Sean Thornton and Wade Brookbank go for a tango. It's possible Thornton has punched Brookbank's head clean off his shoulders. Image source: Flickr via Dan4th. Photograph: (Others)
Why does this sport allow fist fighting? It's savage, and it may be gone soon, but fighting isn't without its own kind of logic
When I told my Indian colleague that in pro ice hockey players often punch each other in the face, he wouldn't believe me. I was amused, but understood his reluctance. Only one sport in the world allows fist fighting. Say what you will about relations between India and Pakistan, when it comes to cricket there are standards of behaviour.
Ice hockey is different.
In pro puck, fighting is supervised
After two players “drop the gloves”—both a euphemism for fighting and also something literally done so players can connect fist to face—they sit in the penalty box for five minutes. Players from both teams tap their sticks against the boards in a show of support, the fans cheer, and the fighters catch their breath. The five minute penalty they earned is a “major penalty”, opposed to a two minute “minor”.
But since one penalty offsets the other, no team is actually handicapped. That fighting is on the one hand considered “major” enough to warrant a longer penalty, yet results in no actual punishment sums up hockey culture's acceptance of fighting.
Also revealing in this regard is the ease with which the announcer switches from narrating a hockey game to a fight. And how the ref doesn't stop the fight, he supervises it, only intervening after there is a clear winner or when one or both parties seem tired.
Why do ice hockey players fight?
The basic logic: “Enforcers” protect skilled teammates. Ice hockey is an ultra-fast game played in an enclosed rink by rough men carrying wooden sticks. If a small, skilled guy can't score because players are hacking him, that's no good. Injuries and intimidation is built in to hockey. Formally, there are five ways a hockey stick can be used for assault: Cross-checking, tripping, slashing, hooking and spearing.
So if somebody messes with the skilled guy, the goon sorts him out. A dangerous man is a bigger threat than the referee's whistle.
Historically, this worked. The mild-mannered ,140-pound Wayne Gretzky scored 2-3 points a game for the Edmonton Oilers in the '80s. Any punk who laid a finger on him dealt with a bloodthirsty animal named Marty McSorley.
Fighting is like nuclear deterrence: Peace is maintained by keeping a lethal weapon inactive. Everyone knows nuclear warheads are dangerous, but no country wants to get rid of their own while other countries have them. Similarly, no coach wants to get rid of their fighter.
This explains why fighting is so hard to remove from the game, despite modern knowledge about the long-term effects of concussions. It also explains why each professional ice hockey team has at least one player who is noticeably bad at hockey.
The "staged" fight
In peacetime when fighting is unnecessary, so are fighters. So two enforcers will fight each other because they simply have nothing else to do. They need to remind the coach of their specialty. Indeed, their only purpose.
Sometimes, before a whistle you can see two players talking. The puck drops and immediately they go at each other. This is the staged fight, probably the fight most puzzling and unnecessary to outsiders. It seems like nothing has preceded the fight, but that isn't quite true.
Even totally useless, staged fights can totally change the momentum of a game. One team gets an adrenaline rush and the game is simply different after. This is sometimes reason alone to fight a guy.
Rivalries and score settling
Here is some accepted wisdom in hockey that makes no sense but still is basically a law: It's usually OK to slash someone, but if you slash someone back the ref will see and he'll whistle you for it. Retaliation is the sin, not the slash. So players will take down the guy's number and tag them good later.
It might be next period, it might be next season. It might be a nice legal open-ice hip check, a nasty illegal hit, or a fight. It depends. But what looks on the surface like only senseless violence may be just a reasonable, measured response to senseless violence.
Sometimes, two pretty skilled guys bump into each other. They might skate away, but sometimes one gives a shove or a hack. The other doesn't want to take this silently; It signals he can be pushed around. So he shoves back, and things escalate until maybe punches are thrown.
