Stupid Ostrich Tricks, or Why Gary Bettman and the NHL Are on the Wrong Side of the Fighting Debate
I’m not sure The New York Times or their reporter, John Branch, have an agenda, but boy did they lob one across the bow of that juggernaut that is the National Hockey League. Branch’s devastatingly-sad, three-part, 15,000-word investigative report entitled “Punched Out,” about the hockey life and recent death of enforcer Derek Boogaard, hit the newsstands and internet last Sunday. I can’t imagine the NHL, or certain hockey clubs––cough cough Rangers cough cough––are very happy with what is contained within. In fact, Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL, appears downright defensive and deflective in a sixteen-minute video interview accompanying the story. Whenever he’s asked specifically about fighting and its relevance in today’s game? Well, I’m no expert in body language and revelatory facial tics, but let’s just say Bettman looks very uncomfortable.
Hockey is, in turns, beautiful and savage, graceful and dangerous. The thing that perpetually awes me about hockey is the simple fact that you have to perfect one set of skills, skating, before you can even think about perfecting the skills specific to the sport itself, like passing, shooting, stick-handling and the more intangible idea of ‘game sense.’ Hockey has, arguably, the sharpest learning curve of any team sport in existence. The beauty of the sport and its dual nature––the absolute requirement that its athletes be simultaneously graceful as a ballet dancer and tough as a lumberjack––is one of the aspects that I find most compelling about hockey. Now, if only they got rid of the fighting.
As a lifelong hockey fan, I’m going to say something here, directly to the National Hockey League and Commissioner Bettman, even though it is something they probably actually know already, on some level, in some visceral way. It is something so simple that it’s dangerous: If you were to get rid of fighting, we would still come. We would still buy tickets to games; we would still watch on television, paying extra cable fees to do so; we would still buy replica jerseys by the millions. Kids would still buy hockey trading cards. And, most importantly, TV networks would still bid for, and show, your product. Sure, there would be some disappointment, but no true fan would stop loving hockey, if fighting were erased from the game.
Why is this statement dangerous? Because it is the whole crux of the issue of whether or not to ban fighting. Bettman loves to use this as his excuse for doing nothing. He seems to think that fans would stay away if a ban went into effect. And, you see, if this argument is proven to be bullshit––if more fans would say, simply, that they’d still watch––then there is no good reason to NOT get rid of fighting. Bettman himself dismisses fighting as merely an incidental part of hockey. I’ll go one step further: fighting is a peripheral part of the sport, and because of its sideshow pedigree, hockey wouldn’t suffer if it were expunged from the game.
Ever the consummate lawyer, Commissioner Bettman is fond of parsing words and speaking of the game in theoretical terms. At one point in the ancillary video interview to The Times article, when asked why fighting is allowed, Bettman answers that fighting isn’t allowed, it is currently punished, and that the question is whether we increase the punishment. A slick bit of attorney-speak, where he evades the question by rephrasing the question, and then doesn’t really answer what was asked. Bear in mind, this isn’t a fan who is asked this question, it is the COMMISSIONER of hockey. A man who, if he felt strongly opposed to the spectacle of grown men hitting each other in the face in the course of the game, could bring the proper pressure to bear on any naysayers––the players’ union, team owners, fans, 34 million Canadians––and ban fighting once and for all.
When asked if he (i.e., the NHL) is considering a ban on fighting, Bettman puts on his faux-philosopher hat, and pontificates about how all games evolve over time, how they grow organically. He shrugs: fighting has always been a part of the game, so why change it? It’s a fancy way of saying that the league will not be proactive in banning fighting. Not on his watch, anyway. Thank you, commissioner ostrich.
Another arrow in the quiver of the pro-fighting bloc is to explain––very earnestly––how fighting is hockey’s time-tested method of policing the sport from within. The reasoning is thus: dirty players won’t take liberties with the skill players if they know there’s a 250+ pound gorilla on the bench, ready to dole out some fistic retaliation. This is a disingenuous point at best totally illogical at worst. As Exhibit A, I give you Matt Cooke, a forward for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and cheap-shot aficionado. Cooke has been suspended numerous times for various dangerous hits, nothing is too low for him: head-shots, knee-on-knee checks and other possibly crippling and debilitating moves. Would a guy like this, who doles out concussions like pez, be deterred if he ever got leveled? I saw Cooke dropped like a bag of dirt in a fight with Evander Kane of the then-Atlanta Thrashers (the team has since moved to Winnepeg). Kane threw one right to the jaw and Cooke was out cold before he hit the ice. Has that deterred Cooke from his dirty play? Go to YouTube and watch some of his so-called greatest hits, and see what you think.
I used to like the fighting in hockey; admittedly, it got my blood going, the adrenaline pumping. If there was one single moment where I was suddenly disgusted by the fighting, maybe it was the night I saw former New York Ranger Nick Kypreos endure a double-whammy of being knocked out by one punch to the jaw, then face-planting on the ice, blood pooling serenely underneath his prone body. He never played another game after that. Or maybe it was just a long slow realization that I could easily live without the fights, and that the game would actually be better without them. I’m convinced of this.
I look at a fight now and roll my eyes. It’s like some absurd and outdated theatre on ice, like some Canadian Samuel Beckett is scripting these things. It’s a joy to watch international tournaments like the Olympics, where fighting is severely-enough punished to make it a deterrent, or even watching the NHLs own playoffs, which are fast and furious but contain very few fights. This is hockey as it should, and could, be.
