Archive for February, 2009

Duking it Out in the NHL

Hockey fights are back in the news this week as Georges Laraque, in response to the recent death of Don Sanderson, has advocated rule changes to protect players from hitting their heads on the ice during fights. Laraque wants a penalty for anyone who fights without a helmet and for the linesmen to intervene when a player’s helmet comes off during a fight; “…if a guy throws a punch at a player without a helmet, he should get an extra penalty for that too.”

NHL Player’s Association Director Paul Kelly has been trying to reduce primetime dustups  between enforcers, “If it’s a staged fight between two super-heavyweights who, perhaps, arranged it the day before the game, I’m not sure those are fights we need to continue to have in the sport.” Kelly admits, however, that a clear majority of players believe that fighting serves a purpose in hockey. He sees its place too, “If the fight arises out of the spontaneity of the game, the emotion or the need to protect a teammate or yourself from an unclean hit, then that’s a natural part of the game that ought to remain.”

I’m glad to hear Kelly pipe up on this issue in a way that doesn’t give fodder for the usual media handwringing about fights in the NHL. As most players will tell you, fighting is not the only kind of violence that happens on the ice. In fact, it often reduces the potential for seriously violent situations like the Bertuzzi incident. The amount of concussions and serious head injuries caused by players hitting their heads on the ice during fights is miniscule when compared to hits to the head, boarding, elbows, and hits from behind. Kelly’s comments also widen the usual debate to include the  conditions that lead to fisticuffs. To do that  you need to consult the black book of hockey and the Jarrko Ruutus, Jordan Tootoos, Sean Averys, and Scott Hartnells of the game who put its lessons into practice on the ice.

The t.v. announcers use cliche after cliche, describing them as “throwing players off their game,” “being a pest,” or “getting in a goalie’s kitchen;” we all know we’re really talking about late hits, illegal stick work, knee on knee trips, goaltender interference and the whole circus sideshow of self-promotion from clowns like Avery. However you describe this type of player, they need to be held accountable either by the referees or by the players themselves. It’s a way hockey mirrors problems in our whole society; some players compete with respect for the game and a code of honor toward their fellow players and some bums don’t. In hockey it’s all typified to me by a situation in the 2006 Winter Olympics (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAZIMkNMTCw). Jarrko Ruutu skates all the way across the ice to elbow Jaromir Jagr’s head into the boards. He earns a match penalty and an ejection. Celebrating Olympic sportsmanship as he’s escorted off the ice he waves goodbye to the injured Jagr.

Now I’m not Jagr’s biggest fan -especially after the man that wears number 68 to remind people of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia goes to play in Russia for a huge pile of rubles –  but this is a situation where Ruutu clearly should have had his ass kicked.

Hockey is a physical-even violent-sport, but there are legitimate and illegitimate types of force on the ice. The main challenge for Paul Kelly and the NHL’s decision-makers is to rule out illegitimate violence without reducing legal hits, body checks , and the ability of players to stand up and defend themselves.

A lot of players have called for the abolition of the Instigator penalty so the rats of the league will have to drop the gloves when they’ve stepped over the line. I’m sympathetic to Neal Sheehy’s views on this subject which he published under the title, The Systematic Erosion and Neutralization of Skill and Play-Making in the NHL (http://www.sheehyhockeyllc.com/SystematicErosion.php).

The one situation where I think the Instigator penalty is useful is when players try to start fights after legal open ice hits or body checks against themselves or their teammates. Hits and checks are an integral part of the game on both sides of the ice, both offensively and defensively. They are legal physical plays and the players shouldn’t have to fight to use them. These are fights arising out of the emotion and spontaneity of the game as Kelly says but there’s still something problematic about giving equal time in the box for an instigator and someone who was just defending himself after a legal hit. Maybe drop the instigator penalty but give 5 for fighting to the attacker and 2 minutes for roughing to the player who was attacked.

I’m with Kelly when he wants to drop the pro-wrestling bullshit among the brotherhood of enforcers. I’m more interested in seeing the “agitators” made accountable. Douglass Murray is one of the best physical players and legal hitters in the league. He wears a visor to protect himself from high sticks and the type of eye injuries that have threatened the career of Saku Koivu. Murray plays like a man and he plays by the Code. I remember watching his first NHL game when he came up from the minors to join the Sharks. Although i don’t remember what the situation was which led to the fight, I do remember him taking his helmet off before the opposing player could throw a punch and slice his hand on Murray’s visor. Laraque’s rules would disallow Murray from defending himself or his teammates.

No one wants to see someone die on the ice from a concussion. No one wants to see players seriously injured either. The instigator rule was added to protect players from the intimidation of goons. Its unintended consequence, however, has been that it’s allowed the cheap shot artists to run amok. As a result we’ve probably had more serious head injuries from hits by the headhunters than from fights. While we’re discussing fighting in the NHL, announcers like Matthew Barnaby are talking about the “energy” the pests add to the game. Meanwhile Sean Avery is trying on a new suit with the Hartford Wolfpack.


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