With America getting over its fascination with performance enhancing drugs and steroids, our sporting culture was caught with nothing to wring its hands over.   This is a dangerous place for mass groups of people as inevitably they will find something to get all up in arms about (it’s just human nature).  In the past two years they’ve found that cause: head injuries.  Head injuries and concussions have become the talk of the sporting world.  At times I want to give myself a head injury just to get away from all the noise about concussions and their long term effects. 

The NHL has been as affected as any professional sport with concussions of late.  No other league has had their marquee player suffer through concussion related issues the way that Sidney Crosby has.  He’s basically missed the past two years, only recently returning to the ice.  Could you imagine if Tom Brady or Peyton Manning missed the time they did with injuries any less dramatic than a blown out knee or a broken neck?  America wouldn’t stand for it.  Recently Lebron James made a comment that he was, “too tough for that” when asked whether he felt he got a concussion after a fall in a recent game and it didn’t cause nearly the ripple that you might think after listening to all of the hoopla in the media about head injuries being no laughing matter. 

For a league that takes pride in its players toughing through just about any injury you could imagine, the NHL really has taken to the forefront of this movement.  Just this week Duncan Keith elbowed Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin in the chin and received a five game suspension with only seven games remaining on the schedule.  That’s a pretty dramatic response for a first time offender and a leader on one of the leagues premiere teams, but the NHL is sticking to their zero tolerance policy.  With that kind of no nonsense approach, one would assume that fighting – and the elimination of it – will be the next big change to come down from the commissioner’s office.

One would be wrong. 

Despite all of the ramifications that accompany a bare knuckle brawl, I believe fighting is here to stay in the NHL for the foreseeable future.  Fighting has a role in hockey that the average sports layman may not be able to appreciate.  No other sport allows for the level of self-policing that hockey condones.  It’s to the extent that nearly every team employs at least one player whose sole purpose is to provide this level of toughness.  When a fight breaks out the refs standby until the combatants tire and then issue 5 minute penalties, as opposed to ejections or suspensions that would be found in other professional leagues.  Hockey allows fighting because it’s been there from the start and has adopted a role in the game all to its own. 

Let’s take a look at some of those reasons where fighting makes all the sense in the world…

Protecting Your Own

As noted above, certain players earn their paycheck (league minimum salary this year being $525,000) with their fists as opposed to their feet and puck-handling skills.  Often times the investment in these brutes – “goons” if you will - is considered an investment on the ice to protect the bigger expenditures (aka the skill position players).  What good is Patrick Kane’s skill and speed if every time he touches the puck other teams know they can pummel him without repercussion?  That is why Daniel Carcillo, Jamal Mayers, John Scott (formerly) and Brandon Bollig (now) get to put on the Indianhead sweater 82 times per year.  To show just how important this role can be, I turn to perhaps the biggest trade in NHL history as exhibit A.

On August 9, 1988 the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Edmonton Oilers shipped the greatest player of all-time (Wayne Gretzky) to the Los Angeles Kings for two up and coming players, three first round picks, and $15 million dollars.  What doesn’t get discussed in this trade is the fact that a defenseman named Marty McSorley also moved his residence to southern California as part of the package.  You see McSorley was Gretzky’s personal bodyguard on the ice and he was good enough at his job  that when “The Trade” was announced the Canadian government weighed their options as to whether they had the jurisdiction to block it, it was imperative to the Kings and to Gretzky that his protection (not his linemate or necessarily his best friend on the team) came with.  Watch the clip below and you’ll see exactly what kind of value these players can provide.

Earning Your Stripes

Now you can’t just show up on day one and expect to be handed that coveted enforcer role.  It’s vital for these guys to prove themselves both to their teammates and to the rest of the league.  To that end I submit the video below of Brandon Bollig’s first game with the Hawks this year after they traded resident tough man John Scott to the first place Rangers at the trade deadline.  This was Bollig’s opportunity in The Show and it was his responsibility to make his presence felt, and I’m not talking about in the scoring column.  Watch how this fight shows a kinsmanship and respect between the combatants as opposed any sense of hatred.  This is the unspoken sportsmanship that allows fighting to stay in the game today.  If nothing else, stick around for the last few seconds of the video to see a proud hockey dad getting his own reward for all those early mornings and late nights standing in ice rinks.

Change The Momentum

If a team feels that a game is getting away from them or that the other team has the momentum, starting and winning a fight can often times get your boys back into a game both mentally and physically.  Especially when the game is on your home rink, if the fans have been sitting on their hands for too long, nothing gets them cheering again like a good brou ha ha.  It’s in our nature.  The Romans tapped into it three thousand years ago and it continues today in only one of our major sports. 

Finding a clip that shows this particular scenario is tough as it’s hard to capture where the momentum is in a game on YouTube so I had to go back to personal memory.  The clip below is actually an example of this strategy backfiring but you’ll get the idea.  I was watching this game at a Christmas party two years ago and the entire room stopped to watch the following.  The Hawks were winning 1-0 in Los Angeles and dominating the pace and momentum.  The Kings enforcer (Kevin Westgarth) took it upon himself to wake his team and the building up with one big scrap.  The plan backfired but at least he saw it through, applauding his own efforts while the blood runs down his face at the end.  Sure he looks like a pile of ground beef when its over but sometimes that’s the price you pay to get the job done (the Hawks went on to win the game handily for the record).

Sending A Message

A fight can also be the way that teams establish their presence and send a message to be remembered for future encounters or to make up for past wrong doings.  This is the time of year where playoff matchups are coming together and teams are getting a feel for who they’ll be playing in a best of seven series in the weeks to come.  Now is the time for these teams to let their opponents know what awaits them when the real hockey begins.  Division and conference rivals act like deer in rutting season marking their territory, making clear that they will not be taken lightly. 

Two weeks ago a prime example of this happened at Madison Square Gardens as the longtime rival New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils squared off for the opening faceoff of a game on a Monday night in March.  I don’t know all of the back story here – whether there was particular bad blood from a game earlier this year, something said in the media, or just a general dislike from facing each other six times a year – but what I can tell you is that I sure hope they have the chance to square off in April or May.

So that’s my argument and I’m sticking to it.  Despite the fallout of repeated blows to the head, I think fighting is a part of the hockey culture yesterday and tomorrow, for better or worse.  There’s far too much to it that goes beyond two Neanderthals trading haymakers just because that’s all they’re capable of.  The goons in fact are often times some of the smartest and well spoken  players on the team believe it or not.  They are wise enough to find a role that they can fill to allow them to continue to play the game that they love as long as they can.  As the rest of us head off to sit in cubicles and fill out TPS reports, one has to wonder which of us are the ones with the real head injuries that we should be worried about?

then again, some men just like to watch the world burn…