For well over a century, violence in hockey has been debated hotly by all participants in the game – the players, the owners, the media and the fans. For most of that time, the debate has centred on the fighting aspect of hockey but in the last ten years, and in particular the last two or three, most of the debate has been about "head-shots" and the concussions that have plagued the sport.
For those of us that follow the game closely, there's no need to get into another discussion about concussions in particular. They're bad for the player's health. They're bad for the game. Unfortunately, in a contact sport, they're here to stay, if somewhat lessened by new rules that are too recent to properly gauge the overall effect.
To me, the interesting phenomenon is how quickly the quest to "clean up the game" has gained traction amongst the game's most rabid fans (from bloggers to Twits to phone callers on radio shows), while that same sentiment has largely received a luke-warm response from those directly involved in the sport, ie; the players and the owners.
For years, the press, led by The Hockey News (who have been beating the drums about reducing fighting and concussions in hockey since at least the 80's under several different managing editors) seemed to be on an island of public opinion, ignored by fans who flocked to the rinks to see teams like Broad Street Bullies and the Big Bad Bruins, and ignored by the players who grew up thinking there was no other way to play the game.
Now that has changed somewhat. The mainstream press is almost uniformly appalled at on-ice violence despite accusations that an "old-boys network" at mainstays like the CBC relies on violence for ratings. The "Don Cherry mentality" basically survives with the namesake alone in the mainstream punditry, with odd exceptions like Mike Milbury, who was known to wield a pretty good shoe when beating the crap out of fans at Madison Square Garden. It seems the press has done a good job selling their message because a clear majority of interactive fans also feel that hits to the head during what was once a normal function of the game – bodychecking – can no longer be tolerated and there are now some respected voices strongly advocating a blanket ban on hits to the head, which will ultimately mean fighting will be disallowed in hockey. That's not a conspiracy theory. That's just logic.
For years the "anti-fighting forces" (for lack of a better term) in the press were getting nowhere by simply advocating a ban on fighting in the NHL. Fans loved it, the players felt it was integral to the game and the board of governors were completely silent on the subject.
But now instead of opposing fighting outright, opponents have found a back door into public opinion, and that's hits to the head. With medical research finally catching up to what was once the black-hole of information on concussions, the harmful of effects are there for everyone to read ad-nauseum during the hockey season. Like anything else, once the negative effects of something are shown clearly to the public, the public will demand that something be done about it.
It's hard to find an opinion now in the "hockeysphere" that prefers the NHL maintain the status quo on hits to the head, and over the next few years you'll begin to see that in regards to fighting as well.
Now on the other side of the game where the owners and the players reside, opinion is not as movable.
The NHL was essentially forced to institute the head-shot rule simply because the press and the fans were in a frenzy that was beginning to overshadow the game itself. Don't mistake that for a change of heart. It was a move made out of necessity to try and put the focus back on the ice, not with just the players well-being in mind. There have been some strong voices within the NHLPA clamoring for heavy penalties on dangerous hits but not as many as you would expect if you read the first page of the Globe and Mail sports section everyday which was transformed into a de-facto medical journal for all of 2010-2011.
Now if you bring up the subject of fighting in the NHL, you'll find even fewer players advocating the end of it. In fact, you'll find many more voices arguing for the abolishment of the instigator penalty and an increase in fighting. That's likely because they feel the instigator penalty protects the "super pest" type of player who can go around delivering dangerous hits without fear of facing the consequences from his fellow players. We've heard it all a million times.
Clearly, the appetite for reducing violence in hockey, whether we are talking hits or fights, is at a near maximum level in the press and amongst the fans (to a slightly lesser degree), but it is only starting to gain traction amongst the people actually involved in the game on the ice and in the boardrooms.
Which brings me to my ultimate point here.
Where does this need to scrub clean a traditionally rough and tumble sport come from? Are the motives purely a desire to protect the well-being of the athletes? I often doubt that motive. Most fans were on the side of the owners during the last lockout and were clearly not concerned with the well-being of the players when the subject came to money or their work conditions. In the current climate, NHL players are more often despised for the money they make than they are celebrated for the entertainment they provide. You can't be concerned about the players one minute and not give a crap if they have guaranteed contracts the next. Yet many do. I find that absurd.
Is the impulse to make the game cleaner stem from people not liking real violence in their entertainment? I think that's legitimate and I can see how that can be a concern, especially in a family environment. Hockey has always been violent and occasionally players will step outside the boundaries of what is considered acceptable, creating an impression that the next Marty McSorley incident is just around the corner, despite the fact that these acts are extremely rare. Some people like the artistry of the game and not its counterpart physical aspect. Fair enough.
But how far does the NHL have to bend to please this demographic? Depends on who you ask. If the majority of fans want fighting out of the league, you can be sure that fighting will eventually be banished because, like all things, it comes down to money. The day the NHL can't make money off their current product is the day they change the product.
Yet that day hasn't come. In fact, that day will probably never come. The NHL is raking in record revenues and just signed the biggest television contract in its existence. And that is with the heavy stigma it already carries - that stigma being that the fans and the press constantly bad mouth the product to the point where it has become an obsession. No other major sport has so many people calling for constant change to the very fabric of the game. Yet the NHL survives and thrives in a hostile environment created by what should be their biggest supporters. That's a significant achievement. Most governments can't do that.
Clearly, with the advent of blogs and other social forums, there are more voices than ever expressing their opinions on the game, both educated and ignorant. Yet each voice believes they are right. Who should we be listening to? The people who actually play the game or the people that pay to watch it (99.9% of whom have never played at the NHL level or even close to it).
There is a sentiment out there that somehow the fans should have more say in the game because they are the ones that shell out the money. How many times have you heard people say "We pay their salaries"?
For one, that's faulty logic. The owners pay the players. Fans simply buy the product, just like they buy Coca-Cola or dog food at the grocery store. You don't hear consumers saying they should have a say in the policies of Coca-Cola. It's ridiculous to think it's any different with the NHL. The fans, despite their comforting allusions, have no ownership over the business of hockey.
However, the basic principles of capitalism still apply here. If you don't like the product, don't buy the product. The result will be that the business changes its product or it goes out of business.
Ultimately, fans will decide if fighting stays in the game or not when they vote with their wallets. So far, the verdict is that the game stays pretty much the same because it's making money hand over fist.
Here's a humble suggestion from this scribe: Enjoy the game for how it is today. There are ample amounts of both skill and physicality that make the game completely unique amongst the other major leagues. Fighting will always be debatable but is it really worth getting rid of completely, especially the spontaneous bouts that come from passionate competition? There is such a thing as protecting the heritage and fabric of a game that has existed in an exciting form with both skill and fighting longer than any of us have been alive.
Times change and so do attitudes, but we are, after all, talking about entertainment here. Nobody is putting a gun to someone's head and saying they have to go on the ice and fight. Players take on this career of their own free will and they are heavily compensated for the risks they take, even fighters. There will always be a human toll in a contact sport. There's a human toll just by going to Dairy Queen on a Sunday afternoon. These are the risks that athletes take when they want to be paid by a professional team. It's not like someone gets to the NHL and says "Whoa, I could get punched in the head? Nobody told me about this!"
Why do we feel the need to regulate the game to such a degree that we take nearly all the danger away from the sport? Isn't that part of its appeal in the first place?
I for one do not look forward to the day when the NHL is so spit polished that Gordie Howe wouldn't be able to recognize it.