Friday, May 04, 2012

The Evolution of Hockey: Food for Fought

Survey the Internet to learn what fans, players, NHL management, parents, media—an overlapping cross-section of the hockey kingdom—think of fighting in hockey, more specifically whether fisticuffs should be banned from the NHL. I did so because in the last year or two, I’ve become more conflicted about the answer to this question: Should fighting be completely banished?

When I was a teenager, I loved watching the replay of my favorite players pummeling an opponent who had it coming to him. Slap Shot: The more foil and high-sticking and blood the better. And now, as a forty-eight-year-old fan, I still love it. At least part of me does. My hypothalamus and pituitary and adrenal glands activate those fight-or-flight hormones and I crave the combat. Retribution. Make the opponent accountable. Stick up for your teammates. The surge, however, lasts a few seconds before I’m repulsed. I don’t like the way it makes me feel when I watch players drive their knuckles into their opponents skull. I don’t want anyone to get hurt. And I don’t enjoy who I become. Sometimes I turn away or leave until the game begins again.

So back to the question: Should we ban fighting? The National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) responded to that closed-ended query with a resounding “no.”

I wonder if we’re asking enough questions. If we want to make our ever-evolving sport the best it can be, let’s ask ourselves the following:

The two percent of NHL players who answered the question du jour with an ay: Why? And of those who said nay, how many have ever dropped the gloves? Is there a better way to phrase that question to them or maybe one question isn’t enough?

Why don’t we demand that fighting become part of the college game? High school hockey? If pucks and pugilism go hand-in-hand in the NHL and in the Canadian Hockey League (for now), why not peddle the adrenaline rush to the younger set? Is fighting part of the game or not?

Maybe professional players could fight with their gloves on? All the hay-makers, jabs and uppercuts but less risk of brain damage. Our hypothalami would still be happy, right? Why not test this theory in the AHL the proving ground for the shootouts that conclude would-be NHL tie games.

Are players, trainers, and team doctors required to learn about the risk of injury, to be educated on the potential consequences of not just fighting but also playing today’s fast-paced game? Shouldn’t there be a video on the worst-case scenario?

Inadvertent high sticks, no out-of-bounds, blocking shots, artery-slicing blades: Isn’t our sport dangerous enough?

Why does the NHL punish and promote fighting? If we want that hypothalamus high, then why bother with the punishment? How do we reconcile the incongruity?

What if owners and general managers stopped selling beer after the second period? Would fans be less inclined to call for an opposing player’s head?

Is it possible to “enforce” the rules created to protect players’ safety without fighting? What if, for every disciplinary decision, the NHL proposed two or three options and then poll the NHLPA?

Why don’t the players who most often bare their knuckles get more credit for their finesse? Do they need to fight to be effective and respected?

Now that I’ve seen the images of a dead hockey player’s brain, watched his brother’s reaction, felt the helplessness of his parents, and listened to both scientists and the NHL’s response, I recall poet Maya Angelou’s oft-quoted insight into human behavior: “When you know better, you do better.”

Maybe I watch too much Oprah, but when I hear fans screaming for an opponent’s head, I question my own thoughts (not so far-removed from those fans) as I root for my team.

I still love Slap Shot. I’m keeping my copy of Goon. I love all that makes our game unique: the speed, short-handed goals, vulcanized rubber, the guts it takes to block shots, goalie masks. Almost all of it. And even then, I kind of like the slug fests for a few seconds—but then I lose my appetite.

If we know better, do we do better?

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