Dryden: Case for fighting in hockey continues to get weaker and weaker

Special to The Globe and Mail

Team Canada players and members of the Russian National Hockey Club during Game 4 of the Canada-Russia Summit Series played in Vancouver, Sept. 8, 1972. Team Canada player Don Awrey reaches for the puck that stopped just short of the goalline behind Team Canada goalie Ken Dryden. The Russians won the fourth game of ther series 5-3. Dryden argues that the model for professional hockey without fighting is in front of us. (CP)

Today, a good player is called “great,” and 10 years after he retires he is “legendary.” What words then fit Bobby Orr?

Before Orr, defencemen played defence. Orr decided instead to play wherever his skills took him, forcing his Boston Bruins teammates up the ice with him, to skate faster, to receive his passes and give them back more quickly than they ever had. It is not so hard for one player to stop another, even a superstar, 1-on-1. Leading from behind, Orr forced his opponents to stop a stampede.

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More than great and legendary, Orr was transformational. He changed how hockey is played. He was the best player I ever played against.

In his newly released book, Orr talks about the necessary place of fighting in the NHL. I think he is wrong.

Hockey “is a tough sport,” Orr writes, “that requires physical play, and sometimes that can lead to frustration.” The question, of course, is what a player does with the frustration.

Orr lays out the alternatives: A player can respond with sticks or with fists, and that fists are much to be preferred. In fact, the vast majority of NHL players the vast majority of the time, involved in the same tough, physical, frustrating game, don’t respond with either. They get even by skating faster, checking harder, going to the net more unstoppably. Like Orr did.

How many fights are there in an average NHL game?

In 2011-12, the league’s most recent full season, the New York Rangers had the most, 65, the Detroit Red Wings the fewest, 15. The average was 36, less than one fight per team every two games.

The Stanley Cup finalists, Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils, had 33 and 39 fights, respectively; in the playoffs, in 20 games, the Kings had four; the Devils, in 24 games, one. With all that frustration, it seems there should have been more.

How many players fight?

On average, three or four are engaged in about three-quarters of a team’s fights, a few are involved in one or two – likely the result of an opponent’s instigation – and more than half, playing on the same enclosed ice surface, at the same high speed, with the same collisions, in the same tough, physical game, with the same frustrations – none.

Today’s enforcers are also not like those in Orr’s time. They are superheavyweights. They train with boxers. They don’t throw off-balance punches, slip, wrestle and fall to the ice with opponents who do the same. They know what they are doing. A fight’s nightmare scenario is no longer a broken nose or a puffed-up eye. These enforcers’ punches, delivered to the head as hockey punches always are, do damage.

Yet if fighting is taken out of the NHL, will fans still come? Proponents of fighting talk about the electric atmosphere in the arena when a fight begins. Many fans stand, others hold their breath and clench their fists living out each blow. Even many fans who oppose fighting are fully absorbed. It’s only when the fight ends, and a few seconds pass, that a second wave of disgust hits them. But there is something undeniably compelling about a player literally fighting and bleeding for his team.

So when the debate over fighting arises, players side with their enforcer teammates. How can I not stand up for good old Joey and Tommy when they stand up for me?

It doesn’t occur to these players that if Joey and Tommy go they will be replaced by another Joey and Tommy, who love their team and care just as much, but who show it by backchecking, by diving in front of 100-miles-an-hour slap shots, who play just as they do.

The model for an NHL without fighting is right there in front of us. It’s not the Olympics, though opponents of fighting often say it is. The Olympics are too unique an experience. The ice surface is bigger. Players put on their nation’s jerseys and, in front of countrymen who know their game and those who don’t, avoid doing things that might be misunderstood.

The real model is the playoffs. It’s the time of year that fans love best; when the best hockey is played.

What happens in the playoffs?

Except in 2012, when early head shots, injuries and wrong-minded enforcement by the NHL sent many games out of control, the enforcers don’t play. Even mini-enforcers, “pests,” Orr calls them, who zip around the ice jabbing star players with their sticks, provoking retaliation, remain on the bench. Teams and coaches can’t afford anything stupid and unpredictable.

The result: With no one to fight back for them, players go harder into the corners, more determinedly to the front of the net. If they want to fire up the crowd and their teammates, they have to do it themselves. And in the playoffs, they do.

Fighting is nothing more than the easy way out. If coaches have enforcers on the bench, they will use them. Being good teammates, enforcers will do all they can to help their team. They know their job. It’s not to get into a fight – not exactly. It’s to give their team a boost. For their teammates, that means a good shift, a big play, even a goal; for them, a fight. So every other player no longer needs to deliver the big hockey play to shift the momentum. In the playoffs, players have to earn every advantage.

Lose fighting, and you lose the fight in the game? No, it’s the reverse. Lose fighting, and you make everyone fight – in their own way; in the way they do it best.

The case for hockey fighting gets weaker and weaker. For fighting’s supporters to make their case, they must twist logic and twist it again to fit the conclusion they’ve already arrived at. Fighting, a natural, normal part of a game that moves so fast, where collisions happen and feelings explode? Today, big, tough enforcers who look unlike everyone else, come onto the ice, separate themselves from their teammates and, to right a wrong, in the name of honour, without emotion, ritually hammer each other.

To deal with concussions, the league assesses a two-minute penalty to a player for “contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact,” and a match penalty when a player attempts to or deliberately injures his opponent “with an illegal check to the head.”

To avoid having to expel a fighter from a game, the league has decided the attempt to injure an opponent with a check to the head is different from the attempt to injure an opponent with a punch to the head.

Huh?

Visors are now mandatory in the NHL, except for those players grandfathered under the old rules. To fight an opponent wearing a visor requires a lot more strategy and much less emotion. An enforcer must catch the eye of his fellow enforcer, give and receive the message that the enforcers’ code is being invoked, remove his helmet and visor at the same moment as his opponent does the same, then go at it. Or find a way to get under his opponent’s visor to deliver a blow to the head, but one that isn’t an attempt to injure, of course.

Huh?

Fighting is supposed to be an escape valve to release pent-up feelings that might otherwise find expression in far more dangerous stick-work. Different somehow from football, baseball, basketball and every other major team sport, different somehow from hockey played everywhere outside Canada and at every level except major junior or pro, it is supposed to be unavoidable. It is supposed to be harmless. It is none of these things.

“The creativity, the competitiveness, the physical battles, maybe even the fighting – that’s the game at its best,” Orr concludes.

Hockey does change “in small unimportant ways,” he writes. “We just have to get out of the way.”

But hockey has changed in big, very important ways. If it hadn’t, Orr, during his unequaled career, would have played seven-a-side hockey, no substitutions. To preserve his strength, his rink-long dashes could have come only some of the time. He’d be unable to force teammates up the ice with his passes, the forward pass having entered the game 50 years after hockey began. And if he was playing now, he’d have to compress all of his magic into 40-second shifts.

Hockey is always changing – no player altered the game more than Orr, and overwhelmingly for the better.

Because of concussions, fighting, money and some new thing we can’t now imagine, it will change again. Because it must, and can.

Fighting in the NHL will end because its proponents will lose their will, get embarrassed, grow tired, and give up. It will end because it is too dangerous, or too laughable.

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