By Drew Pelto aka *censored* 

The discussion of removing fighting from the game of hockey comes up every year under ridiculous pretenses. Sometimes it’s because of an injury in a fight. Other times it’s because of a major brawl. Much of the time it’s because Damien Cox is allowed near a computer. This time, it hasn’t been the NHL where the discussion is happening as much as it has at the lower levels of the game. A New York Times article came out this week discussing the issue (indirectly quoting yours truly on page two).

I should clarify “lower levels” for those who aren’t totally educated on hockey. I’m not talking about six year old mites dropping the gloves and trading blows, or even middle school to high school aged midget players doing it. Those kids need to concentrate on honing their skills, not on how to remove another player’s teeth with their knuckles. By lower levels, I’m referring to the junior game, players mostly in the 16 to 20 age range. Most junior leagues are where players begin to receive five minutes in the box for a fight, as opposed to an ejection and requisite suspension. Some have put in rules to give a one-game suspension after a certain number of fights, such as the BCHL up in British Columbia. Other leagues, such as the Eastern Junior league in the Northeastern United States have put an outright ban on fighting, giving all fighters an ejection and automatic suspension.

Coming to a junior rink near you? Maybe not...

 

On one side of the equation, I can understand it. Most players outside the Canadian Major Junior Leagues are looking to move onto college hockey first and foremost where fighting is banned. Why do they need to have it legal if they aren’t going to be doing it at the next level?

But on the other side of things, this is ridiculous. Once you get to the junior levels, you have bigger players who can cause more damage with a check, or more importantly with dirty play. Fighting, or the threat of having to fight, can help to keep reckless and injurious play in check. You may not have it in college, but fights happen in professional hockey quite often. To me, it is better to be able to learn how to do it at a junior level than to end up in one at a pro level and have no idea what you’re doing.

While yes, fights can cause injuries, I can name about 20 other ways of getting injured that aren’t being discussed. The fact of the matter is that studies have shown that less than 3% of concussions suffered in the NHL have come as a direct cause of a fight. So while yes, eliminating fighting eliminates a cause of concussions, you haven’t done anything to touch the remaining 97% of them.

 

Todd Fedoruk's concussion is the exception, rather than the rule. Less than 3% of concussions in the NHL come from fights.

Fighting is a very visible part of the physicality of our game. But it is the least harmful part of it. Rarely do injuries happen from fights. Additionally, the threat of having to fight often makes players think twice about hitting a player whose head is down or whose back is turned. If the threat of having to fight in response to that hit is removed, what is to keep a player from taking advantage of an opponent who is in a bad position? Penalties? Suspensions? So far those have yet to work: just look at Chris Simon, who served a 35-game suspension for stepping on a player only to come back and get another 40-game seat in the press box for slashing a player in the face.

Think of it this way: would you rather see a score settled by two players who are prepared for what’s coming via a fight, or by

Chris Simon: Proof that lengthy suspensions do nothing

 one player running over someone who doesn’t know that it’s coming? I can guarantee you, the latter situation has much greater of a chance for severe injury, even death. Leagues that have banned fighting often see more violence through dirty hits and bad stick work. A lot of things will happen behind the play where the referee isn’t watching. If you don’t believe me, just watch some games in the European leagues.

In 1996, Claude Lemieux was known as one of the dirtiest players in the NHL for hits like the one shown below on Kris Draper. After Darren McCarty made him answer the bell for the hit with a couple of fights, Lemieux never did anything worthy of a suspension again in his seven remaining NHL seasons.

 

If you think this is okay, then by all means, ban fighting.

Dirty play will never be fully removed from hockey. But the existence of fighting helps to keep injuries from it to a minimum. Unless you want to see acts of one-sided violence as opposed to two players willingly involved in it and able to defend themselves, fighting needs to remain a part of the game.