Fighting and hockey: A marriage seemingly impervious to divorce. Fighting in hockey is, and has become even more of, a highly contested and controversial union. If I had to boil down the issue (to a point so distilled that it discourages lengthy, circumventive discourse–the type of discourse you’re about to read), it’s one of barbaric tradition vs. a practical concern for player safety.
But it’s not that simple.
I’m in the camp of barbaric tradition. Hockey is a violent game. It is a game that’s carved out a niche along the periphery of the mainstream. Hockey is prominent enough that it’s widely televised, yet fringe enough to still be considered exclusionary. Hockey is the short-fused bastard child of civilized sports, like baseball or basketball (or even football–where players don’t fist-fight), who’s been relegated to the kids’ table but is still allowed to eat Thanksgiving dinner in the same room. Because of this, the vigilante justice of dropping gloves and throwing hands lives on.
Growing up in Massachusetts, I played hockey. I couldn’t skate very well and my shot was mediocre, but I was big for my age (and heavyset) and loved to throw the body around. It was an ideal means of blowing off the pressurized steam in the whistling kettle of male adolescence.
The term for the position that I filled was “enforcer.” Coaches encouraged me to hit, even in Squirts when checking wasn’t yet permitted. This only added to the allure. When the other team’s good guys were out, they’d send me onto the ice to hurt them. Parents were appalled–mine included. I reveled in the glory. During my shifts, you’d hear helmets on helmets or bodies on bodies, not vulcanized rubber meeting twine behind the netminder. I was nonexistent on the stat-sheet except for PIM, and the puck was nonexistent in my universe. I was a globose and uncoordinated carnage-seeking missile, hellbent on destruction (sometimes at my own expense) and the mixture of disgust and admiration from the hockey-moms and dads in the bleachers. Your author in his youth: a fat little wrecking ball plagued by latent rage.
Obviously, having filled this role, I’m biased. Hockey without fighting–well, that just isn’t hockey.
The obvious role for fighting in hockey is to settle scores. Your guy hit my guy–yeah, the good one who can skate and score–so now my other guy (the enforcer) is going to go fuck your guy up. Straight out of the frontier. Justice as it used to be: an eye for an eye.
Just to toss some contextual names around (these scenarios are all hypothetical but might’ve actually happened): Matt Cooke hits Bergeron, Shawn Thornton (before he shipped off to the Sunshine State) goes and fights Matt Cooke. You hit Gretzky, you answer to McSorley. Tom Wilson delivers a high hit on Tarasenko, big Ryan Reaves comes out (if he’s not a healthy scratch) and answers the call. Hammurabi incarnate, gliding around on a round-edged rectangular plane of ice, teeth showing, heart-rate rising, ready to cut out an eye. This is the sport of hockey.
It’s tradition. This is the next argument. Fighting’s been part of hockey since it was played by the Mi’qmak and called “tooadijik” (I have no evidence of this, but judging by the way pond-hockey can be even more fight-prone than professional hockey, I have a hard time believing there was never a fight in a spirited game of tooadijik). All the greats fought, and more viciously than players fight now. If you want to score a “Gordie Howe hat-trick” (a goal, an assist and a fight in one game), you better be ready to take a fist to the face and cut your knuckles on somebody’s incisor while dislodging it from his gum.
Gordie Howe was “Mr. Hockey.” If “Mr. Hockey” fought, I have a hard time seeing it eliminated from the sport.
But Mr. Hockey also didn’t wear a helmet, and Mr. Hockey’s doctors weren’t as privy to the dangers of sport as doctors are now, and hits in Mr. Hockey’s day–even in Scott Stevens’ day–weren’t regulated as strictly as they are now, and Mr. Hockey doesn’t have Emperor Shanahan lording down from his blue-lit office of flatscreens (this is how I envision him) in Toronto, ready to dish out suspensions for even the most unintentional and inconsequential of barely-high sticks.
What I’m getting at is that times change, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that hockey could be fight-less soon, or at least fight-reduced. But it’ll take a village, a probably reluctant one, and the sport will lose some fans.
Avoiding Cheap Shots
This point is the one I will tie back to the Steve Moore incident, which I’ve been remiss in allowing to go unaddressed (outside of the title) thus far, and will just take the hit (heh) and remain remiss by continuing to leave it unaddressed, for now (though please watch the video at the top).
Hockey players fight to settle scores quickly and efficiently. If scores go unsettled, things get dangerous. (This is true in hockey and overall. e.g., if you make a snide remark about your sister-in-law’s weight and never apologize, her disdain for you will bubble up and boil over, turning the family Christmas party into Nagasaki, early August, 1945. Face conflict head-on, quell the potentially brewing storm. Pardon the digression.)
