There's this book by Cormac McCarthy you should read called Blood Meridian.
It's one of the all-time great works of American literature, up there with Moby Dick and The Sound and the Fury, and tells the story of a young man inherently given to extreme and senseless violence who falls in with a band of paramililtary mercenary scalphunters that indiscriminately kill all in their path for a period of about a year, spurred on by a mysterious judge who acts as a second to the former army captain leading the group.
Over the course of the novel, it becomes apparent that it's not so much this self-appointed officer, Captain Glanton, who is driving the gang to such superhuman cruelty so much as it is the judge, Holden, who is some kind of un-living embodiment of something approximating Man's predilection for cruelty and violence and worse.
When I watch what unfolds in the NHL preseason every year, that's what I think about a lot. Kids come into the sport being told they need to fight to earn spots and stand up for their teammates more or less as soon as they are legally allowed to do so, and are encouraged in this endeavor by coaches and general managers alike who give them the occasional roster spot they in no way deserve from a hockey standpoint. All because fighting is and always has been viewed as an integral part of the sport. Man has always, in some way, been at the throat of his fellow man, and Judge Holden made sure that Glanton's gang took warfare as reasonably far as it could go, stretching it into the cartoonishly macabre; pretty much everyone in the party eventually dies through the kind of wanton brutality they made their hallmark on the Mexico-Texas border.
The problem with fighting in hockey for people who are staunchly opposed to it is that they want it gone, cut out of the game entirely, right this second and yesterday, if at all possible. They're right that it's dangerous, they're right that it's a sideshow on the very periphery of the sport's otherwise necessary skill sets, they're right that anyone who thinks player safety is in any way important should not be able to reasonably condone it in its current form.
Where they're wrong is that they say it has no place in the game at all, or that it's not what fans pay to see. Well, to that latter point, it's certainly true that no one pays $50 to see a hockey game specifically hoping they'll get to watch George Parros and Paul Bissonnette whale on each other for 25 seconds. They'll certainly stand and cheer while it happens because it does appeal to the darker corners of our animal instincts to see two people punch each other bloody, but it's not as though those fans grab their coats and stream for the exits when those players are finally escorted to the penalty box.
The NHL is clearly trying to slowly legislate fighting out of the game, what with the fancy new rule about guys getting an extra two minutes in the box if they take their helmets off prior to a scrap.
Of course, this rule is largely toothless, because the guys that take their helmets off prior to a fight — given that it is "honorable," or something — tend to be those whose sole jobs are to fight, and who therefore probably don't see all that much of a difference between two minutes spent sitting in the penalty box or at the end of the player's bench while their teammates shuffle past them on their regular shifts. You can bang your stick against the inside of the boards well enough in either situation. In most cases they're playing six minutes a night to begin with, none of them in the third period, and the rule hurts neither them nor their teams in the grand scheme of things.
But the role of these players is certainly changing, evidenced in the mainstream as early as Brian Burke's speech about how sad this kind of thing is after sending down a largely-useless player in Colton Orr to the AHL in early January 2012; they're becoming less common, and anyone who would tell you that's for the good of the sport is selling something. Players like Orr (24 points but 1,076 PIM in 422 career games) and Jared Boll (52 and 963 in 388) who play between five and eight minutes a night are, for the most part, getting hustled out of the league by guys who can take those minutes and then provide some additional use to their clubs. Brandon Prust can at least play a little bit, for instance, but also has no qualms about getting in a dozen fights a season. This isn't sad, and it is necessary.
You may disagree, as is the wont of Man throughout his history. Violence of some kind — especially if it comes with a regulatory bent — is, it's often argued, necessary.
There is an illustrative example in the difference between the central figures in the Iliad and the Odyssey and the ways in which they are considered heroic, for example. The brute strength and blind rage of Achilles was honored above all in Ancient Greece prior to and during most of the Trojan War, but when the demigod was felled by Paris' arrow, a new kind of hero emerged. The guile and sagacity of Odysseus, and his Trojan Horse, was what allowed the Greek army to breach the otherwise unbreachable walls of Troy, and with minimal attrition, through deception rather than fighting to the death in front of them one-by-one, as was his predecessor's preference. That does not, however, mean there was no place for violence to be glorified in Greek society after the end of that war; after all, look at the way Odysseus slaughters the suitors hoping to take his wife and title upon his return. There was room for that kind of "honor" as well, even as its worst practitioners were being driven from the society.
Everyone agrees this is happening. The evidence is very clearly mounting in favor of what Burke called the "Greenpeace folks," and yet there is still concern from some corners that not letting two willing combatants break each other's noses and knuckles will in some way lead to the erosion of the very fabric of What Makes Hockey Great, whatever that is.
For all the talk that this kind of thing is definitely going on and either will or won't have the a certain effect on the quality of the sport at the NHL level, depending on your point of view, the prevalence of fighting in the NHL's preseason is still comically and needlessly high.
