Thursday, February 17, 2011


Fighting in Hockey? It Happens.

Three recent National Hockey League games have sparked the fires of controversy yet again concerning the violence of the game. In one match, goaltenders for the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Islanders entered the fray. With one swift and mighty punch, the Penguins’ goalie Brent Johnson decked the Islanders’ Rick Di Pietro. Unfortunately, the Islanders’ tender was injured with the punch, and will be out of commission for several weeks.

In a return match, one Pittsburgh player, Eric Godard jumped off his bench to come to the aid of his goaltender, Johnson, who was challenged to combat by a skater from the Islanders. That is against the code of the NHL. I cannot think of a coach who would not approve Godard’s action. Godard received a ten game suspension for his action.

In another nasty tilt, the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins renewed rivalries that have lasted for decades for these “Original Six” teams. There were words; there were skirmishes; there were line brawls that resulted in more penalties than could be accounted for with two Crayola crayons.

In actuality, more minutes in penalties were incurred in those games than have been recorded for three games in more than ten years. Those of you with short memories, or with little experience, might have been amazed at the battles. We older observers are not shocked. I referred to the tilts as “line brawls”. Serious hockey fights involved “bench brawls”.

In both instances, referees and linesmen have their hands full. They try to record the numbers of the culprits as the battles ensue. They try to separate the battlers, and send them to designated locations: penalty boxes, benches, dressing rooms. They try to restore order. Not always an easy task.

The Canadiens were seriously undermanned for their game against the “Big Bad Bruins”. They did not ice their toughest squad, and they paid for it. Former player, general manager, and commentator Dave Maloney summed up the Canadiens’ game preparation thusly: “The Canadiens brought slingshots to a gun fight!” That will not likely happen again this year. Every team in the NHL has enforcers in the minors. Rest assured that the Habs will make a few calls before they again face the Bruins.
There are reasons why these situations develop. One is history. Hockey players have pretty good memories. Coaches warn their players not to retaliate, especially in playoff games. Nowadays, teams have such awesome power plays that opponents cannot afford to play short-handed for any length of time. So, when speared, or slashed, or cross-checked, or maligned in some way, most of the time, players take numbers. It’s as if to say to an opponent, “Thank you for that. I will see you again. My coach has me handcuffed at the present moment. But there will a time. By the way, keep your head up.”

Gordie Howe one pummeled an opponent into submission after a brief encounter on the ice. When asked about it after the game, he simply told the reporters: “Payback.”

“Payback? Payback for what?” they asked. Gordie replied, “That guy speared me.”

No one had noticed any contact whatsoever in the game. They asked again. Gordie told them. “Payback for when he speared me SEVEN YEARS AGO!”


Reason number two: Equipment. This includes sticks.

Hockey sticks have been classified as weapons outside the confines of an arena. One cannot use a hockey stick to settle an argument legally on Fifth Avenue. During a game, however, players are entitled to tap, rap, bang away on each other with their sticks. It is all part of the game. Up to a certain point. Beyond that point, infractions occur. Some are witnessed, resulting in stick penalties. Others go unnoticed, but are remembered.

Other equipment worn today is far superior to that used a decade ago, and for many years prior to that. Shoulder pads and elbow pads are as hard as a bullet. A well-placed elbow to an opponent’s head can be lethal, as we have seen. More than a few careers have been shortened by such blows. Helmets are now far superior. Players skate with greater abandon now, far less fear of serious head injuries. There were days, Gertrude, when players did not wear head protection. There was more respect among the players. But fewer teeth.

Reason Number Three: Respect

Fringe players, journeymen who live on the edge of spending their careers in the minor leagues, tend to take greater chances in playing a violent game than do those who have been in the NHL for several seasons. There are also the prototypical bullies who have always played with their sticks held high. They know they are hunted. They play with self-defense.

For the most part, players do respect their opponents. They often see opponents in the off-season at charitable events. Hockey players are more approachable in social situations than are athletes from all other athletic areas. So they mix and mingle, and hoist a few bubblies in the summer, then beat on each other in the winter. It has always been that way. It will not change, not with a suspension, or a fine.

Several years ago, players policed themselves. There were limits, and the limits were respected.

But there are also bad apples in every barrel. In hockey, there are loose cannons who will “go’ at the drop of a hat. Some will even try to take out the best player of the opposition, just to make a name for themselves. Goofy, very goofy.

Number Four: The Instigator Rule

As it sits, any time a players starts an altercation, and fights, he (or she) will get two minutes for instigating, five for fighting, and a ten minute misconduct. This is especially critical in playoff situations. But these situations are usually precipitated by plenty of stick work and goading prior to the retaliation. The charged instigator is simply the one who gets caught.

Number Five: Skates and Speed

The game is played on skates. If you have never been challenged to a fight on skates, and the situation arises, call a cop. Most players would prefer not to scrap wearing their “Air Jordans”, let alone on blades. Fighting on two pieces of steel, on a frozen pond, is an art.

Once a player dons the blades, he or she is capable of moving quickly. Rough measurements have clocked some players at thirty miles per hour. Think about it. A twenty-five year old man, weighing 265 pounds, is at top speed, and is about to plant your face into the glass at the end of the rink. My advice? Keep your head up.

Obviously, the game is not for everyone. For those of us that have played a little, and have observed a lot, there is no better game. Occasionally, the gloves will come off. Usually with mention some justification. Should fighting be banned? Just damned silly to even mention it.

It does not necessarily make it right when one refers to the argument that fans do not vacate their seats when there are fistacuffs; however, the stance taken by Mario Lemieux, the Penguins owner, leaves me mystified.

The former league superstar stated that he thought the Islanders should have been punished more severely for their actions in a subsequent game against the Pens. Now one must remember that “Super Mario” was a very big man on the ice, and could command respect by his size. If you stand five feet ten inches, and weigh 185 pounds, you rethink your position when it comes to dropping the gloves with someone more than 6’ 6”, and in the 250 pound range.

Lemieux says that he “might rethink being part of the league”. A little over the top.

Stu Grimson played tough, really tough. Tough enough to earn the name “The Grim Reaper”. He is quoted in the Tuesday, February 15th edition of USA today: “I would ask everyone to dial down the temperature a little bit. We ask these guys to play on a razor’s edge, and we love it.” He adds that players may slip over the edge from time to time, and lose control.

Mountains out of molehills?

James Hurst
February 15, 2011

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