To rephrase that famous Rodney Dangerfield quote: I saw a hockey player score a goal, and a touchdown broke out. I witnessed a strange incident in a game last week, while attending a New York Rangers v. Tampa Bay Lightning tilt at Madison Square Garden. Ranger forward Artem Anisimov scored a short-handed goal off an end-to-end rush. As he glided backwards toward center ice, he suddenly dropped to one knee, and, much like a six-year-old, turned his stick around in his hands, pretended it was a rifle, and proceeded to point and shoot at the Tampa Bay goal.
Deeply offended at the hot-dogging, Lightning captain, Vincent Lecavalier, charged up ice at Anisimov. Other Lightning players followed; the other Rangers on the ice at the time, circled the wagons. Low-grade pandemonium ensued. One Lightning player, Steve Downie, left the bench to join the fray. He took a swing at our sassy gunslinger, which missed; young Lightning stud Steven Stamkos sucker-punched a glancing blow off Anisimov’s head. Order was restored, with the referees assessing 38 minutes in penalties for the fray. As far as NHL scraps go, the incident was decidedly mild; it was more curious than anything else, for a number of reasons.
First, you rarely witness such exuberant, post-goal celebrations in an NHL game (except in Washington, where Alex Ovechkin likes to take flying leaps into the boards). In hockey culture, you don’t show up your opponent; celebrations are ok, but nothing too NFL, too euphoric or bizarre. So stoic are some NHL goal celebrations, I am sometimes reminded of that clichéd Native American scene in dozens of films where a hunter will apologize to the deer he has just killed while thanking it for providing meat, etc. In post-game interviews, hockey players are so self-effacing you want to check their pulse. According to every hockey player who ever scored a goal, the puck either took a lucky bounce or their teammates did all the heavy lifting, leaving them little to do but tap the puck in the net.
Second, while his Rangers’ teammates had Anisimov’s back in the heat of the moment, you kind of sensed that this was more of a ‘my friend right or wrong’ kind of thing. You just knew that the Rangers weren’t happy about the celebration either. And sure enough, after the game, the Rangers’ dour head coach, John Tortorella, issued stern words for his own player, saying Anisimov would be dealt with in the locker room. In essence, Tortorella ordered a Code Red on his ass. Not that he’d be whacked with a pillow-case full of soap bars in the shower, but the veterans would surely have a word or three for the effervescent young Russian.
And the final curiosity is this: the manner in which those 38 minutes in penalties were doled out. Anisimov was hit with the most minutes for his role in instigating the scrum: 18 of the 38 minute were given to him, including a 10-minute misconduct presumably for his Buffalo Bill act. On one hand, hockey does have a specific rule against such celebrations. On the other hand, all Anisimov did was score a goal, celebrate (albeit, excessively) and then try and defend himself as the wrath of the Lightning descended upon him.
As for Lightning forward Steve Downie, NHL rule 70.10 states: “The first player to leave the players’ or penalty bench during an altercation … shall be suspended automatically without pay for the next ten (10) regular League and/or Play-off games of his team.” A little further down in the rule book, there are details about fines to player, coach and team for this infraction. While Downie did receive a 10-minute misconduct, as of this writing, he has not been suspended or fined for leaving the bench.
This incident, in miniature, tells you everything you need to know about NHL culture. To wit, it’s ok to take a swing at someone when defending your team’s honor, but don’t you fucking dare act like a football player and disrespect your opponent after scoring a goal. The fact remains: you can get away with a bit of the ultra-violence in hockey. You can end another player’s career––as Todd Bertuzzi did after assaulting Steve Moore on the ice in 2004––with a pre-meditated, vicious sucker punch/tackle, while you yourself continue with your career.
You can get paid to trade devastating punches with a guy on the other team who is paid to do likewise. These punches are delivered without malice, there is no hatred involved. Your teammates applaud you by tapping their sticks against the boards or ice. You can exact revenge on a team or player for some real or perceived slight, weeks, months or even years later, and everyone at the rink, including the refs and coaches will know it’s coming, and still allow it to happen, with sometimes-minimal punishment.
Ironically, the NHL has been proactive in punishing dangerous hits to the head. After a Matt Cooke incident in March 2010––where Cooke blindside-forearmed Boston Bruin Marc Savard into the land of the concussed––the NHL instituted tougher rules against such hits. But for a league that is painfully aware that, yes, concussions are a problem in contact sports––is Sid the Kid’s career over?––it makes little sense to differentiate a dangerous check from a choreographed punch. The brain doesn’t know the difference between hitting the ice, a forearm clothesline, a hard elbow pad, or being punched in the head. I can’t think of too many things that could happen in a hockey game that are more dangerous to a player’s head, than, well, being whacked in the skull by a closed fist during fights that the league tacitly approves with a boys-will-be-boys acceptance. And until the NHL finally admits that, yes indeedy, this is base hypocrisy we are operating under, we are delusional, then they have a basic image problem.
If players weren’t getting hurt from this fighting, it might actually be amusing to see Commissioner Bettman and other league officials (I’m talking to you, Brendan Shanahan, Vice President in Charge of Player Safety), twist themselves like pretzels when trying to explain the tortuous logic of their arguments. Somewhere inside their heads, these explanations makes sense to them. But not to me, nor to thousands of other fans––millions perhaps––who think hockey would be better off without the fighting. The league should be on the right side of history, and ban fighting, boot it to the curb where it belongs. Sadly, Rodney Dangerfield’s joke still rings true.