May 21, 2008
I first became aware of Jon "Nasty" Mirasty when I wrote a story about how one of his hockey fighting rivals, Steve Bosse, was going to try his luck in MMA. It was my introduction to the seemingly endless library of obscure hockey fight videos available on YouTube from organizations like the North American Hockey League, which makes Mad Max's Thunderdome look like an afternoon tea with American Girl dolls by comparison.
Mirasty, fighting in the video above with Sean McMorrow back in 2006, is one of the stars in the best piece of hockeywriting you're going to read today: "Men Who Love Goons," ESPN The Magazine writer Patrick Hruby's total immersion into the wild world of hockey fights and the DVD-hording puckheads who obsess over them. Hruby, who calls YouTube darling Mirasty "the Tila Tequila of the goon-loving set," takes the rather gonzo step of actually squaring off against the nasty little pitbull on the ice.
Like I said, it's a hell of a read, spanning from Mirasty to Derek Boogaard to Bob Probert to super fight fans that buy and trade videos like most of us used to buy and trade hockey cards. (Although fair warning to those who despise long-form journalism on their laptops: This article is epic, like "The Iliad" on steroids. Carve out a good 20 minutes of your life before approaching it.) But the piece is more than just a snapshot of a subculture; it's an examination of where fighting is as a marketable asset in hockey today.
The North American Hockey League where Mirasty threw bombs for a few seasons is marketed as the fighting league, with teams usually having a full line of goons on their bench ready to rock. But as Hruby writes, there's a different balance that the NHL decides to strike:
If the NHL is like a presidential candidate in a general election -- moving to the center, trying to be everything to everyone -- then fight fans are like the hard-core wing of the party. They're the true believers, the no-compromise ideologues. They liked the league the way it was, and as glove-dropping becomes less common, they feel betrayed. Sold out. On the message boards, they direct most of their ire at commissioner Gary Bettman, who is alternately seen as: (A) a clueless basketball guy, thanks to his previous stint as an NBA senior vice president; (B) a soulless corporate vampire, concerned only with enriching owners, no matter the larger cost; (C) responsible for every problem in the game, and probably global warming, too.
"I have no idea what that man thinks," says Peatycap, who once created a Web site (hockeyfansunite.com) to voice his displeasure with Bettman. "He's a poor ambassador for hockey."
Peatycap might be right. But he's missing the larger point. In blaming Bettman, fight fans are punching a brick wall. Fifteen years ago, NHL video games let you cross check Wayne Gretzky -- the very face of hockey -- after the whistle, dumping him in a pool of pixelated blood. Today, a game with the same feature probably would prompt a congressional hearing. Culture evolves. Hockey arenas are no longer dumpy old frozen barns. They're value-added sports theme parks, housing teams originally named for Emilio Estevez star vehicles. Time moves on.
Did a writer who uncorked a 10,000-word story about the glories of hockey fighting for a major mainstream media company just argue that casual sports fans are repelled by it? That our society doesn't thirst for that flavor of blood?
Like I said to Mirtle the other day: There's a basic disconnect between what hockey fans really enjoy about the NHL and what the mainstream hockey media provides them. Jon Mirasty didn't just crawl out of the swamp; he and his pugilistic opponents have been throwing punches for years on the Web. Thousands of fans have searched them out. Players like Boogaard, Georges Laraque, Daniel Carcillo, Jared Boll, Donald Brashear, George Parros and Zack Stortini hear the kind of heartfelt cheers that someone like Danny Briere will never hear, because they connect with the fans in the cheap seats in a way an overexposed goal-scorer never will.
The problem isn't Gary Bettman trying to smother fighting out of the game, because he's defended its place in the NHL and he knows he'll lose the majority of his paying customers should the League ever effectively ban it.
The problem is the NHL running away from fighters, choosing to promote flashy stats and players in need of a personality transplant over these fan favorites because they're afraid of mainstream perception or, worse yet, what the advertisers will think.
Again, kudos to Hruby for an outstanding exploration of a fascinating topic. But when he argues that our society has moved beyond a point of bloodlust in athletic competition, it makes me wonder if he's seen the PPV numbers for UFC over the last decade. No one wants to turn the NHL into the bloody circus it was at times 25 years ago; but I think society is more than accepting if the NHL wants to embrace the fist.