The NHL and Fighting

Fractured orbital bones and a melee on The Island have fighting in the NHL back in the national spotlight.

If you have a life, you’re probably unaware of the events that rekindled the heated discussion of fighting in hockey. Let’s quickly get you up to speed.

On February 2nd, the New York Islanders fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the game’s final minute, goalies Brent Johnson of the Penguins and Rick DiPietro of the Islanders went toe-to-toe. Long story short, DiPietro suffered facial fractures and is sidelined for at least a month.

One night later, the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins engaged in three separate fights within the first four seconds of the game. Puck drops. Fight. Clean up. Puck drops. Fight… you get the idea.

On February 11th, the Penguins and Islanders again got frisky, totaling 346 penalty minutes, 15 fighting majors and 10 ejections.

Just like that, the outcry to outlaw fighting was back.

The unique combination of speed, finesse, and physicality makes hockey great. Removing fighting from the sport wouldn’t change that. However, fighting is woven into the fabric of hockey. It’s as much a part of the game as skating. To take fighting out of hockey would be equivalent to taking the beanball out of baseball.

I understand the push to outlaw fighting. Kids watch hockey. We don’t want our children to believe fighting is an acceptable response to a stressful situation. Also, for better or worse, athletes are role models. When kids see NBA superstars covered in tattoos, they want tattoos. Likewise, when young hockey players see their NHL heroes drop the gloves, they’re likely to do the same.

Fighting also gives the NHL a negative stigma. It draws too much attention to the sport’s “goonery” instead of the amazing skill and precision it requires. The media loves to attack the NHL for fighting. They argue fighting ruins the game, prevents the league from growing, and hurts its appeal. Maybe the media is right, maybe not, but it’s hypocritical to denounce fighting, then turn around and feature it in game recaps, highlight reels, and front-page stories. Tune into Sportscenter every night for a full week. Let me know when you see an NHL highlight crack the first 20 minutes of the show. It won’t happen… unless there’s a brawl or goalie fight. People like to watch fighting. It’s raw. It’s real. It’s entertaining.

If media outlets like ESPN are truly concerned the game won’t progress as long as fighting is permitted, perhaps they should consider how they portray the sport in their own content. Right now, ESPN sells NHL fights. They’re not alone, either. In the last two weeks, there’s been more coverage of the fighting controversy on national sports websites than NHL coverage I’ve seen all season. Fighting sells. Sports outlets exploit this. Still, the NHL is portrayed in a horrific light for embracing something that’s been a part of its game for the past century.

What does the NHL gain by removing fighting anyway? The league is profitable. Viewership is up. Outside of significant fights, the only time the league gets more national interest is from the Winter Classic and Stanley Cup Finals. It makes no sense for the NHL to eliminate fighting when it garners so much attention.

It may ruffle feathers and make media outlets cringe, but fighting in hockey is nobler and less corruptive than anything MTV has aired in the past decade. If ESPN and other media outlets don’t like fighting, then I encourage them to market the more attractive aspects of the game. That is of course, if they’re not too concerned with ratings, readership, and page views.

One Comment

  1. I agree with your point of view Ryan. Taking the fighting out of the NHL doesn’t make any sense when it gets so much attention.

    I know I don’t like watching hockey unless I see a nice goal being scored, or unless I see two players throw of their gloves and start scrapping.

    The way I feel is that it’s part of the game, and it hasn’t hurt their popularity but increased it. I also agree that ESPN should take notice of how they portray the sport on TV. Thanks for sharing.

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