Aug 18, 2000
Hockey fans have seen their fair share of "tough guys", or fighters if you will, come through the league. From legends such as Tiger Williams and Dave Schultz, to more recent examples of Tony Twist and Bob Probert, hockey fans have consistently had the pleasure of watching many skirmishes throughout the years.
With current enforcers such as Tie Domi, Sandy McCarthy and Georges Laraque prowling the rinks, it seems the tradition will continue. But for how long?
Fighting has become an endangered species in the NHL. Critics continue to slam the league for including such "barbaric" behavior and even the league office itself (namely Commissioner Gary Bettman) continues to support the instigator rule, which penalizes a player an extra 2 minutes for instigating a fight. In an era when winning is oh-so important, fighting is on the decline as enforcers league-wide fear putting their team on the short end of a power play for the sake of a scuffle. Such a trend however is a negative for the league and the following reasons illustrate why.
Helps to Police the League
In recent years it seems the NHL has had the misfortune of generating almost as much negative coverage as it has positive. Brutal and ugly injuries have plagued several players, including superstars such as Paul Kariya, Jeremy Roenick and Mike Modano. Often these injuries involve nasty stickwork, elbows, checks from behind or other actions that generally show no respect for players' careers. The common philosophy is that the ones who inflict the majority of the injuries are players who feel much braver than they actually are, mainly because the policing ability of a team's respective tough guy has been taken away by the instigator rule.
Think back to the Oilers' glory years of the mid 1980's. Players like Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri were seldom touched by opposing teams. Not because they were superquick or they had some magical ability to escape injury. It was because opposing players knew that if they messed with either one of them (or anyone else on the team for that matter) they would have to answer to Dave Semenko, the team tough guy. There was no instigator rule for players to hide behind. If something was done outside of the game's informal etiquette, Mr. Semenko would come calling, gloves not included. Today, players like Semenko are deterred from taking such action for fear of costing their team a crucial odd man advantage. Cross checks, elbows, high sticks, and checks from behind are what the league needs to clean up, not fights. Dropping the instigator rule will allow enforcers to do what they do best, police the league and help keep their fellow players healthy.
Fighting Adds to the Excitement of the Game
Hockey is a physical sport, more so than any other. Whether the play is in the corner, in front of the net, or in the open ice, players are constantly being checked, flipped, twisted, or manhandled in some way. This contact can often lead to a fight. It seems that nothing, other than a great goal, will cause fans to leap to their feet quicker than a good fight. It used to be (before the instigator rule) that the chance of catching a much anticipated fight such as a Probert vs. Domi would be just as much of a draw as the game itself. This should not shock anyone. People love to see fights, at least in a controlled setting. Look at boxing. No sport has created more turmoil in recent years, yet fans still pay huge sums of money to watch the sport live and still more fans pay to watch the bouts from their home.
In hockey, fights can serve as a momentum shifter. Simply winning a fight can have a direct correlation on not only crowd enthusiasm but teammates adrenaline levels as well. As a fight is initiated, the two combatants stand toe toe, often jawing at each other for several moments. This anticipation draws fans to their feet faster than it takes for the players to sputter, "you wanna go?" Gloves fly everywhere as the two players embrace for their bout, usually lasting only seconds. Often the battle ends in a tie, but if the hometown player emerges victorious, the crowd is immediately sent into a frenzy. How many times have we seen Tie Domi or Tony Twist get sent over the boards to find a partner to "dance" with, hoping to wake up teammates and fans? The longer the instigator rule remains in force, the less this unique aspect to hockey will be able to impact games and the less fans will have to cheer about.
Fighting Provides Roles for Colorful Personalities
There is no denying the popularity of hockey fighters. Toronto is a prime example of how a fighter, Tie Domi, can be just as popular as anyone else on the team. Fighters are appreciated for their toughness, their ability to turn the tide of a game and basically everything except their ability to score and make great plays. But when a true fighter actually does stumble upon a goal, watching their boyhood enthusiasm shine through is refreshing.
The true fighter is a dying breed. Since fighting is on the decline, tough guys who can't do other things are being phased out. This trend, if allowed to continue, will push fighters out of the league all together due to a simple lack of a need for their services. It would be sad to see this tradition destroyed. Fighting provides a different aspect of entertainment than a goal or great pass can provide. Most of the fun of viewing a fight is the humorous yapping and gesturing that precedes the actual flying of the fists. And the post-fight drama can be very entertaining as well, whether it is more yapping or the fighters signaling victory in their own unique way. The instigator rule, once again, is taking a long-standing tradition of the NHL (tough guys) and eliminating their colorful personalities and unique qualities from the game altogether.
Hockey is the greatest game on earth. Trying to take a major aspect and unique identifier like fighting away, like the league is trying to do with the instigator rule, is tragic. The fights are not barbaric, as some critics claim, and are a natural response to the physical nature of the game. Seldom does a player involved in a fight get hurt. In fact there is a mutual respect and informal code of conduct among the fighters. The self-policing aspect, the entertainment aspect and the added value of the colorful personalities of the fighters are all reasons why the "instigator rule" needs to be dropped. Doing so will let hockey thrive in its natural form as the most exciting game in the world.
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