Tucson Roadrunners

The important and necessary role of fighting in hockey

Based on viewership my puck possession article was very popular. As a result, that article is now the first part of a series of stories I will write all season long. The series’ purpose will be to give people some of the insights and the subtleties I learned in my 14 years of playing hockey. The goal of each article is to help Roadrunner fans gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the culture and strategy of hockey by highlighting a particular aspect of the game and going into an in-depth analysis. So without further adieu, let us talk about a tradition that has been an integral part of hockey since its infancy: fighting.

jarred-tinordi-fight

Jarred Tinordi fights Stockton’s Brandon Bollig on Sunday Source: Pucks and Recreation.com

 

The first referees

Next time you come down to a Roadrunner game at the TCC, know that fighting has a purpose and history. It’s not just a couple of guys who feel like boxing. Fighting is part of hockey’s lore and image; it’s one of the first things people think about when they think of hockey (maybe the first, I don’t know. Anyone who’s not too familiar with hockey, I encourage and can help me out with this, I encourage you to comment).

Fighting is a tradition as old as the game itself. When ice hockey was invented in the 1860s on frozen Canadian ponds and lakes, by British soldiers (Canada was still under British rule at the time) who adapted field hockey from their home country to the harsh Canadian winter, there were no referees.

It was just men playing against men, if someone on the other team was chirping (hockey slang for trash talk) you a little too much out there, shut his mouth for him, send a message that it isn’t ok. A guy on the other team likes to play a cheap game, lay down the law, let him know he can’t do that to you or your teammates; you have to drop the gloves (hockey slang for fighting). Some guy on the other team takes a run at or lays a dirty hit against one of your star players, show him that his behavior won’t be tolerated (this is actually what happened the other day when Jarred Tinordi got in a fight against Stockton). An opposing forward runs into your goalie too hard when crashing the net, as a defenseman, it’s your job to show them you and your team are willing and able to protect your goalie and won’t be taken advantage of out there.

As you can see in many ways the enforcer (the guy on the team who likes to get in a lot of fights) was the referee before there was a referee. Even today, enforcers still serve a purpose by enforcing hockey’s unwritten, but universally understood code of honor. Now that you know the history of and the huge role fighting plays in hockey, I bring you to my next point. Hockey would actually become more dangerous without it. This is fact, not fiction again, anyone who ever played will tell you the same.

A more dangerous hockey

I know that the concept of tolerating fighting in a sport to make it safer is incredibly counter-intuitive, but allow me to explain. History and cultural significance aside, the fighting enforces a system of checks and balances.

Imagine a hockey game as the US government, complete with three branches of equal power with a system of checks and balances in place. The players are the executive branch, the referees are the legislative, and the goons (another word for enforcer) are the supreme court. If Congress, passes a law that doesn’t enforce a particular part of the constitution or is unconstitutional, the supreme court reviews it. Similarly, because the rules don’t explicitly ban hard hits that have extreme potential for injury or subtle dirty plays, the referee won’t call anything. So in this situation, it is the enforcer’s job to go in and make sure that justice is served.

In a similar manner, if the president or another high official abuses power, the supreme court makes sure they are in line. In hockey, if an opposing player starts behaving badly and abusing other players out there (all of which is within the official rules), it’s his job to drop the gloves and make sure his team isn’t mistreated.

As you can see, banning fighting in hockey would be like dissolving the judicial branch of the United States government. It would upset the stable balance of power that has existed for centuries and allow the other branches to go un-checked. There’s no way you could give refs the absolute authority to call penalties for legal checks being too hard or penalties for too much trash talk; it would provide them with an unacceptable amount of entirely subjective penalties they could call, which would allow them to easily influence the outcomes of games.

Also, with fighting no longer there, the fear of having to answer to someone for questionably dirty/ unnecessarily rough play is gone. Players would now be free to maul star players (just ask Wayne Gretzky or Steve Yzerman how much they liked having guys like Marty McSorley and Bob Probert watching their backs), play dirty without the fear of any real consequences (even if they get a minor penalty, they won’t mind sitting two minutes in the box as a means for eliminating a star player from the game, because two minutes is nothing compared to the physical pain of lost teeth, concussions, and broken ribs). As a result, the removal of fighting and the enforcer system as a whole would open up the game to a previously unimaginable level of legalized physicality and brutality.

