Over the last 15 years, it’s no secret that the NHL has wanted to shy away from the Slap Shot-esque reputation that followed the sport of hockey throughout it’s history. A large part of Gary Bettman’s plan for spreading the NHL to new markets across America has been to downplay the rugged physicality of the sport, and instead tout the game on its speed and finesse.
That’s all fine and dandy, but there’s something to be said about giving back to your valued customers. While speed and finesse have undoubtedly been staples of what lifelong fans of hockey have loved about the sport, it’s impossible to deny that fighting and hitting have been right there too.
After all, Wendel Clark and Bob Probert were talented hockey players, but they were idolized just as much, if not more, by the punches they threw as the goals they scored.
At first glance, it seems that the hockey world has forgotten about it’s physical roots. Fighting numbers have been continually going down, and we’ve begun to see the demise of the once-popular enforcer role, as players like former heavyweight champs Colton Orr and Eric Godard have faded into the depths of the AHL, likely to never be seen again.
But if the first couple weeks of the 2012 playoffs are any indication, fans certainly remember, and still adore, the rougher side of the game.
Case in point, Game 3 of the Penguins – Flyers series.
Note the roar of the crowd. Note the standing ovation from the fans.
But it’s not just the Flyers fans, who have a reputation for especially loving the rough stuff, that loved what they saw: fans across the NHL tuned in to see what will surely become one of the most talked-about hockey games in years. That game drew the best television ratings for a non-final game in a decade.
And it’s not just the Flyers – Pens series that is seeing an above-average amount of fighting, with fan support to match.
More roars from the crowds. More standing ovations.
Looking around hockey circles on the internet, namely Facebook and Twitter, and you’ll see an obvious trend: fans are more excited about the playoffs right now than they have been in years, and that’s in large part due to the return of fighting in a bunch of the opening round matchups. Seeing the players ramp up their emotion and intensity means the same thing will be reflected by the fans.
It’s obvious that the fans are loving the fighting, but sadly, many of the NHL’s pundits seem to be oblivious to this fact. This article by The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell, who is as vocal of a critic of violence in hockey as they come, is a perfect example: scathing remarks about the on ice altercations, but no word about how much it draws the support of the fans. Campbell himself even acknowledged in the article about what’s been the hot topic of conversation regarding these playoffs thus far: “But it’s the Monday after the first weekend of the playoffs and what is everyone talking about? The garbage that is dragging the game into the mud.”
But what Campbell is forgetting is that the sport of hockey ultimately isn’t about the media, the owners, or even the players: it’s about the fans. They’re the ones that spend the most money buying tickets and jerseys, watch the most games on television, and promote the sport the most to their friends and families. Where would the sport of hockey be without the support of its fans?
Now, this isn’t to discount the importance of player safety or the ever-serious issue of concussions. But fighting has always existed within the sport of hockey; no player ever reaches the NHL level without understanding the role that it plays in the game. If a player doesn’t want to get involved in the extra curricular activities on the ice, he doesn’t have to. Matt Cooke currently having zero penalty minutes in the series is a perfect example of this.
But these playoffs have shown two things: first, that a lot of players are still willing to put themselves into that position of a fight to protect their teammates and stand up for their team’s honour, including superstars like Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux; and second, that the fans love the sport of hockey even more when the players play with an extra dosage of passion
Fighting is something that is, and will always be, a part of hockey. And as the enthusiasm of the fans shows, this is something that should be respected by the NHL and the hockey media, not derided.
Derek Neumeier primarily covers the Dallas Stars, but also other various topics related to the sport of hockey. A Journalism graduate of Mount Royal University, Derek also writes for Defending Big D, and has done previous work with the Edmonton Oilers as a communications intern and Hockey Canada as a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @Derek_N_NHL