February 05, 2009
Whenever some ex-goon with over 1,800 career penalty minutes comes out against fighting nowadays, it reminds me of when counter-culture burnouts warn against the dangers of modern narcotics; despite having made Michael Phelps look like Nancy Reagan for most of their adult lives.
"I think, in my lifetime, there will be no more fighting in the National Hockey League. I think the day is coming," Playfair, 50, said in a recorded interview that will air on the Sabres' team broadcast this weekend. "And that's OK. The game is so much better than when I played. The game is skill on skill. It's fun to watch."
He's not the first retired player to renounce his former livelihood, nor will he be the last. But Playfair is really making two different statements here: That he believes he'll see a fight-less NHL in his lifetime, and the NHL doesn't need fighting to be entertaining.
Regarding his first point: There's a difference between the generational filtering of fighting out of the sport, and the NHL attempting to "ban" it. If we're to believe what the news editorial writers in some Canadian papers are saying in the wake of Don Sanderson's death, then public sentiment has shifted to anti-fighting and the tradition will slowly disappear. Should that organic change to hockey's norms occur, so be it; but in the NHL's current incarnation, fighting remains a tactical and inherent part of the North American game that the League shouldn't attempt to quell.
Regarding his second point: I refuse to believe that the NHL's core constituency wants fighting out of the game. At all. Call it staged, call it a sideshow, label it bad for the game's marketing and acceptance -- it doesn't change the fact that the crowd still pops for a fight like they're hearing the first chords of "Sweet Child 'O Mine" at a vintage G'NR show. It doesn't change the fact that a fight on YouTube gets three times the hits that a "sweet goal" does.
I don't believe "the people who want to eliminate fighting are people who hate hockey in the first place." There are NHL alumni and die-hard puckheads who just feel fighting either never belonged in hockey or has lost its place in the modern game. Hopefully, NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly can bridge the middle ground by lobbying for helmet rules and other "rules of engagement" concerns.
But even Kelly notes that fighting has a place in the game, just as writer Noam Sugarman did in a lengthy, in-depth essay for Digital Journal called "The Hockey Fight Manifesto." He explains its virtues, its nobility and its tactical importance, but doesn't state the obvious. Then again, so many of us just can't seem to say it, either: That the NHL is just more fun with fighting than without it. And we better all be more candid about that fact, as consumers, before it's gone.