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Monday, January 18, 2010

Ice Hockey and Fighting

We are a hockey family. At our house, we say football is the contact sport for people who can't skate. Any 200+ lb. knucklehead can carry a big ball from one end of a grassy field to the other. Try "carrying" a 3" puck on the end of a stick while ice skating. And, oh yeah, while other people are crashing into you and using their sticks to take the puck away. That, my friends, takes skill. So, I get a little put off when I hear people talk about going to hockey games just to see fights. It's as though they don't think hockey is worth watching without fights.

I've heard a lot of people say they don't understand hockey; they get the fighting, but the rules of hockey itself are too complicated. They aren't. The goal is to shoot the puck into the opposing team's net. How much simpler can it get? There are rules, of course, but they are few and fairly intuitive. You cannot, for example, whack opposing players across the head with your stick. If you do, you'll be sent to the penalty box for 5 minutes.

The one and only rule you should really understand is the off-sides rule, and it's pretty simple. You cannot go across the opposing team's blue line until after the puck has crossed the blue line; if the other team moves the puck back out, everyone on your team must go back until they regain possession of the puck. In other words, you can't plant a couple of players next to the other team's net and leave them there for the entire game. If you understand that, you can watch hockey and you'll know what's happening at least 90% of the time.

Back to fighting. If both benches at a football game started brawling on the 50-yard line, it would be headline news. At hockey games, fights are common. There's a reason for that. Hockey is a non-stop game which moves fast and involves a lot of on-going physical contact. Generally, barring a penalty or lost puck, play continues without stopping until someone gets the puck into a goal. Players rotate on and off the ice constantly because, frankly, nobody can play at full speed for more than a few minutes at a time - but the game doesn't stop. A new "shift" jumps onto the ice and picks up play on the fly. Unlike football (or most other sports which stop frequently), in hockey you don't get much time to cool off physically or emotionally. Getting slammed into the boards and whacked with the butt end of a stick can piss you off, especially when you're tired. A little irritation piled on top of a close game can push players to take a swing at each other. Fights in hockey are a direct result of emotional intensity combined with physical exertion. They are not "part of the game." They are a by-product of the game.

There's more than enough violence built into the game without fights. Last year a player got his throat slashed by another player's skate. Plenty of players have died after being hit by pucks (rubber gets extremely hard when frozen, and pucks move well over 100 mph). Plus, you've got ten guys skating around with sticks at over 30 mph in an area confined by a wall of wood and glass. You know there's going to be contact. You need to see fighting on top of all that?

Do I think fighting should be completely eliminated from hockey? Not necessarily. I have played hockey in a no-checking league where fighting would have gotten a player kicked out of the league entirely. Frankly, I think the games were somewhat MORE interesting without the intentional contact because we relied solely on skill to move the puck. There was still contact, but we couldn't deliberately crash into each other. As a result, tempers tended to stay fairly calm and fights were non-existent. But, knowing that a fight would get us into serious trouble did tend to make us back off a bit in play. I'd hate to see professional play similarly restricted.

Still, I also hate to see the semi-amateur leagues like the SEHL and SPHL use fights to lure crowds of wrestling fans into ice rinks. If you want to see fights, go to a boxing match. If you just like watching overgrown guys bang into each other in the mud, you've always got football. If you want to see some intense play by some very talented athletes, go to a hockey game.

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