Sunday, January 25, 2009

Does hockey need fighting?

The NHL has a fight on its hands: Those who want to keep fighting in the game vs. those who want an outright ban.

The debate is raging on all-star weekend and across the hockey world after 21-year-old senior league player Don Sanderson died following a bout earlier this month and in the wake of Philadelphia Phantoms forward Garrett Klotz suffering a seizure in an AHL fight (see video below). Sanderson did not die from a punch to the head but rather when he fell head first on to the ice after his helmet came off during a fight.

The Ontario Hockey League reacted quickly -- and with positive response -- to the Sanderson situation, increasing the penalties for those who fight with their helmets off or attempt to take the helmets off their opponents.

There are some strong advocates for fighting in hockey. Take Brian Burke, the Toronto Maple Leaf hockey czar who believes that taking fighting out of the NHL will "rip the fabric out of the game" and empower "the growing rat factor in our league". He and others believe that without enforcers, other marginal players will take runs against the stars of the game. The enforcers keep the cheap shot artists in line.

On the other side of the debate are those that point out that hockey is the only sport that condones fighting. In other sports the penalties are much stiffer so fights are almost nonexistent. Bob McGowan on The Fan 590 has been very vocal over the years and suggests that people come to games to see scoring but he is not aware of any fan that comes specifically to see a fight.

Many in the game of hockey often refers to the "Code" suggesting that its part of the tradition of the game. No one has really defined what this "Code" is which allows fight advocates to define it anyway the see fit. Don Cherry does it all the time. The National Post recently interview former and Maple Leaf and Canadien player Dick Duck who indicated at one time the Code meant you did not pick a fight unless it was an even match, you never hit a man when he was down and you never hit another player from behind. But you see those things in hockey all the time now.

What you now have in hockey are players who cannot play the game. Their sole purpose is to fight so when their coach sends them on the ice, they understand it is not to play hockey. The classic example is the fight between Garrett Klotz and Kevin Westgarth in the video below. The fight was off the opening faceoff so obviously it wasn't in the heat of the moment. It was a premeditated fight between two goons that serves no purpose. Klotz suffered a seizure in the fight and had to be rushed to hospital.

Let's face it the NHL believes it is part of the entertainment package and therefore reluctant to ban them. But the reality is that fighting hurts the image of the game and one day an NHL player will die if fighting is not banned. Combatants should be suspended but consideration should be given to protecting star players from the cheap shot artists who will prey on the Sidney Crosby's and the Daniel Briere's. The game doesn't have to be ruined with the elimination of fighting.