Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Time for the NHL to stop the fight

NHL players insist that fighting is an important aspect of the professional game. The idea is that players get to enforce those mythical unwritten rules that allegedly keep the game clean and discourage the physical abuse of star players. NHL purists agree and accuse those opposed to fighting in the NHL of having no interest in hockey. If television ratings and revenue reports are any indication those opposed to fighting aren’t the only people uninterested in hockey.

There is no place for fighting in sports. Fights detract from the action and reveal an ugly side of athletics. Fights are also a horrible influence on children who look up to professional athletes whether we like it or not. Charles Barkley made a name for himself by insisting he was not a role model but regardless of his protests he was influential all the same. Being a role model is not a choice one can opt out of. Some players want to be role models and embrace the responsibility but people choose their role models, role models don’t choose their people. Sorry, Charlie.

Compared with the international game featured in the Olympics, NHL hockey is slow, methodical and largely unentertaining. Thanks to such an extended playoff season, the regular season games scheduled by the NHL are simply boring. Players admittedly save their best effort for the playoffs and the difference in action is so dramatic the playoffs are sometimes called the second season or even the real season. It makes you wonder why regular season tickets are so pricey.

So the regular season is an extended exhibition teams use to get ready for a playoff run. Interestingly fights aren’t as common during the playoffs. Teams simply can’t afford to risk losing a game by engaging in fisticuffs that eventually result in five minute penalties. One would think an activity so integral to the game would increase when the stakes are raised. It seems the playoffs prove the case against fighting. When the games matter, fights don’t.

The NHL punishes players who fight by issuing penalties but unlike other professional sports leagues the NHL doesn’t fine or suspend players for fighting unless there are extenuating circumstances. Players are punished for fighting dirty or employing cheap shots to gain an advantage but there aren’t any meaningful sanctions for the typical fight. The actions the NHL deems actionable are typically so brutal criminal charges are at least considered.

Clearly the NHL is reticent to issue a moratorium on fighting because league officials realize that a significant portion of the waning fan base is drawn to the pointless violence. It’s one of the few gimmicks the NHL can hang its hat on. If you eliminate fights you eliminate the fans who enjoy them.

Recently the NHL tried to open up the game a little bit. Rules were tweaked to give an edge to the offense, goal keepers were forced to trim some of the padding from their uniforms to make blocking shots a little more difficult. Additionally the league made an effort to discourage fighting without eliminating it altogether. The result is a lot of whining from players who think the revisions have encouraged dirty play. They claim that the lack of physical accountability for cheap shots has encouraged dirty players to be a little more liberal with their handiwork.

Hockey players have a reputation for being tough guys but they sure do a lot of whining. Furthermore there are a number of players around the league who are too fragile to fend for themselves so teams keep thugs on the roster to fight on behalf of the skilled players who simply can’t take a hit. Instead of fighting why not have the softer players wear skirts so the other team knows not to hit them too hard? It might sound humiliating but not any more so than having somebody else fight on your behalf. At least the guy in the skirt has the guts to admit he’s a pansy.

If cheap shots are a problem the league should address them with the enforcement of rules. They do have officials on the ice who are supposed to maintain order by enforcing current rules so asking those officials to keep an eye out for overly aggressive play and cheap shots wouldn’t be too much to ask. The league could also enhance the enforcement of the rules with suspensions and fines.

Somehow the NFL has managed to secure an impressive market share in spite of some pretty strict rules. In fact the NFL takes a lot of heat for being too protective of quarterbacks and some players have taken issue with paying fines for hits that would have been legal 10 years ago.. Major League Baseball still endures its fair share of fights with at least one big bench clearing brawl each year but the league moves swiftly and imposes severe penalties for fighting. The NBA is a very physical game and tempers flare every night but David Stern wastes no time when punches are thrown. As horrendous as some of those altercations have been, suspensions have been severe. Players still break the rules but they also pay the consequences.

Nobody’s got a perfect league but the NHL is foolishly embracing a concept that dates back to the days when soldiers would drink a case of Black Label and head out to the local pond with a couple of brooms and a few flat rocks. There’s nothing wrong with changing the rules to keep the game fresh and fact, it’s necessary. The NHL’s refusal to adapt is precisely why the league can’t sign a decent broadcasting contract. Nobody’s watching. When you’re losing your audience to fake wrestling, arena football and a bunch of hicks driving cars in a circle it’s time to make some changes.

Hockey purists will say that my opinion is steeped in ignorance and that if I knew the fist thing about hockey I’d see the need for fights. They might have a point, but considering how close the NHL is to extinction I think I’m right on the money. Besides, if the NHL does go out of business those players aren’t going to be able to solve their problems by duking it out. Tim Horton’s has some strict rule about beating up the customers.


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