ANDREW JEFFREY — THE GATEWAY (University of Alberta)
EDMONTON (CUP) — We’re just barely into hockey season, and while Edmonton is left dazed from the sheer ineptitude their Oilers display on a nightly basis, the NHL as a whole is suffering from the effects of a different kind of daze — one that players experience when an opponent’s fist repeatedly finds its way into their face.
The debate over fighting in hockey is a time-honoured tradition. To have an opinion on the subject and argue it with friends and family is becoming as normal among hockey fans across the country as buying your favourite team’s jersey or staying in on a Saturday night to watch Hockey Night in Canada. It seems by this point every season, there’s always already an incident or two that leads to this sort of discussion.
The 2013–14 season has been no different. Just last week Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ray Emery, likely frustrated by his team’s worst showing of the season in the midst of a 7–0 loss to the Washington Capitals, skated the length of the ice during a line brawl between the two teams to challenge Capitals netminder Braden Holtby to a fight. Holtby, skating away from his opponent, clearly wanted nothing to do with the fight but had to defend himself when Emery kept pursuing him. It wasn’t long before Emery was repeatedly hitting Holtby in the back of the head while the referees curiously did nothing to end the fight.
One of the most common defences to fighting in hockey is that the players know what they’re getting into when they sign up. This isn’t ballet after all. Fighting has been a part of hockey as long as anyone can remember and is an accepted — and even cherished — part of the game for some. But this was one example of a player being forced into a fight he didn’t even want.
It’s times like these where hockey is exposed as living in its own strange world where attacking an opponent who doesn’t want to fight doesn’t land you in jail. Even other sports leagues would have at least leveled a suspension at Emery, yet the NHL has done nothing so far, seeing as how technically nothing Emery did in this act of violence was against the league’s rules.
But as the name calling ensues, with anti-fighting hockey analysts calling the current rules archaic and pro-fighting analysts calling those critics weenies, everything feels all too familiar. These types of arguments are still happening, but they’re not getting as much press and they’re not getting as much attention as they used to.
The fact is that the debate over fighting and violence in hockey has escalated to a point where it’s now hit a ceiling. There’s been nothing new to add to the fighting debate for years, and now the arguments on either side have grown stale.
This is why the game at all levels needs to rid itself of fighting sooner rather than later. Fighting may have always been a part of the sport, but players are bigger and stronger now than they’ve ever been, leaving longer lasting damage from these battles. More and more players are left on the shelf for longer because of injuries. This same brawl, for example, put Flyers leading scorer Vincent Lecavalier out of the action — all for the sake of a worthless fight.
The ridiculous idea that players need to police themselves could be solved with improved calls from referees and stricter suspensions and punishments handed down by the league.
The boost that winning a fight supposedly gives a team did nothing for the Flyers in this case, as they were still shut out of scoring against Washington.
Fighting in the NHL is still around because of tradition and its entertainment value for fans, nothing more. But players shouldn’t have to risk their health further by brawling in a sport that’s already fast-paced, exciting to watch and dangerous in the first place.
When the same argument happens year after year, it becomes less newsworthy and grabs less attention from fans. At this point, it isn’t too sensational to believe that it may end up taking a tragedy on the ice as a result of fighting to cause real change to the NHL’s rules.
Until such an incident happens though, injuries will continue to lead to nothing more than writers on both sides rushing to get a column out demeaning the other’s position on in this debate, with no real headway being made.
As the injuries pile up and the Ray Emerys of the league are able to menace on the ice and get away scot-free, the real struggle will continue in the media and between arguing fans, with no change for players — all for so-called fans to be entertained by a few seconds of boxing when they paid to see a hockey game.
Graphic: Cody Schumacher/Graphics Editor