A quick look at the schedule on the NHL's site shows that there were 34 preseason games played between Saturday and Wednesday night, of which 27 actually had box scores (how any NHL games, exhibition or not, are being played without box scores being compiled in 2013 is beyond me, but that's another discussion). In those games there were a total of 20 fights. This number of fights per game (.74) is actually down from the number seen in preseason games over the previous 11 seasons (1.1), but leaving aside some 20 percent of all exhibitions to that point is obviously a notably large sample to ignore.
In fact, one of the games for which no box score was available apparently looked more like an ECW taping circa 1995 than an actual hockey game: When the Senators and Flames faced off on Monday, there were a whopping four fights in the game. Matt Stajan of all people fought Michael Sdao, and later in the game, Brian McGrattan did the same. Shane O'Brien took on Mark Borowiecki, and prospect Patrick Sieloff dropped 'em with Darren Kramer. This is, I think we'd all agree despite our political leanings on the subject, entirely too many bouts, an exhausting amount.
Said Stajan on the subject, "Obviously everybody is trying to make a name for themselves and trying to get a job in the best league in the world. That's hockey. It’s part of the game, you're going to see that in scrimmages, you're going to see that in exhibition games, and you're going to see that during the season."
That's hockey, indeed.
"Everybody," in this case, seems to refer primarily to Sdao, a seventh-round Sens pick who frankly stinks at hockey, and whose only chance of making the show is punching his way past the sign that says in big red letters, "Must be this skilled to ride," after he realizes his own talent falls a good 6,000 feet short. Plenty of guys have obviously made a good living doing what he hopes to, and with some teams still feeling a little like they need to engage in this kind of dinosaurism, he still might have a chance.
To wit, here's one of several resident Flames tough guys Tim Jackman on his team's No. 1 center, and top defensive prospect, among others, throwing hands in entirely meaningless games and really only doing the other team any favors: "You know what? It's good. It's good to see guys step up and play physical. Guys want to be here. Guys want to earn their job. Guys want to play in the NHL. So you've got to do some things that you're normally not doing all the time."
The idea, obviously, that Matt Stajan, Shane O'Brien or Brian McGrattan wouldn't make the club without fighting is the kind of thing you'd have to be truly stupid to actually believe. As for Sieloff, well, if a willingness to fight on a team already featuring a handful of heavyweights is really the determining factor for keeping him around (and because Calgary has seven defensemen on one-way deals, it probably won't be), then the organization's priorities are crap anyway.
Of course, your mileage on that may vary because you-know-who is now its de facto GM (with all apologies to Jay Feaster). Jackman himself noted:
"Everyone knows the kinds of teams that [Brian Burke] likes, and the way that he wants them to play."
But again, this all ultimately means nothing. Burke should be smart enough to not be impressed by this kind of nonsense. "Standing up for your teammates" against guys who are going to be lucky to sniff more than six minutes a night in the AHL all season before calling it a career at 27 is pointless, and has no bearing on the regular season, despite what Stajan says. And not just because Sdao won't be there to get in four fights in his first three exhibitions. The number of scraps per preseason game from 2000-01 to 2011-12 (to repeat, it's a little shy of 1.1) is more than double the numbers compiled in the regular season during that same time (.53).
Along those same lines, there is an old and pretty credible argument against the people who say fighting is important. It goes something like, "If it's so important, and by the way it isn't, then how come there's no fighting in the playoffs?"
The answer is that there is fighting, but it drops, as you might expect, by a significant margin. In the 11 seasons prior to the lockout-shortened 2013 season, the number of fights per game in the playoffs came to just .28, slightly more than half of that in the regular season, which itself is doubled by the number in the preseason. That is, when hockey gets to the playoffs, it is boiled down to its essence, and nearly all the overwrought theater and rhetoric about the importance of bare-knuckle combat stripped away — when hockey, as everyone agrees, is at its very best and most dramatic — the number of fights per game over an 11-year period dropped four times over.
Again, it's easy to see that the league will not address this on its own, and instead seems content to mostly let the issue sort itself out. The coming end of the enforcer role isn't going to be a single catastrophic extinction event, but it will slowly drive most perpetrators of these preseason fistic farces out of the NHL. Of course fighting will still exist after that point, and I don't even think it necessarily shouldn't, but players won't have to engage in it as a means of getting a job, because there will be no jobs that require that particular set of skills, or, more accurately, lack thereof.
Someone will pick up the slack, albeit to something of a lesser extent. Man's and hockey's predisposition toward senseless violence — and make no mistake, dressing a guy to fight while sitting one who can play is the definition of senselessness in a league where the abilities to score and simultaneously prevent goals are used as the ultimate measuring stick for success — guarantees that the fights will go on as long as players aren't getting suspended simply for engaging in them.
At the end of Blood Meridian, by the way, it's suggested that Holden is seemingly immortal, or at least operates outside of age even while existing in our world, because what he represents "will" as well. Thus his particular effect on humanity should go on in perpetuity. The choice the nameless protagonist makes is to seemingly give himself over to that fact, and falling into it because Man has always done so. That's not, however, necessarily the choice he had to make.