The Minnesota Wild are set to open their 2014-15 season against the Colorado Avalanche tonight, and while many have high expectations for the team, anybody who watched other games around the league on Opening Night was reminded just how physical and violent the sport can be.
Two fights occurred last night, one in the Bruins-Flyers game, and the other in the Kings-Sharks game. Although none of the individuals involved in the fights were injured, every year a handful of players miss time because they break a bone of suffer a concussion during a fight. In all, there were 469 fights recorded in the 2013-14 season.
The fallout from hockey fights rarely leaves the rink, but it does happen. Just this year Todd Bertuzzi and the Vancouver Canucks settled out of court with Steve Moore for an undisclosed amount. Moore suffered three fractured neck vertebrae, facial lacerations and a concussion during his rookie season when he was suckerpunched from behind by Bertuzzi. Moore, a rookie at the time, never played another NHL game. Bertuzzi was eventually charged with criminal assault causing bodily harm, but only received a year of probation and 80 hours of community service.
While the majority of Bertuzzi’s punishment came in the form of the undisclosed civil suit, if you were to suckerpunch a person on the street, break their neck and render them incapable of doing their job, you’re likely going to spend a few months, if not years in prison. So why is hockey any different?
Every sport has their “code” or their set of “unwritten rules.” Don’t bunt to break up a no hitter. Don’t bullrush the kneel-down formation. Don’t shoot if you’re up by double digits with just a few seconds left and the defense isn’t fouling anymore. Kick the soccer ball out of bounds if a player gets injured, and give the ball back to the other team if they kick it out when your teammate goes down. These are all unwritten rules in other sports, and hockey is no different.
There exists a fight code in hockey that’s akin to the old adage, “an eye for an eye.” If you hurt the other team’s best player, your best player better keep his head on a swivel. But there’s more to it than that. There’s a whole underlying science to hockey fights, including pairing your best players up with more physical players to do any “enforcing” that may be needed, and picking on someone your own size/skill level. It’s not that Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin wouldn’t drop their gloves, they are just too important to their team, and their teammates know that, so a third line defenseman will square off against an opposing defenseman as a way of settling the score, and more often than not, clearing some of the bad blood between the teams.
The problem is, largely due to other sports, the microscope these players are under is growing bigger and bigger, and their on-field and off-field actions are being watched more closely than ever. The NFL recently changed it’s personal conduct policy after a rash of ugly incidents, and the NHL might be the next league to adopt some rules changes. Hockey purists will tell you fights are “part of the game,” and many fans love seeing an impromptu fight between two players, but is it really something we want to be exposing our children too? Fighting is outlawed in youth, high school and college hockey, but children aren’t walking around wearing Edina hockey jerseys and tuning into every high school game. They’re watching the pros, who they literally see taking matters into their own hands.
I do think hockey will change its fighting policy in the future, but I don’t think you’ll completely be able to eliminate it from the game. As a season ticket holder I’d be lying if I said I don’t enjoy seeing two guys drop their gloves in the middle of the game. It’s the same principle that led me to be a lawyer. Take two sides, let them have it out, be it with words or with fists, and see who comes out on top. I don’t have a perfect solution to address hockey fights, but I do know I never want to see another Steve Moore incident. It’s just interesting to see how assault is treated so differently when it occurs on a rink.