Calgary Flames President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke wrote a guest column in USA Today late last month making his case in favor of keeping fighting a part of the game of hockey. Here is a breakdown of why his case is flawed, addressing a few of the common misperceptions he brings up.
1. Players know the risks involved with fighting; therefore they should be allowed to fight
The problem with this argument is that the majority of these players don’t have a choice. The so-called “goon,” who is truly at the root of the fighting issue, can only stay in the NHL and earn a big time paycheck if he fights. Georges Laraque, long-time enforcer, played himself off of the Montreal Canadiens roster because he admitted that he didn’t like fighting and often refused to do so. Instances like this are few and far between, however, because guys like to stay in the NHL, no matter the cost. It is the responsibility of others to make the decision that they reasonably will not.
2. Hockey isn’t as appealing without its violent nature
People are drawn to different sports for different reasons. That said: it is fair to say that one of the aspects of hockey that makes it unique is its frequent collisions and physical play. But physical play and fighting are two very different beasts. Football is also a fast-paced violent sport, and it happens to be the most popular one in North America. And no, players don’t square off at midfield for fisticuffs without referee intervention. When’s the last time you saw Champ Bailey and Calvin Johnson throw off their helmets to exchange jabs at the 50-yard line?
3. Fighting regulates violence in hockey. Without fighting, there would be more dangerous headshots and vicious spears than ever
This argument always blows me away because it’s just so blatantly wrong. Every year, the best quality hockey is played in the NHL playoffs, where there are usually only a handful of fights over the course of four bitter rounds. And then there are the Olympics, where fighting is banned entirely. Nobody seems to think back to Vancouver 2010 in anything other than a positive light. The players seemed to regulate themselves fine without dropping the gloves.
4. The players all want to keep fighting in the game
Burke references in his article that 98% of players have voted to keep fighting in the game. There are two reasons why that number is misleading. First of all, players all have friends that are enforcers, and those guys make their jobs easier by creating space and standing up for them. They’re great guys to have around, and the star players owe them some of their livelihood. It’s therefore totally justifiable that they wouldn’t vote for those guys to be taken out of the game. Second of all, when you’re a player, you grow up in a certain culture and once you’re a part of that for much of your life, it’s hard to shake it. These guys have now been around fighting for much of their careers, and through processes like groupthink and confirmation bias, they have led themselves to believe that fighting actually shifts momentum and causes goals to be scored. In this case, being in the NHL doesn’t make you an impartial or qualified judge; it’s actually exactly the opposite.