Violent monkeys in a barrel, one cheap shot leads to another, to another, which leads to another, which leads to a career-ending injury a la Matt Cooke on Marc Savard (a hit which was answered by a fight). This cycle is broken by fights. Cheapshot leads to fight, fight leads to five minutes in the box. Nobody in a hockey fight is ever at risk of a career-ending injury (life-ending, longterm, however–that’s a different story. Wade Belak, Bob Probert, etc. ), and nobody who steps up to do a team’s bidding is ever somebody they can’t afford to let sit in the box for five minutes. To me, this makes sense. Let the enforcers duke it out, give the fans a show, save the hides of the Crosbys and the Kanes. Win, win, win.
Now, to rectify my remissness: The Bertuzzi/Moore incident is a prime example of what happens when a cheap-shot/questionable hit on a star player isn’t met by a fight. Steve Moore hit Markus Naslund:
Now I don’t think I’d call this a cheap-shot, at least not in 2004. But any hit like that on a star like Naslund–that’s something you need to be prepared to answer for. He had the chance to answer for it when Ruutu, Pronger, and basically all potential fighters on Vancouver (Bertuzzi included) challenged him. Alas, Moore refused to drop gloves. You can see this as nobility or you can see this as cowardice. The hit wasn’t a cheap shot, so why should he have to answer for it? But it was a big hit on Vancouver’s captain, and big hits on big players come with big repercussions. I’ll leave the call up to you.
The fact of the matter is that Moore refused. Had he dropped his gloves and “been a man,” I wouldn’t be writing this. Fight your antagonizer–and they were clearly antagonizing him–get it out of the system, work it out, look respectable as a young player and avoid cheap shots like Bertuzzi’s.
Moore still could’ve been skating today if he just took a couple balled-up fists to the schnoz. Instead, it played out like this: Vancouver’s captain and star (Naslund) takes an elbow to the face. The perpetrator (who comes off looking like an uppity shit/a bit of a pussy) ducks out of numerous fights. Bertuzzi gets fed up and lashes out inappropriately to force-feed the perpetrator his medicine. This medicine costs Moore his career.
The choice apparent is shitty: get your face beat in or get Bertuzzi’d (almost like choosing between Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton). As shitty as it is, it’s the only choice. If you want to play a physical game, play a physical game and be prepared to be on the receiving end of what you dish out. Part of playing a physical game is fighting when you’re challenged. When you’ve got a hot-head like Bertuzzi with a hard-on for you, it’s best to cross that bridge as soon as you come to it, since the longer you put it off, the worse it’s going to get. Moore learned this the hard way when Bertuzzi’s fist met his skull, his face met ice, his body met stretcher, and his career met the falling curtain.
I want to clarify that I’m not condoning Todd Bertuzzi’s actions. If there was ever a player whose expulsion from the league was justified, it was Todd Bertuzzi in 2004. He’s a moron, and that was a cheap-shot. A punch to the head from behind, followed by a pig-pile to paralysis. Google search: cheap shot, and that should be the first result. But it’s easy to vilify Bertuzzi without understanding the context, and if there’s one thing this incident isn’t short of in supply, it’s necessary context.
Moore knew there was a price on his head, and the more he avoided a fight the more that price rose. To say that he had no presentiment of ill-will toward him from the Vancouver bench–which I’m sure was just a wall of polyphonic invective and four-lettered expulsions of vitriol every time he skated by–would be erroneous. And unless he was just drifting around the ice completely oblivious to this, he knew he was falling arrears with every passing second. He had a duty, as a hockey player, to answer for the hit.
The Moore/Bertuzzi incident is more of a megillah than it seems. Like a classroom altercation where the final blow is usually the one that crosses the line and lands only one offender in detention, Bertuzzi’s reputation is forever tarnished, and Moore lives on as a martyr who metaphorically died for a sport in which he never got to flourish. Maybe he was never meant to.
And maybe hockey is meant to eliminate fighting. Maybe it isn’t. I’m inclined to believe that it isn’t, and I’m also inclined to hope. Every old-time hard-boiled hockey fan would be appalled, and every one of the aforementioned demographic has his/her own spiel as to why fighting is central to the game, that violence is the sun around which pucks orbit, and that we’ve already softened the game too much since the line brawls of the Big Bad Bruins vs. The Canadiens, or the surly aggression of the lunch-pail favorite Broad Street Bullies.
Like walking through a frontier-town with no respect for the code of the west, lacing up skates without an understanding of the outdated yet inescapable Hammurabian laws of ice-hockey is ill-advised. The game will always attract fighters, and it will have a hard time outrunning its history. Those who challenge the status quo–the Steve Moores–out of nobility or cowardice must accept the fact that they’ve entered dangerous waters, frozen waters lined with red and blue, walled in by boards and glass, behind which the screaming masses demand bloodshed–their bread and circuses.