Goons and Cheap Shots: Keeping Hockey Out Of The Mainstream

Expectations

We have within us an innate sense of right and wrong. Along with that comes a desire to see justice done and for equality. When we see injustice and inequality it stirs anger. These are some of the most basic yet profound human emotions. Fulfilling them is satisfying. We seek equity and fairness in the tangible world as well as in our entertainment. We root for the good guys in books, films and television shows. Some of our favorite television shows are sports broadcasts. How we deem the fairness, the even-handedness of a contest is a determining factor in how enamored we will be with said contest. On one extreme we have the WWE which is an admittedly staged athletic melodrama of sorts. On the other extreme we have the legitimate sports leagues, such as the NFL, MLB and NBA. They have governing bodies, player associations, rules committees and all the trappings of a well maintained and cared for product. On the field of play the rules are enforced by officials who call each offense the same way, no matter the time of season or portion of the game. If players engage in any sort of shoving they are immediately penalized. If they throw punches they are ejected and will likely earn a suspension.

Reality

But not in the NHL. The NHL falls somewhere between the WWE and the NFL. Fans can expect the sort of chaotic drama and violence of wrestling within the framework of a legitimate league. For example, check out the start to this game in Boston.

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Three seconds, three fights. If that isn’t staged melodrama, I don’t know what is. I suppose the punches are real enough. That does beg the question concerning our sense of justice. I am sure all of these men came into the game as children. They were taught how to play. They wore cages on their faces until they turned pro. When did it become ok for them to punch each other in the face? Once someone was paying them to play? Once it was a spectacle? If I am understanding this correctly, if I pay my ten bucks to bang on the glass in a minor league arena, that 19 year old instantly morphs from a sportsmanlike student-athlete into a thug whom I am entitled to see beaten bloody?

Me Used To Be Angry Young Man

When I started watching hockey I was all about the fights. It was exciting. Think about it: where else in polite society can men brutalize one another and then just act like nothing happened, outside of an actual fighting sport like boxing or MMA? I never knew when one would break out during a game. It seemed like a great compliment to the speed and the crushing hits. Don’t think that hits to the head are a new phenomenon. Even revered Hall of Famers dished out dirty shots. Check out Messier knocking out Mike Modano.

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Nice, right? Nothing like watching a star get his brains scrambled to get you going in the morning. Then something else happened that was a real “aha” moment for me. Nick Kypreos was knocked out in a fight and it was ugly.

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Seeing him lay there in an ever growing puddle of blood, limp and lifeless, was very hard. I was getting older too. Also, I was watching other fans around me. They weren’t there to watch hockey. They were there to hoot and slap the glass and see men fight and throw checks. My appreciation for the game was deepening. I was becoming emotionally invested as a fan. The players weren’t fish in a plexiglass bowl. I knew their stories. I didn’t want to see them hurt or beat up. It certainly wasn’t necessary to play the game. This last season Jat Beagle had a similar experience when he bit off more than he could chew.

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Zero Growth

How fighting is a benefit to the league, I’ll never know. Bill Clement said that more people come to the games for the fights than stay away because of the fights. I don’t concede that his opinion is true, but lets say it is. That’s a recipe for stagnation and decline. Keep the product the same and watch your fan base shrink away with attrition as they die. Allowing players to “police” the game themselves by enforcing unwritten rules is as ridiculous as bean-balls in baseball. Look to the nations most succesful league. NFL officials are absolutely in charge of the gridiron. Let the refs toss players as soon as they start trouble and you’ll have less fights. They’ll learn to act more like men and less like whining kids. Then the mainstream will see athletes more in line with their expectations. Not brutes.

Bad Calls and Bad Plays

Fighting isn’t the only issue that must be addressed. Calls for vicious play must become more consistent. It is astounding that a player can be suspended for an action which was not called as a penalty. How can that happen? Even better, when a player makes an obvious foul and neither a penalty nor a suspension is issued. I was introduced to this early via the deplorable human being known as Ulf Samuelsson.

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Did you see how perennial poor decision maker Mike Milbury handled that? Too bad there wasn’t a shoe lying around. Things haven’t changed much since then. Observe Horton being hospitalized.

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As well as Pacioretty.

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Can you believe there was no suspension?  Americans demand justice in their sports. Or how about the brief suspension Rene Bourque received for breaking Nick Backstrom’s jaw with an intentional elbow, forcing him to miss most of the season? The difference in time missed leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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As a bonus, here’s Avery acting like the fool he is.

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The NFL would run him out of the league for antics like that. No team would pick him up, no matter the talent. The NFL knows it has a reputation to uphold. Perhaps if the NHL acted like it had a reputation to protect it would actually build one. Get rid of the bloody stuff. The mainstream wants to watch scoring and celebration. They don’t want to watch young men being carted off in stretchers.