March 12, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 85  

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Fighting not the issue in NHL

With one vertebrae-cracking thud to the ice, the media engines were churning and calling for wholesale changes to Canada’s national game of hockey.

Since Todd Bertuzzi of the Vancouver Canucks sucker-punched the Colorado Avalanche’s Steve Moore, media giants like The Globe and Mail have once again tolled the bell to end fighting.

Fighting in the National Hockey League has long been a part of the game’s entertainment value and its oft-controversial brand of on-ice justice, and is a coded way in which players engage each other in the sport — while it may be violent, it is a necessary evil in the game.

Without fighting, incidents like the one between Bertuzzi and Moore would be even more common than they are now. These instances of violence outside the codes of the game are more dangerous than fighting; players who fight know what they’re getting into.

Today’s talent-poor NHL needs fighting, as the game has degenerated to a collection of promoted bush-leaguers trying to catch up to the skilled players by clutching, grabbing and sticking.

Fighting will never leave the NHL, and an outright ban would only allow the violent plays outside the rules to prosper; with harsher consequences for fighting, the only way to “get back” at an opposing player for injuring your star would be not to engage in a “fair” fight, but to sink to the aggressor’s level and perform an equally brutal act.

The real crackdown should come not on fighting, but on the dirty work: high-sticking, slashing, spearing, boarding and checks from behind.

The amount of dirty play in the NHL today reflects a lack of respect among the players for each other that has never been seen before; in the days of a six-team league, most of the players knew each other and there was a professional respect among the athletes. Nowadays, there are so many teams in the league that two players may never meet again, on the ice or off.

Even Don Cherry may be right this time: the instigator rule is partially to blame, too. Players won’t take a 10-minute misconduct for starting a fight, even though the best way to motivate your team is to send your spark-plug into battle; and consequently, the dirty little tricks are getting bigger and bigger, as players find revenge in other ways.

To ban fighting on a moralistic ground is to over-intellectualize the sport — in life, as mama always said, fighting probably won’t solve anything, but on the ice it will. Fighting, like body checking, is allowed within the rules; sure, fighting carries a major penalty with it, but to entirely outlaw it is to apply a standard from a rational universe to an irrational, physical activity.

Plain and simple, the Bertuzzi-Moore incident was not a fight, it was a senseless act of violence — what would banning fighting do to stop it?



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