The Vent: Fight against NHL fighting, including youth coach perspective

The Vent is a column that hands the mic on Puck Daddy over to hockey fans to rant, rave and react to everything in the game. If you have a pitch for an editorial, or have one written, and want it featured on Sunday, email with the subject “The Vent.”

Here’s Josh Beitel on the fighting talk we had on “Marek Vs. Wyshynski” on Wednesday:

“First off, just to lay some groundwork, I'm from Montreal and I'm a lifelong Habs fan and hockey player myself. Though I grew up watching teams that included Chris Nilan, and later Todd Ewen and Lyle Odelein, the guys who drew me to the game as a kid were Mats Naslund, Guy Carbonneau and Bob Gainey. Some would argue that Mats Naslund was only able to be Mats Naslund because he had Chris Nilan, but I don't believe that's the way the game has to be.

“Greg, you claimed that comparisons to Olympic and international hockey were straw-man arguments, which I think is completely false. Calling it a straw-man argument is just an easy way out of having to actually acknowledge that there might be some merit to it. True, the NHL season is much longer and seven-game playoff series are different than one-game eliminations. That does not mean that fighting is what is needed to get players up for a mid-season game in Florida that they might not otherwise be so excited about playing. NBA players seem to get through their 82-game seasons (and 7-game playoff rounds) without resorting to it. And if you claim that basketball is different because it's not a contact sport, then you probably haven't been flattened while running full-speed by a (completely legal) pick.

“Part of the problem in North America is this Don-Cherry-esque thinking that there's something inherently wrong with international or European-style hockey, that it doesn't reflect old-time Canadian (or American) values of toughness and competitive spirit. That, to me, is just narrow-minded. Many people in North America seem to like Olympic hockey just fine. The real problem is that they've never been offered that style of hockey for an appreciable amount of time.

“Jeff, the reason the argument about fighting has persisted since the days of those early issues of The Hockey News is that in all that time, no one has truly had the courage to try to change the culture of the game. And now, as opposed to, say, 1961, we have the benefit of an enormous amount of scientific evidence that shows the dangers of fighting. You mentioned Bob Probert yesterday with respect to what Steve Yzerman had to say, but you didn't talk about what, sadly, became of him, and the fact that Probert's style of play led to chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

“Another line of reasoning in favour of fighting has to do with keeping pests under control. How can any person argue that, if fighting were taken out, the pests would rule the league? It hasn't even been tried! Obviously, the league would have to come down much harder on players like Matt Cooke, and not allow them to accumulate suspension after suspension after suspension (not to mention the plays he wasn't even suspended for, e.g. ending Marc Savard's career). But dismissing an idea out of hand before it's even been given a chance seems to me to be the height of intransigence, not to mention the fact that the presence of fighting in the game clearly did not save Savard, nor did it save Paul Kariya from Gary Suter or Pat Lafontaine from François Leroux. And I could go on.

“Also, the argument that people in places like Nashville are most likely to be enticed by fighting sells fans and potential fans way short. Yes, NASCAR and the UFC are extremely popular, but that doesn't mean that appealing to people's baser nature is the only way to market the NHL. None of the most popular sports in the US (football, basketball and baseball) tolerate fighting. Basketball, in particular, is a sport that celebrates the agility, creativity and athleticism of its players. There's no reason that hockey can't be successfully marketed in the same way.

“I read a lot of comments in the wake of the Orr-Parros fight that celebrated Orr for his class and for not throwing any more punches once Parros was down. Really? Have we set the bar so low that we commend a player for not pounding an opponent whose face is already on the ice?

“Yes, hockey is a physical sport, and I love a good hit as much as anyone. In fact, I could watch PK Subban ass-check Brad Marchand to the ice for hours on end without getting tired of it. But fighting has zero appeal to me, and I'm not alone in that, even among friends who, like me, have played and watched hockey for close to 30 years. The NHL could absolutely be a safe place for the Sidney Crosby's (and Mats Naslund's) of the world without fighting, but the league has to get serious about enforcing its own rules. No more of these warnings and 1-game suspensions for hits to the head and hits from behind. And no more of this sliding scale whereby Raffi Torres gets the book thrown at him but Alex Ovechkin and Mike Richards get off easy. All players have to be held accountable, and then we'll see the game played with passion, but with appropriate respect.”

Some very good points, but I’m not going to get down with the “NBA is as physical as the NHL because of pick-plays” argument. And hey, if there was fighting in the NBA, maybe there’d be fewer elbows.

Here is Peter Santangeli with “Fighting from a minor league coach’s perspective”:

“The fighting debate is about as rationally conducted and effective as the gun debate is in the US. Two sides that simply refuse to honestly consider the others point of view.

“On the podcast after the Parros incident I'm afraid you guys fell in to this a bit too - maybe as a reaction to the slant of the rest of the media.

“There was one point though that Jeff made that I really wanted to call you out on a bit. As a minor league hockey coach in the US, I was surprised at Jeff's dismissal of fighting as something that influences adoption.

“In my conversations with parents, who both have kids that play, and don't, I see a few reasons that hockey isn't growing as fast as it could. The first (as Jeff pointed out) is expense. The second is the *perception* of violence in the sport.

“It's a perception - to the likely non-hockey-fluent parent that we get here in California, it's a fuzzy mix of body checking, concussions, and fighting. it's clearly not an accurate perception, as we don't body check until Bantam, and don't allow fighting, but it's real. And having bare knuckle fighting at the most visible, professional level absolutely does not help.

“My personal impression is that cost is a much bigger influence on people leaving the game (or not progressing to more advanced levels like travel, AA, and AAA hockey), and that perceived violence is a reason that kids don't get involved in the first place, because their parents don't encourage it. But that's admittedly just an impression.

“Football has the same issues, and that industry is clearly scared that kids will stop playing. In many ways though, the situation with football is the reverse of hockey with respect to Canada and the US. Hockey won't suffer because of fighting and concussions in Canada overly due to the tradition. Nor will football suffer in the US because of the high school traditions.

“I enjoy watching a scrap as much as the next person, I do buy tickets to see the Sharks, but I would continue to if there were no fights. As in so many things though, the NHL will be driven by money. When it becomes clear that the grass roots growth, which is the most important growth, and future earnings of the NHL is being impacted, it will be come a 'thing' for the league. That time is likely not far off.”

There’s no question that the numbers are down for participation in youth hockey in Canada. The question becomes where fighting falls in that scope of influence, or if hockey’s inherent violence is ultimately what keeps kids away and parents hesitating.