October 17, 2011
The Arron Asham(notes) vs. Jay Beagle(notes) fight last week gained instant infamy because of Asham's CM Punk-like taunt at the end of the bout, for which he's since apologized.
Had he simply skated to the penalty box without an exclamation point, the lingering image would have been that of Beagle, blood flowing on the ice in a state of semi-consciousness before being helped off, removing his own tooth as he left.
It was another one of those moments demonized by the anti-fighting crowd and met with a "hey, it happens" by the pro-fighting crowd. But it's the fence-sitters on the debate — the independents in this conservative vs. liberal ideological loggerheads — that will eventually sway things one way or another as far as fighting's future in the League.
Increasingly, I think, they're leaning against fighting, and that's understandable. The research into brain injuries, the inescapable tales of players struggling with concussions, the summer tragedies that have been linked together (rightly or wrongly) have created a perfect storm of doubt about the tradition's validity. All of it circles back to one question:
Can the NHL take a stand on protecting its players from head injuries while at the same time offering a quasi-endorsement of fighting?
Even as a pro-fighting guy, I find the dichotomy (or hypocrisy) difficult to comprehend. It leads me to believe that fighting may not have the prevalence it has today five years from now, just like it doesn't have the prevalence today that it had five years ago.
The question then becomes one of process: If you believe fighting should be reduced or taken out of the NHL altogether, how do you recommend they do it?
The inspiration for this query is a note from Elliotte Friedman's latest "30 Thoughts" column that covered the Beagle fight:
What interested me most was the reaction to Beagle's injury. "It made me sick to my stomach," one GM said. But he and a couple of compatriots who aren't crazy about fighting say a variation of the same thing: "I'm worried about what our game will look like if we get rid of it ... I'd rather see it phase out on its own than be legislated out."
I think that's the majority opinion.
Do you agree?
I'd like to think it is. I'd like to think that if society and hockey culture and the marketplace deem fighting unacceptable, then it'll slowly leave the game on its own accord. I'd like to think the same thing about head-shots and hits from behind, too.
But for those other two illegalities, there's an undeniable attempt from the NHL to create a trickle-down effect: Make it clear -- like, Shanaban "as the video shows ..." clear -- that these things are no longer tolerated in the NHL. If you're a kid with dreams of making the show, you better damn well fall in line years before you enter the system, because that aggression will not stand, man.
Which brings us back to fighting. There's always been a lingering thought that if the NHL really took the hard-line against it, a fighting ban would trickle down to other levels that still have an appetite for it. That the NHL needs to set the example.
So the inherent question is: Can fighting really ever be "phased out" if the NHL doesn't jump-start the phasing process? Can hockey culture change when the center of its universe (forgive the flag-waving, European readers) still endorses it?
This debate rages. And will continue to rage. Hell, here's a long column from John Buccigross from 2007 that deals with a fighting ban; inside, I found this passage about whether people attend a game for the fights:
It is a tension that other sports just don't have. It's the gut of the game. It keeps people honest and helps separate the rugged from the weasels. Hockey is the most honest sport that way. Other sports have players talk and strut and dance, but, among those, who are tough and who are poseurs? In the NHL, we know who is or isn't the real deal. My guess is Terrell Owens is not Jarome Iginla(notes), a star who fights. Joey Porter of the Steelers would probably back it up with his fists.
As Bucci detailed here, there's a lot I'll miss about fighting if and when it leaves the game. It's the "when" I'm coming to grips with as a pro-fight guy.