Suppose there's a man who goes to the hospital because he isn't feeling well, and the doctor who checks him out runs all the tests and tells him that he, unfortunately, has a very serious illness. Even with treatment, he's given a 1 percent chance to survive for a year.
Upon learning this terrible news, his family, which is very religious, begins the business of praying for him, very hard and very often. They enlist the help of prayer groups and so on in their quest to heal this gravely ill man who has little chance of survival. But following 12 months of intense treatment, he is given a clean bill of health.
The question, then, is what led to this seemingly miraculous turn of events. Was he just part of that 1 percent statistic who responded well enough to treatment that he beat the crushingly impossible odds? Was all the hours and energy devoted by family and friends to praying for him what got him through this terrible, dark time? Was it a combination of both? Or does it even matter at all as long as everything worked out?
His doctors would probably say that it was their work that did it all. The family members would probably say that it was the prayer that helped him, either entirely or partly. You couldn't tell the doctors anything that would diminish their absolute belief in their treatments' effects, and you couldn't convince the family that everything they poured into their prayer had no effect.
As you might expect, a large amount of scientific effort has been concentrated over the last 150 years or so on determining what effect The Power of Prayer has on medical conditions, if any. The problem there, as with the above evidence (or, if you prefer, "evidence"), is that even if you could prove definitively that it worked or didn't, people would still sit there and say that your study was all B.S. anyway. Devout people tend to be healthier in general, but is that because of their religion or just some random thing? Who knows? What's the difference? Prayer is the most used non-medical or pseudo-medical treatment in the world to "treat" illness.
It's an interesting debate, and one where most people are going to land on one side or the other. Fence-straddlers have little place here, and certainly no one on either side has a second to spare for their arguments.
Which of course reminds one of the current fighting debate in the NHL. The Power of Pugilism is backed by one side and decried by another. The battle lines have all been drawn and everyone is pretty well dug-in at this point, with very few if any occupying the no-man's land between them. Both sides believe in their heart of hearts that they are right about the debate.
Those who want fighting banned say that of course it's simply too dangerous to continue letting these players punch each other in the face as a sort of ultra-violent and bloody sideshow to a sport that's already so driven by extreme violence. Is The Code, or the fan's entertainment, worth a guy getting CTE and eventually — and in some cases not-so-eventually —having his life ruined? Those that say yes come off as callous and ghastly. These are people's lives we're talking about. Yes the people who fight for a living enter into the arrangement knowing at least some of the risks, and not caring because look how much money they're getting, but opponents of needless NHL fighting argue that this shouldn't be a situation guided by the invisible hand of the free market. They say getting Ron Paulitics out of hockey seems, from a human perspective, the right thing to do.
On the other side of this acrimonious aisle is of course the dwindling but not yet small number of fighting advocates. They believe that the occasional fistic fling has its place in the game and will not be dissuaded to the contrary (until they eventually are) because of any number of factors. Usually, it involves the role fighting retains in player safety overall, and specifically star player safety. The argument is that if you have a guy who is capable of beating the hell out of anyone who looks at your team's best players sideways, then obviously no one will look at him at all, thus freeing him to score goal upon goal against them. This seems logical enough.
The example of this which has been prevalent in the past week and a half or so, following Steve Yzerman's pronouncement that the league should take steps to make fighting a less viable option for players who would engage in it, such as by giving them game misconducts in addition to the five-minute majors that already accompany the infraction. It is important to keep in mind that fighting is not technically allowed in the NHL — thus the penalty — but that it is tolerated and certainly viewed on the same level as a rather serious high stick, elbow, hit from behind, etc.; it's not often these latter major penalties are assessed without an accompanying game misconduct, and thus adding the latter onto a fighting major may seem to some like a logical next step.
To either side of the argument, though, this is either a bridge too far or the kind of half-measure Mike Ehrmantraut warned about. Fighting advocates for the last little while set up something of a cottage industry calling Yzerman a hypocrite because he happened to play alongside one or both of Bob Probert and Joey Kocur for a good portion of his career, under the auspicies that they made him safer. Georges Laraque took the exercise to its logical and most disgusting conclusion in a radio interview last week, saying that he was being disrespectful to his teammates, and kind of got at the fact that this was in particular hurtful to the now-deceased Probert, at whose funeral Yzerman read the eulogy.
It was pointed out that Yzerman himself has in the past said that he felt safer with Kocur or Probert on his team, and this gets back to the previous example of a medical diagnosis. If he felt freer to pursue the more skilled aspects of the game as a result, then that anecdotal, experiential evidence cannot be taken from him.
Present all the charts to him which show that the presence of fighters, or fighting itself, does nothing to limit player injuries, or that there is no correlation between employing of these players and the number of non-obstruction penalties a team draws (which may provide evidence of cheapshots, etc.), and it still doesn't matter. He wasn't actually safer, but he felt safer. It's a placebo, but as with medical placebos, it sometimes actually works if you know what it's supposed to do in theory.
