Why fighting fits in the NHL

Jan. 28, 2013, 11:47 p.m.

I had hoped to devote this column to Patrick Marleau, my favorite hockey player, who tied a 96-year-old NHL record last week by scoring multiple goals in the first four games of the season — only to break the streak by scoring just a single, measly goal when I made it to my first Sharks game since the lockout on Sunday night.

But then Tom Taylor, The Daily’s own Englishman extraordinaire, came along yesterday and described his first live hockey experience, complaining about the fighting he saw in the Sharks’ win on Saturday and the fact that the fans “bayed for [the players’] blood.” He called on the league to get rid of the violence and for its officials to “actually [enforce] the rules” instead of letting players get away with hockey’s variety of vigilante justice.

Speaking for hockey fans everywhere, Tom, let me say this: We hear you loud and clear. We get that fighting is easily the most off-putting aspect of the game to outsiders, and most of us have ourselves had trouble coming to terms with it at one point or another. I even skirted the issue when I waxed poetic about the best sport on earth in this very spot a couple of weeks ago.

But saying that, “Supporters of fighting in hockey rely on nothing more than excuses to defend the indefensible,” or, “Don’t even try to justify fighting”?

Game on, Tom Taylor.

To make my case for why fighting is not only necessary, but beneficial, in hockey, I’m going to use the very same play that Tom took offense to during Saturday’s game. The sequence began when Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog skated up the boards and was leveled by Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart.

Now, there are two types of hockey hits: clean ones and dirty ones. As the names imply, the first type is perfectly legal and the second type — defined by factors such as attempting to injure a player, hitting an opponent’s head or leaving your feet to deliver an unsafely powerful blow — can result in a stint in the penalty box, a fine or even a suspension, depending on the severity of the infraction.

(It should be noted here that hockey has taken some of the most aggressive action in professional sports by suspending players whose unsafe hits threaten others’ safety. League disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan, once a professional tough guy himself, issued 58 such “Shanabans” last season alone.)

By most objective accounts, Stuart’s hit was clean: He was making a play on the puck handler, he stayed on his feet and any contact with Landeskog’s head was incidental. But Colorado defenseman Ryan O’Byrne thought otherwise, and you don’t let a dirty hit to your team captain go unpunished. If you did, after all, who’s to stop the other team from pummeling him again on the next shift?

Regardless, as there was nothing blatantly bad about the hit, the level-headed thing for O’Byrne to do would have been to line Stuart up and deliver a legal, crushing check against the boards. That sort of retaliation happens all the time in hockey. Instead, O’Byrne lost his cool and went right after Stuart, wrestling him down and starting a fight.

Tom and others wonder why the chaos of fighting seems so institutionalized in hockey, but shocking as the fisticuffs appear, they’re not nearly as violent as your average dark-alley duel. That’s because the players are still on ice, and if you’ve ever worn a pair of skates you know that a quick change of momentum — say, lunging your fist forward — is a pretty easy way to fall. So in any hockey fight, the first thing the two players do isn’t to go for the haymaker, but to grab their adversary’s jersey with their left hand for stability.

Now that everybody’s safely entangled, the hilarity can begin. Each player stiff-arms their opponent’s right shoulder with their left hand as they swing own their right fist around at their adversary’s head, which is now conveniently out of reach because of said stiff-arm — and usually no longer sports a helmet, the removal of which is a common courtesy to prevent bruised or broken fingers. Most punches miss, and in an even fight there are only two ways to make contact: with a surprise upper-cut by the right hand or a pesky, six-inch jab to the chin with that all-important left paw.

Occasionally a big punch lands; even less often there’s blood. Nine times out of 10 a hockey fight is more like wrestling than boxing, but the frenetic flair of flying fists can be a bit misleading.

And don’t forget, even a Michelin-Man-esque spokesperson for Maxi wouldn’t be wearing as many pads as these guys do.

O’Byrne, our vigilante, was fortunate enough to channel his anger into a few solid punches. But even though the entire ordeal lasted just 25 seconds — not “several minutes,” as Tom would have you believe — it cost O’Byrne 19 penalty minutes: five for fighting, four for instigating and a 10-minute misconduct. Stuart also got a matching five (the typical penalty for a fight), but by coming clear across the ice to tackle Stuart, O’Byrne put his team down a man for four minutes, twice the length of your typical penalty. Though the Avalanche had dominated the game to that point, Marleau scored twice on that extended power play and the Sharks never looked back.

With all that background in mind, here’s how we can explain the crowd’s excitement — which Tom portrayed as barbaric — during the fight: “We just destroyed your captain without doing anything wrong, you got really pissy about it and decided to force yourself into an upscale pillow fight. Now have your 30 seconds of square dancing, go sit in the locker room for a third of the game and think on your sins as your team loses because of you.”

Turning points like that scrum change the complexion of a hockey game. And as crude as fights may seem to one eloquent Englishman at The Daily, their consequences — for O’Byrne, likely costing his team the game — are a better deterrent for unwarranted violence than their counterparts in any other sport.

The defense rests.

Though Tom Taylor received four minutes for instigating, Joseph Beyda’s retaliation cost him a game misconduct. To help Joseph pay the fine levied by Brendan “Shanahan” O’Byrne, contact him at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu and follow him @DailyJBeyda.

Joseph Beyda is the editor in chief of The Stanford Daily. Previously he has worked as the executive editor, webmaster, football editor, a sports desk editor, the paper's summer managing editor and a beat reporter for football, baseball and women's soccer. He co-authored The Daily's recent football book, "Rags to Roses," and covered the soccer team's national title run for the New York Times. Joseph is a senior from Cupertino, Calif. majoring in Electrical Engineering. To contact him, please email jbeyda "at" stanford.edu.

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