When I was a kid, every other kid I knew loved Cal Ripken, Jr. They all wore his jersey, or took the number “8” in Little League or demanded to play shortstop in gym class kickball.
Me? I loved hockey. I loved the action and the intensity and the thunderous body checks. I loved that a game that could be absolutely brutal at times could also accommodate the artistry of a Mario Lemieux or a Pavel Bure. I loved the fights.
Things have changed in my life since that time, but I still love hockey. I love watching Alex Ovechin bowl over people and score big-time goals. I love watching Mike Green on the rush. I love watching how the Caps have turned from a perennial afterthought in this region to (arguably) its most popular team.
But I don’t love fighting anymore.
I don’t love the silliness of staged fights that accomplish nothing. I don’t love how it extends games. I don’t love how guys who do nothing but fight once a game, play three minutes, and sit on the bench the rest of the night take up roster spots. But most of all, I don’t love what it does to its participants, who must deal with physical (concussions, broken bones) and psychological trauma (never knowing if their next fight will be “It”). Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien never got to see 30. Jon Kordic departed this world in a drug-fueled fury at 27.
I understand how advertising works. I know everyone wants those coveted young male demographics, because that brings in the most money. I know the NHL has a built-in fanbase of people who love the fights (primarily in the older generation), and believe that it’s part of the game, and part of what makes hockey “special”, no matter how inane and dangerous the practice. Here’s the thing — hockey doesn’t need fighting anymore to be “special.” The league has more great young talent in more places than it ever has at any point, and more ways to expose them than ever. And none of them are out there for two shifts a night. Fighting doesn’t act as a deterrent (Matt Cooke got pummeled last year by Evander Kane, yet still was up to his old tricks this past season), and it just makes the sport look like a sideshow. It’s embarrassing.
The league built itself on the backs of these people and marketed to them for years. It will be at risk of losing a lot of those fans if they ban fighting (I have a feeling though, that they’ll gripe, but they won’t leave). But here’s where the NHL can take a positive stand for principle ahead of potential financial gain by phasing fighting out of the game. The owners have a duty as an employer of these players to manage their health and welfare, because no one’s paying $100 a ticket to watch Eugene Melnyk and Terry Pegula scrap for pucks in the corner.
You get older and you see the world a little bit. You learn about how the world works and who makes the decisions and you learn that the people you looked upon as heroes ultimately turn out not to be who you thought they were. You learn about the physical toll athletics take on the athletes who participate in them as you watch players you loved growing up fade away into nothingness 40 years before they should. It’s always tough to question and demand change from a systemic culture that has deep roots, and it’s time for hockey fans to step up.