Perhaps they only reach the stage just before a fight, which is the "face wash". When a player wipes another player's face with his open hand, that's a face wash. It doesn't hurt, it's just meant to be demeaning, to goad other players into taking a penalty by protecting their honour. They're common in post-whistle scrums. At the 0:28 mark here is a decent face wash.
Lest we think fighting is rough but rational, often it is just brainless goonery.
The retired enforcer Tie Domi--the prototypical meathead goon, bless his heart--used the term "old time hockey" to describe the time he punched a fan in the face. Video of this incident is posted below, as proof it happened and because it's insane. I watched this game live on TV, and while it seems incredible to me now on several levels, it made sense at the time, just a natural expression of my own hatred for Philly and their fans.
Sport's parallel to nationalism
I used to be a maniac fan watching games on TV by myself, screaming obscenities in response to grievances mostly imagined. I would stomp around and freak out. I've never punched anybody in my life, outside of ice hockey. I was a lunatic. Canada has many such lunatics.
Athleticism can be valued for its own sake. Its elegance, imagination and skill is ravishing. The comaraderie as a team grows together and accomplishes their mission can be beautiful. Sports are great!
But some fans support their team as rabidly and blindly as nationalists do their country. People form allegiance to their country and their sports team often for the same reason: They were born there. Rival countries interpret the same historical event in the exact opposite way, like opposing fans arguing about whether a play was offside after watching the exact same replay.
They both often have a superficial love manifested in the fanatic embrace of symbols (a team logo, a national flag, the myths of each). On the other side is hate for certain teams or countries. Both sides are toxic.
There's overlap in the underlying forces causing conflict between countries and sports teams. Self-identifying with a nation or sports team often carries a germ that warps perspective and creates endless antagonism. With countries it can lead to war. In hockey, to fist fighting.
I have experience being deranged. My Leafs met the Ottawa Senators in the playoffs four times in five years between 2000-'04. I mean it, I hated everything to do with Ottawa. When the Weather Channel reported a storm hit Ottawa, I cheered. This is not an exaggeration, I have a specific memory rejoicing at a weather report.
Being a hockey fan was the closest I've ever got to being racist. Until a few years ago I spelled Ottawa Senators without capitalising either proper noun. The improper grammar stung, but I could not show that team any respect.
I have grown up. Notice, I used capital letters back there. I let go of my hate. I don't "Other" players or teams. Now I have the good sense to understand that, just like people are people wherever country they're from, so every single NHL player is obscenely rich, disgustingly young and physically gifted.
This past April I watched my Leafs play playoff puck for the first time in years. The hockey was great, but I was silent and enjoying it. I didn't want Washington Capitals players, our opponent, to die. I cheered for the Senators even. The Leafs lost, life went on.
Macho tradition vs modern science
If a hippie pacifist weenie like me can be brought to a near murderous rage by hockey, no wonder strapping farmboys brought up in a hyper-masculine war culture to value self-sacrifice and ferocity end up fighting people.
But hockey culture is changing. We know about the long-term impact of concussions now. Fighting is in decline. Even if it isn't entirely eliminated, "rock 'em sock 'em" hockey isn't in vogue. Fighting is less glorified and this is slowly changing the culture.
The rules have changed in recent years to promote skill, not brute toughness. It's welcome. The game has markedly improved. According to hockeyfights.com, in 2002 season, 42 per cent of games had at least one fight. Last year, this was down to 25 per cent. Progress!
But call it nostalgia, I can't help feel some fondness for the old rough stuff. If today it seems crazy that hockey still allows fighting, 90s and early 2000s puck was really crazy.
Here are a few wild, classic samples of NHL players dropping the gloves.
Exhibit #1-Goalie fights--Felix Potvin vs Ron Hextall, 1993
Exhibit #2--Goalie + forwards + defenceman fight--Detroit vs Colorado, 1997
Exhibit #3--"The Brawl", all Ottawa vs all Philadelphia, 2004