bears his involvement. More often than not, that stuff occurs behind the play that everyone else is watching. There are 4 referees (or zebras as they are dually affectionately and derisively known) and they are almost always watching the play around the puck.
They can, and often do miss the rough stuff back in the other zone where another player, doubled over after a collision with a goaltender may give the goalie a shove. Or another player may elbow that player in the chops. It is the job of the enforcer to note the things that have been done out of the all too often less than vigilant eye of the officiating crew and settle those accounts. However, as noted earlier, this man doesn’t see a regular shift.
The typical enforcer/goon gets anywhere from three to eight minutes off ice time a night. That’s not exactly a huge amount of time to settle a score or send a message. Sometimes, the enforcer’s tour of duty is completely without incident. Sometimes, he’s out there to start something rather than settle it. The nature of his role leads to him being asked to turn the momentum of a game or sometimes even a season with a hit or by dropping the gloves and squaring off with his counterpart. To understand this
barbarity, one most understand there are two moments when time seems to stop around a hockey arena and the building becomes something from a scene in “Thunderdome”.
On a goal (by the home team), the place reaches decibels that can make your ears bleed. Using one of our nearby venues as a measuring stick 16,294 get on their feet and salute the conquering heroes as they return to the bench. It’s a wondrous moment where the home fans are as revved up as the boys on the bench, but it’s not the only time one can see that bond between team and fan.
Dropping the Gloves: The Making of a Fight
“On nights you knew you had to fight, there were nerves, you never slept the night before. But you dealt with it or you didn’t. You don’t really get over it, you just go out and do your job.” – Wade Belak
The other moment in the game that time stops is when one player gives what can simply be described as “the nod” toward another player. They circle for a second or two, sizing each other up. The crowd is coming unglued now, home and road fans alike. The challenged will either accept or skate away, determining it is not the right time for himself or his team.
But should the challenged toss his stick aside, the waiting in the crowd stops and the frantic energy reverberates around the building. Once that stick hits the ice, the gloves are chucked aside scant milliseconds later. The player who initiated this challenge will return in kind, and it’ll be on. This is where the referee or linesman begins a mad dash towards the ensuing confrontation to make sure it stays within the accepted norms and doesn’t become a one-sided bloodletting where a player could be exposed to potentially serious injury.
In reality, it’s a noble but futile notion. Two men who are essentially well paid prison guards are about to engage in bare knuckle fighting on a 200 foot stretch of rock hard unforgiving frozen water. Somebody is extremely likely to get hurt. The anticipation is over and it’s go time. They circle, feeling each other out. Each waits for the first salvo, not wanting to expose themselves to a counter punch, but they both know, that should they wait too long, the zebras will have the ability the chance to break this up.
Invariably, someone fires off a punch. Typically, in today’s hockey world, most of these guys have become proficient with throwing punches with both hands, so usually it’s an offhand jab to set up something else. The other party bides his time, taking it or ducking it. Each looks for that shot squarely to the jaw to put this one away decisively. That punch may come. It may not. Regardless, when they’ve danced this dance, which seldom lasts more than 60 seconds or so, they are saluted by the adoring public and the sound of 36 sticks tapping on the ice, both benches joining in the adulation of their ‘sheriff’. These 2 players are now escorted to the penalty box or ‘sin bin’ as it is known to serve a 5 minute penance to atone for their infraction.
More oft than not, play remains 5 skaters aside after a fight, but sometimes there are additional charges that result in a team having to ‘kill off’ a penalty. Some of these infractions include, but are not limited to: one player engaging in fisticuffs with a visor while his opponent did not have one (You are expected to remove that incident to fighting so as not to have an unfair advantage),failure to secure the fight strap to your pants (it keeps a player from tearing his own jersey off, which would render him
difficult to grab), the charge of being the third man in (which simply means that one of the players wasn’t an initial participant and came to the defense of an overmatched teammate) and lastly, the scourge of old-time hockey, the instigator rule, which we’ll get to in a bit. Additional penalties may stem from the incident that led to the fracas, be it a questionable hit or some other breaching of hockey etiquette.
It’s not always the enforcer/goon who partakes in the fisticuffs. Sometimes, an energy player (a player with slightly more skills than your enforcer but not a superstar) will be involved, or a defenseman or forward will throw a big hit the other team objects to and it’ll stem from that. Other times, the hatred, the passion of a rivalry takes over, and you end up with a spectacle known as a line-brawl, where each of the 5 skaters on the ice pair up with their counterpart and there’s an all out Donnybrook.
Occasionally here, you get the white elephant of hockey fights, a goalie fight. These are seldom flashpoint incidents, reacting to one thing or another. Rather, these are slow builds. They stem from ‘last Tuesday’, or the April prior when you were playing out the string and they were gearing up for the playoffs. Regardless, there’s a breadcrumb trail. You can see it building.
Typically, the league can too, and it’ll attempt to deescalate the situation by contacting both teams and imploring cooler heads to prevail, assigning it’s best referees to police the action, or through supplemental discipline to ensure the likely combatants on either side are dissuaded from stirring the pot. If the league fails to act decisively,
the team that feels wronged will. And often times, it’ll act with swift and devastating efficiency.
The New York Islanders perpetrated one such ‘collection of a debt’ on February 11th of this past year. The week prior, their goaltender had been knocked unconscious and sustained a fracture of his cheekbone while fighting the goaltender for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Isles goalie was attempting to get one of the Penguins to answer for an objectionable hit from earlier in the game which had led to a concussion.
Likewise, several Islanders were steaming from hits that had gone unpunished earlier still that season or even way back from the season prior. Having come to the conclusion that the league was not inclined to reign in one of its more profitable franchises for skirting the rules and bullying one of its also-rans, the Islanders, in a tradition harkening back to their glory years of goal scoring and pugilism, unleashed a 9-2 drubbing upon Pittsburgh and then took to settling the fisticuffs portion of the ledger.
What happened that night was something reminiscent of the cult classic ‘Slapshot’, where there were 9 fights, over 10 ejections, 3 suspensions , team fines and a laundry list of barbs fired back and forth through the media.
Coupled with the brawl filled between the Bruins and Les Habitants De Montreal earlier that week, ‘old time hockey’ was back in the public eye. Furthermore, the media had some ammunition to reignite the debate on fighting in hockey. For their part in the setting off the firestorm and ensuing controversy, the Islanders were entirely unapologetic. The media were abhorrent, whilst the fans of the league saw something long-lost coming back and reacted largely with… glee.
To be continued.
Follow Vinny on twitter or be prepared to drop the mitts: @RoseTintedVisor