Matt Barnum explains why conscientious hockey fans everywhere must reject fighting in the sport they love.
The NHL’s playoffs are set to begin and I for one couldn’t be more excited. Here in Chicago, the Blackhawks had a dominant season, and the city is revving up for what we hope will be the second Stanley Cup in recent memory. But when I watch a hockey game, there’s an uncomfortable fact lurking in the back of my mind and at the forefront of my TV screen: the indefensible violence that hockey promotes and rewards.
Hockey is a contact sport. Checks, jostles, elbows, hard hits, and injuries are probably necessary for hockey to be hockey—the game would be fundamentally different without this arguably acceptable physicality. What is surely not acceptable, however, is the senseless, prevalent fighting between players.
Everyone knows that fighting is “a part of” hockey, and always has been. That is an accurate statement, but hardly a justification for continuing the violence. In response to concerns about fighting in 2007, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said, “Fighting has always had a role in the game,” declining to entertain even the possibility of banning it. His focus was on making fighting safer. Yet two grown men (in the case of hockey players, extra-grown men) hitting each other will not and cannot be made genuinely “safe.” Case in point: in 2009, a player in a Canadian league died after an on-ice fight.
Bettman has promised to “look at” the issue. Less looking, more doing would be appropriate here. The fighting has no good reason. It is violence for the sake of violence or for the sake of stirring up the crowd or “avenging” a hit against a teammate. None of which even comes close to a justification.
Yes, fighting in hockey, is to some degree consensual, akin, perhaps, to wrestling or boxing. But though this fact, in and of itself, would hardly be full justification for the practice, do we really know whether all, or even most, hockey players support fighting? Imagine the ridicule that a player would face if he refused to fight. There are regular reminders that hockey values traditional masculinity and shames anyone who defies it.
In fact, there’s precedent: before the NHL required helmets, many players didn’t wear them, and those who did faced widespread mockery. It’s easy to imagine the same thing happening to a player—particularly a non-star—who refused to fight.
The negative effects of fighting are not limited to the participants. The millions of hockey fans—many of whom are children—are also willing victims of this violence. There has long been strong psychological evidence that exposure to violence begets violence and agression, particularly among adolescents.
The culture of violence has become at once destructive, mindless, and utterly banal. It’s chilling to hear hockey players talk about it. Consider this interview with Cam Jansen, in which he blithely says: “You wanna put the fear of fuckin’ God in people’s eyes… You can hurt guys with hits like I know how to do, that’s what puts the fear of God into people.” (Jansen subsequently apologized for his “poor choice of language” and to “anyone who was offended.”)
The violence is not limited to fighting; it has seeped insidiously into regular game play. No longer is checking about separating a player from the puck; it’s about “hurting” him and putting him in “fear.” Fighting, as Jansen laughingly says, is about “beat[ing] the shit out of” opponents. There needs to be a fundamental change in the way hockey players think about the game and violence; it can start with a blanket prohibition against fighting.
A conscientious hockey fan, then, is left in a bind: desert the sport he loves or continue to support a sport that regularly elevates, practices, and condones violence. I myself am not ready to give up hockey; in fact, I’d argue that this would be counterproductive: we need more hockey fans who are critical of fighting, not fewer.
What this does mean for hockey fans is simple: tell other fans why fighting is wrong, support initiatives to limit violence in hockey, turn the TV off when fighting happens, refuse to glorify it or cheer for it at games.
The pro-fighting advocates are right about one thing: fighting is deeply ingrained in hockey. That’s one reason it’s so necessary to try to change the entrenched violence, and it ought to start with us hockey fans. After all, the black eye we see all too often on hockey players is also a black eye on the sport itself.
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Photo: AP/Kathy Willens