Actual practice, of course, is different. One has to wonder how safe Rick Nash felt the other night against San Jose, with Arron Asham and Derek Dorsett, among other frequently-willing combatants, on his bench. Their presence in the lineup did not stop Brad Stuart from throwing his shoulder right in Nash's face, knocking him out of the lineup for at least a week and probably more. No one even went after Stuart following the clearly illegal check that immediately left Nash in difficulties. Brian Boyle and Asham both went after him Stuart later on, when the game was 6-2 and then 8-2, though neither dropped the gloves, perhaps indicating that exacting revenge through a steady diet of knuckle sandwiches wasn't exactly on the tippy-top of their priorities list.
If that kind of intimidation wasn't enough of a deterrent before Stuart took a run at Nash, what would be? Likewise, when Matt Cooke all but ended Marc Savard's career, he was only asked to fight a week and a half, and in the end all Shawn Thornton's efforts to pound contrition out of him accomplished very little; the Bruins got smoked in that game. Do fighters intimidate "rats?" Depends who you ask. Fighters would say yes, rats would say no, the dance goes on and on.
A somewhat related story: I was covering the Winter Classic between the Flyers and Bruins here in Boston for Puck Daddy and was asked to do something about the fact that there'd never been a fight in a modern outdoor NHL game to that point (the Winter Classic having been at that point in just its third year). There was little doubt who I would talk to about it: Thornton for the Bruins, and both Asham and Dan Carcillo for the Flyers. These seemed the candidates most likely to fight. This was something I was eager to see. I enjoyed fighting at the time.
It so happened that the Bruins practiced first, given that they were the home team, and thus had their availability first as well. A crowd of reporters huddled around Thornton's stall, myself included, waiting for him to come out of the showers, when he did, he sat down and asked us to fire away. At this point everyone in the media was there specifically to ask him what his thoughts were on the fact that there had never been a fight in an outdoor game and probably would he be up for it. That was pretty much the only reason to speak with him at that time. No one, however, seemed all that eager to actually ask it, because that would lead to their getting yelled at. I broke the silence and probably got as far as, "So there's never been a f…" before I was cut off and talked down to about how we in the media were a bunch of hypocrites about fighting; weren't we all so against staged fights? Wasn't his job far more important than just fighting? Yes and yes, were the answers, but he didn't want to hear that. He had a prepared speech to make, and I get why he made it. Carcillo and Asham, for their part, were far nicer about the subject, perhaps because their roles with the Flyers were far narrower.
Thornton and Carcillo, of course, ended up fighting on their first shift on the ice together, as you'd expect, even though nothing in particular, to use Thorton's term "needed to be addressed." People got what they wanted out of it. Everyone had a good time. No one was injured. So why would Thornton take offense? Isn't fighting noble? Isn't he a sort of lawman policing the game, enforcing the code? Shouldn't philosphizing on the subject be a great moral imperative for those who Play the Game to pass on to dummies who might have been against it?
Here's the real problem: The league's value system is ridiculous. Yesterday saw something of a referendum on the goal Tomas Hertl scored between his legs to cap a Texas hat trick in the above-mentioned 9-2 existential crisis-inducing beating of the Rangers. Adam Oates, who already looks like your friend's dad who was always talking about chores, was among a few lonely voices in the wilderness who actually spoke up against harmless fun and good things.
"I'm upset," hockey's answer to Nelson Van Alden told reporters after having two days of being able to sleep on it and gain all the clarity and needed to be a spoilsport about the whole thing. "Don't disrespect the league. I'm sure it was a rookie mistake. … I'm glad the way San Jose treated it. As long as he doesn't disrespect the league. The league's hard."
Hmm yes, a rookie mistake, to score a goal between his legs and get people actually excited to talk positively about a game that ended with the participants separated in score by a touchdown and extra point. A rookie mistake to show off electrifying skill. To you, the league's old guard says you have not treated this occasion with the proper solemnity so you deserve some sort of physical comeuppance. (The irony of Oates' team employing Alex "Hot Stick" Ovechkin while he made such pronouncements of course eluded him, as anything remotely wry or enjoyable seems to.) Scoring goals that everyone likes: Bad. Punching teeth in: Good.
One is and should be part of the game, the other is not and has no place. Trying to make sense of why doesn't seem prudent.
All of which is a long way of saying that what's viewed as being either good or not-good for the sport categorically cannot one way or the other be viewed rationally by those who play it or played it. Their biases, gained in any number of ways, on a range of subjects that are hot-button issues does not make them grand arbiters of everything that should happen in the sport in perpetuity. You'll notice Oates and only a few others were actually the ones grousing about how disrespectful Hertl was, while everyone else laughed and celebrated. The people who object to Nail Yakupov celebrating in his own delightful Yakupovian way are now few and far between, but they remain vocal. "In My Day, guys didn't do that," etc. And it's probably true that they didn't. Maybe everyone used to celebrate goals by nodding solemnly at each other and maybe they all had very proper haircuts not like these kids nowadays.
The sport changes. Always. And almost always for the better. But you can't tell Oates that what Hertl did was fun and great because to him it wasn't. And you can't tell Yzerman that Kocur and Probert didn't actually protect him. These ideas may be relics of a bygone era to you or me but those who hold them hold them dearly.
Are the beliefs wrong? Are they misguided? Not to those people. Maybe that's what matters. Until it doesn't any more.
Who gets to decide when we should defer to the players, though? Not me. I never played the game.