Why do NHL “stars” still have to act like goons?

Jan. 28, 2013, 12:18 a.m.

I checked off another achievement on my sports-fan resume this past weekend: I went to my very first live NHL game to watch the San Jose Sharks crush the Colorado Avalanche 4-0.

While I have to admit that I and The Daily’s chief operating officer, who accompanied me to the game, were a little confused about some of the refereeing calls made in the game—I used to think icing was the sugary layer on top of a cake—we were helped out by some friendly Sharks fans and the experience was definitely a worthwhile use of 40 dollars.

Helped by a poor performance from the Avalanche, the Sharks dominated this game. Early on, the play looked close, but as Colorado suffered with penalties it gave San Jose many chances to play with an extra-man power-play advantage. The Sharks capitalized with two goals scored at the end of the first period and never really looked back. Though the visiting team was a little unlucky with shots deflected off the Sharks’ goalposts, by the end San Jose clearly deserved victory.

However, despite the relatively cheap tickets and easy trip down on Caltrain, I’m not convinced that I’ll be back again. There is still one thing that might keep me away from becoming a regular at NHL games, a perfect example of which came at the end of the first period.

Perhaps fueled by the emotion of the contest, a fight broke out between the Avalanche’s Ryan O’Byrne and Sharks’ Brad Stuart with just over a quarter of an hour gone in the game. That in itself was perhaps unremarkable; I realize that fighting does occasionally take place in hockey and it’s not uncommon for tempers to boil over in pretty much any other sport. But what struck me most was the reaction of everyone else in the arena.

Teammates and referees simply sat back and watched, letting the players fight it out, bare-knuckle style without helmets or gloves, for what felt like several minutes. And meanwhile, the 17,000 strong crowd bayed for their blood. Was I the only person who felt deeply uncomfortable about this?

Now, I realize this attitude may mark my out as a hockey newbie, but let’s get serious here. If these players had picked their fight just outside the Plexiglas walls of the rink, they may very well have left the stadium in handcuffs. I’m also no hero, but had the same brawl broken out in front of me, I wouldn’t have stood idly by gawking. I know that because I’ve risked getting punched to intervene in and break up fights before.

How can we justify suspending our ethical and legal rules just because these players are out on the ice?

I realize, too, that fighting has a long and established tradition in hockey in North America. But “tradition” is no excuse.

Racism and sexism used to have a “tradition” in most major sports, but, while problems with both do remain, the majority of fans, players and the relevant authorities recognize that this is simply not acceptable anymore—take, for example, the racist abuse thrown at AC Milan’s Kevin-Prince Boateng earlier this month; Boateng’s teammates showed solidarity with him in walking off and abandoning the contest—. Why is calling someone a name, however deeply offensive, considered a serious breach of sporting conduct, yet smashing their face in is harmless entertainment?

Even when the sports governing bodies get it wrong, most of us have a sufficient moral code to realize what is and isn’t acceptable. FIFA President Sepp Blatter has gone on the record to threaten clubs with forfeiting matches if they abandon games due to racist abuse, and he famously declared in 2004 that the way to improve women’s soccer was to “wear tighter shorts and low-cut shirts.” It’s no wonder that most informed soccer fans have little respect for Blatter.

Call me crazy, but I honestly believe that sports is better because of its efforts to remove problems like racism and sexism. It’s hard to understand why violence and hockey should be an exception.

There may of course be some “fans” who only attend games for the fights, much as there were hooligans in the UK in the <\#213>80s who used soccer matches as an excuse to riot, and there are people whose major interest in auto racing revolves around the crashes. However, pandering to a darker side of human nature is never productive. British soccer stadiums are now seen as generally safe places for families to enjoy a game and attendance figures as a result are much higher than they were 30 years ago. And while deaths do still occur in auto racing, they are much less frequent. Equipment and rules have reduced crashes and increased safety, and as a result we no longer have to suffer loss after loss of the most exciting driving talent.

Supporters of fighting in hockey rely on nothing more than excuses to defend the indefensible. Yes, other sports are violent, but boxing has clear, defined rules that govern it and ensure the risk to competitors is kept to a minimum. While football by its very nature often leads to injury, it applies rules to prevent brawling, and most sensible sports will eject and ban players for this. Apparently fighting serves to “protect” players, to ensure certain infractions like high-sticking, elbowing and cross-checking don’t get out of hand. I guess the threat of extreme violence is far better at keeping players in line than referees actually enforcing the rules.

Don’t even try to justify this. If hockey is a worthwhile spectator sport, it simply doesn’t need the fights. It will stand up for itself and draw attention from real fans. If not, then I, for one, don’t need it in my sporting life.


Tom Taylor clearly has not been exposed to the excitement of NHL ‘96, when gloves come off left and right and your punching power has a meter. Tell him where to get a copy at to[email protected] and follow him on Twitter @DailyTomTaylor.

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