The NHL Is Losing Part of Its Uniqueness without Fighting
Fighting was and is mostly ugly and dangerous, but it also gave the game a kind of character found nowhere else in professional sport.
Photo by Chris Martinez-The Associated Press
OK, it's gone, or mostly gone. Handfuls of teams have single-digit fights, including the Maple Leafs, who have a league-low one fighting major this season. The average amount of fights per game has been cut in half over the last 15 seasons. How do we feel about this? Do we miss the fighting? Is there an element of the game that seems suddenly, strikingly absent? Do ticket prices justify watching a physical sport where hardly anyone is physical anymore? Or rather: Do ticket prices justify watching a physical sport where hardly anyone is physical anymore, especially when no one scores goals, either? Can the NHL put fighting back in the game? Some fighting? Any fighting?
A few years ago, I programmed a literary event that had Toronto Star sports writer Cathal Kelly as one of its presenters. Kelly told a story of one summer working abroad as a young man, eventually settling in western Europe. He remembered attending an early Radiohead show in a field—a festival of some kind—and having his view blocked by an enormous umbrella, even though the evening was clear. The umbrella holder was hectored by the crowd until, finally, it collapsed. After the umbrella came down, one of Cathal's friends sighed and said, "And now, we miss the umbrella." This is a little how I feel about fighting.
I don't miss fighting. Rather, I miss the idea of fighting. I miss the idea that, at any point, the pressure and tension and drama of a game can explode in a hail of fists; ten men losing their shit and addressing their emotions the way we've been taught not to. The cultural significance of fighting is complicated. To me, it was always a little like watching pornography. To paraphrase Susan Sontag: "For the first ten minutes, all you want to do is fuck. For the next ten, it's the last thing you want to do." I wonder if there's a way of getting those first ten minutes back while stopping the next ten from happening.
Does the game seem duller without the threat of pugilism? For devotees of the sport, it probably does not—we watch the play in all of its glorious detail, and we'll keep watching no matter what it becomes—but for those who give it a passing glance (the very demographic that, in the USA at least, will, or won't, put hockey over the top, or at least beyond the mighty five or six dominant mainstream sports), you wonder how many eyeballs have cruised across the game without being drawn to the sight of two sanguine men slugging away at each other, eyes pinched during contact and hair greased in sweat hanging down their necks. Has a certain colour—bloodred, I suppose—become drained from the sport to the point that it shines less hard? Is it now more monochromatic? Do people miss the umbrella?
Tie Domi, Bob Propert, Marty McSorley, Donald Brashear, Tony Twist, Ogie Ogilthorpe, the Hansons, Eddie Shore, Gilles Bilodeau, Felix Batterinski, and dirty Steve Durbano, who died destitute in Yellowknife—for all of their ice crimes (in the case of Batterinski, it was a fictional life), they were enormous cultural figures in the wild and complex narrative of the game. Because of the current absence of goons or policemen—choose your term—there's a vacuum in the game. And with most safe-minded and micro-managed players entrapped in an already stultifyingly goal-challenged game, characters who possessed a true sense of individuality—impetuous and controversial—have been mortgaged in favour of something the NHL has yet to invent.
There are all kinds of issues regarding the decline of fighting, and the possible, eventual, elimination of it. The ongoing lawsuit brought by retired players—alleging that the NHL knowingly put players at risk despite decades of data connecting blows to the head with long-term neurological damage—has likely informed the league's decision to move swiftly (hastily) to rid the league of fisticuffs. But, whatever the NHL's motivations, it underestimated the effect of changing a product in which fighting, or rather, the idea of fighting, was central to its play. Fighting was and is mostly ugly and dangerous, but it also gave the game a kind of character found no where else in professional sport.
I always insisted that fighting wouldn't be missed if it disappeared, and I still think that (I think). But as the game becomes puck chess, I'm left wondering. Hockey has to figure out how it can still remain unique and wild in fighting's absence. These days, we're paying hundreds of dollars to watch players not only not score, but not fight, either.
Not a single umbrella, anywhere.