Gordie Howe "Mr. Hockey" (1928-2016). Source: the majors sports network

Gordie Howe “Mr. Hockey” (1928-2016).
Source: the majors sports network

Don’t just take it from me, take it from the late great Gordie Howe, who at 1,762 games is the NHL’s all-time leader in games played. The man even played a full 80-game NHL season in 1980-81 right after the WHA-NHL merger at the age of 52. Howe was a legend, he was known for his scoring prowess and toughness, in an era where the NHL was a lot more physical than it is today. He is even the namesake for the hockey term (Gordie Howe hat trick) for when a player registers a goal, an assist and a fight all in the same game. It’s safe to say that the man affectionately nicknamed Mr. Hockey, knew a thing or two about the great game. Listen to what he had to say about fighting in the NHL.

As you can see towards the end of the video Gordie talks about how a dirty player kept going after the back of his calf, an unprotected area, with the intention of injuring him, making him bleed, and taking what was then the NHL’s greatest superstar out of the game. Because the refs didn’t call stuff like that back then Howe then goes on to say that he needed to punch the player, after doing so he says “it did the trick, it got rid of a dirty habit” (starting at 3:49).

Although the NHL is considerably cleaner today than in the Gordie Howe era, dirty players will always exist and fighting is still, and always will be a necessary evil in keeping hockey as clean and as civilized as possible.

If you want to see a perfect example of the enforcer system and the merits of fighting in hockey, go on Netflix and watch the movie Goon. It’s a funny movie (if you love sports movies, you’ll enjoy it) and it does an excellent job showing hockey’s unwritten code and its enforcement in action. It also follows a minor league hockey team just like the Roadrunners, so it also does a great job showing at showing what minor league hockey is like.

Game changing ability

In addition to history, and the indispensable role fighting plays in player safety, a won fight can shift the momentum back in your direction. If your team is being dominated, being out-possessed, out-shot, out-chanced and is losing the physical battle, a fight might be all your team needs to get back in it. If you went to the home opener against Stockton on Oct. 28th, you saw Garret Ross decisively win a fight at the beginning of the second period. Before the fight the Roadrunners were in a losing battle, they were down 3-2, losing in every possession stat, and the Heat had their way with the Roadrunners physically.

After Ross had won the fight, however, Tucson played what I still think is the best 20 minutes of hockey they have played all season long. They were getting pucks on net, keeping the puck out of their zone and winning the physical and possession battle. Stockton also realized that they couldn’t get away with cheap plays, and the strong effort and the tremendous momentum led to a thrilling 6-5 victory.

All of that started to with the won fight; that was the turning point in the game. What unfolded in the Roadrunners home opener is by no means unique, the same story has unfolded countless times around the world and in hockey’s one and a half centuries of existence. Consequently, the removal of fighting would not only deprive hockey of its history and character, but it would also get rid of a phenomenon that has led to countless wins and championships.

Conclusion

I hope that after reading this, you have gained a greater appreciation for hockey’s illustrious history and its relationship with fighting. I hope that now when you see two guys dropping the gloves down at the TCC, you see it as more than just a couple of guys knocking out each others’ teeth. I hope that you see them as that two warriors locked in a battle for the: the name on the front of their jersey, their teammates, for respect and most of all enforcing a sacred code.

The unwritten, ancient code of honor, is one that was collectively created by hockey players around the world and through the centuries. From the scorching deserts of Arizona to the frozen plains of Siberia, it agreed upon every time someone laces up a pair of skates and steps out onto the ice. Its purpose is to protect the hockey player from what isn’t in the rulebook and making the game as clean and as safe as possible.

If you enjoyed reading this article half as much as I enjoyed writing it, I’ll count it as a win. As I said before, feel free to leave any comments and go Roadrunners! Their next game is tonight, November 2nd at 7:05 PM against the Texas Stars.

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