The recent death of a senior A hockey player after a hockey fight in Brantford, Ont., has reopened the age-old discussion of whether fighting should be allowed in professional and major junior hockey in this country.
Sun Media’s Paul Friesen and Scott Fisher take on the issue, pulling no punches.
FRIESEN: The death of Don Sanderson in Ontario is the wakeup call weve been dreading. It's time to ban fighting in hockey.
FISHER: Let's not over-react here. Athletes die tragically from time to time. There's no need for sweeping changes to the game.
FRIESEN: Sweeping changes to the game? Doubling the size of the nets or getting rid of the blue lines would be sweeping changes to the game. Ridding it of fighting only puts the focus where it belongs — on the game.
FISHER: Removing fighting from the game would have a bigger impact than you might think. Banning fights would mean an increase in stick work. Guys like Sean Avery would be able to run amok without ever having to worry about paying the piper.
FRIESEN: You mean to tell me Sean Avery hasn’t been running amok anyway? An increase in stick work? You mean, like at the recent world junior hockey championship? Or at the Olympics? Or in most NHL playoff series? Those are examples of the best hockey we’ve seen, and no fighting. Please explain.
FISHER: Sure, there are few fights at international tournaments. The Europeans aren’t exactly known for their pugilistic prowess. And there’s nothing wrong with showcasing skill, like at the upcoming NHL all-star game. But there’s nothing wrong with a good heavyweight bout either. Do you know anyone who leaves the room for another pop when the gloves come off? FRIESEN: OK, now we're into the real reason this stuff is still allowed: it sells tickets. I imagine some people might leave the room during a scrap. Here’s the thing: if commissioner Gary Bettman was so worried about what he’d tell his daughter re: the Sean Avery remark a few weeks back, how does he and every other mom or dad explain to their kid that fighting is wrong in their games, it's wrong away from the ice, but it's OK in the NHL?
FISHER: It’s quite simple. Fighting at the professional level is part of the game. Yes, it sells tickets. But it also helps maintain order on the ice. Some players won’t lose sleep worrying about a call from NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell. But they might think twice about cross-checking someone in the mouth if they have to answer to Georges Laraque. Let the players police themselves (and while we’re at it, let’s throw out the instigator rule).
FRIESEN: That’s the oldest, lamest argument since the-world-is-flat debate, Scott. If the other major sports, including pro football, the roughest one, don’t need fighting to police the game, then neither does hockey.
FISHER: There's no fighting in football? There's a fight along the line every time the ball is snapped. The only difference is, they don’t take their helmets off and put on a (crowd-pleasing) show. Give those big guys some sticks and that would probably change.
FRIESEN: What game have you been watching? You get caught throwing a punch in football, you’re out of the game. Yet somehow these behemoths aren’t out there taking each other’s knees out every game. What makes hockey players any different, other than the culture people like you keep feeding?
FISHER: What sometimes goes on along the line, or certainly at the bottom of a pile, make a hockey fight look like a tea party. Taking out a player's knees is a career-threatening no-no. There are knee-on-knee hits in hockey because the game is moving at a speed far greater than these behemoths could ever dream. And when it happens, there needs to be repercussions. FRIESEN: A tea party? So that was a pool of Earl Grey spilling from Nick Kypreos as he lay unconscious on the ice at Madison Square Garden 12 years ago? A cup of tea is about all Todd Fedoruk of the Flyers could sip after Colton Orr rearranged the titanium plates in his face in 2007. Only in the NHL. Now that's a pity.
FISHER: The over-whelming majority of hockey-fight injuries — including the most recent tragedy — are the result of players’ heads hitting the ice. These same injuries, and the potential for even worse, could just as easily happen after a big hit. Should we ban hitting as well? Then we can all enjoy some Earl Grey.
FRIESEN: I’d prefer Red Rose, actually.
FISHER: Fighting has always been a part of the game, and there's no reason to remove it. The bottom line is the odd scuffle helps maintain order while adding entertainment value (did anyone miss Sidney Crosby’s recent bout?). You might get some support for your anti-fighting crusade south of the border, or from overseas, but we Canadians like the game just the way it is. FRIESEN: But it's not always part of the game, dammit. We generally do without it in the playoffs. Internationally, too, even against the hated Yanks. BECAUSE IT’S NOT ALLOWED! And the other common argument for it, that nobody gets hurt in a fight, has been permanently laid to rest, I hope. That leaves one, final issue: fans like it. I used to, too. That leaves blood on all our hands.
Paul Friesen is a sports columnist with the Winnipeg Sun. Scott Fisher is a sports reporter with the Calgary Sun.