Macleans defends fighting, issues challenge, I accept

Maclean’s is a highly-respected Canadian news magazine (a weekly, I think). It’s older than the NHL, and almost older than ice hockey. This week, they published an article on fighting in hockey, by a writer named Colby Cosh. I encourage everybody to read the whole thing (follow the link below).

The real danger in hockey: Colby Cosh on chunkheads, shot blockers, rhetoric and reality (

Hockey has started up again, and it goes without saying that the debate over fighting in hockey was not long in following. We were only a couple of hours into the big Habs-Leafs season opener when professional chunkheads Colton Orr and George Parros locked up for their second bout of the night. As it was winding down, the Leafs’ Orr fell and pulled Parros to the ice face-first by the jersey, causing millions to wince and the debonair Princeton graduate to lose consciousness briefly. Medics, acting out of their usual abundance of caution, carried off the bloodied Parros on a spine board.

Even as he was being treated, the calls for a permanent end to hockey fighting began to ascend to heaven. One doubts whether Parros privately welcomed this touching concern, since the most immediate effect of such a measure would be to run George Parros out of the National Hockey League at Mach 1. You could not help feeling that some people were hoping it might happen overnight while he was indisposed. “Sorry, George. We got together and decided to let your career die with dignity.”

Alternatively, “Sorry, children of George, we got together and decided that our entertainment was more important than your dad’s brain. Please accept this commemorative drool cup.”

This is not an argument in favour of fighting in hockey, but it was curious that the debate sparked up after an injury that was somewhat incidental to the fight itself. Moreover, nobody much felt the need to wait and find out whether Parros was seriously hurt, which he wasn’t, by hockey standards.

I’ll give you that one. When people have a cause, they tend to make everything that happens be about their cause, and it’s usually actual proof of the righteousness of their cause. I wouldn’t use the Parros incident as part of an argument against fighting. The argument against fighting doesn’t need the Parros incident, and for this reason: Parros hit his face on the ice by accident. Orr did not mean to drive Parros’s face into the ice. That was just something that happened while Orr was attempting to punch Parros in the face with his fist.

Did not want to: drive face into the ice.

Did want to: punch face with fist.

It’s the desired effect of punching someone in the face with your fist — knocking them out — that is insupportable now, since we know what we now know about the brain, brain damage, permanent brain injury, etc.. Knowing what we now know, we can’t cheer for intentional brain damage and death.

I can defend hockey from the argument that it’s too incidentally dangerous. But any part of the game that involves an intentional attempt to injure is indefensible. It’s indefensible if it’s kneeing (or slashing, etc.) with intent to injure, and exponentially worse when we’re talking about brain injury.

The rhetoric that follows ugly hockey fights descends immediately onto Twitter nowadays, seemingly of its own accord. You have obnoxious parents wondering indignantly how they will explain a fight to their saintly hockey-loving children, who have apparently never seen anyone bopped on the nose in a sandbox with a Tonka truck.

This is a faulty analogy. But if you’re wondering if I’m also opposed to toddlers smashing each other in the face with the intent of rendering each other unconscious in a manner that is scientifically proven to cause brain damage and early death…yes, yes I am opposed to that.

You have the purists shouting that fighting is “not part of the game,” as if the “game” were a machine to be optimized, to be made as homogenous as possible as a matter of efficiency.

What the hell is a homogenous machine?

The “not part of the game” argument is a rebuttal to another argument, one I like to call the “it’s part of the game” argument.

The “not part of the game” argument simply points out: it’s not part of the game for the roughly one million youth hockey players in North America. It’s not a part of the game in the NCAA. It’s not a part of the game in any significant sense (the sense being “no one would miss it”) in any of the leagues in Europe. It’s only a part of the game in the NHL and in juniors and North American minor leagues. Those leagues represent not even 1% of the ice hockey being played in the world.

For a vast majority of the hockey-playing world, fighting is simply not part of the game at all. As in, it’s not there.

You have the prophets of doom, warning that any day now an NHL fight will kill somebody: perhaps that will happen as soon as this sentence is printed, but it would be a first, and the league’s 98th birthday is right around the corner.

That was what the anti-fighting people were warning three or four decades ago. To argue that some weak-assed ninnies are whining that someday something bad might happen because of a fight is to entirely miss the point. Because that “something bad” has already happened, and is continuing to happen. We have proof (see: science) that concussions are dangerous, can cause brain damage, dementia and early death. So rooting for one player to give another player a concussion by punching him in the face with his fist is now seen by some people as being roughly on a par with a cock-fight.

What strikes me is that almost all the objections to fighting apply equally well to the modern practice of blocking shots in the defensive zone with one’s body—a feature of the game that goes back 20 or 25 years, rather than 150, and thus cannot be defended as inherent to the play of hockey.

Weird. Why was I blocking shots 45 years ago? Where did I learn that? Go look at any highlight reel footage of Bobby Orr, and you will see several examples of him fearlessly blocking shots.

It’s beside the point, anyway. Things change. It used to be a penalty for a goalie to leave his feet. We’re not talking about Plato’s Perfect Chair of hockey. We’re talking about — or should be talking about — what we want hockey to be. Today.

Shot-blocking has already ended the careers of a few decent NHL players. Looking over the great pyramid of hockey, descending from the pros to recreational leagues, hard shots to the throat or the thorax have surely caused more deaths than fights ever did.

I’m not aware of these thorax-related deaths of which you speak. But then, I guess since you put the number of fight-related deaths at zero, the bar is set pretty low. However: nobody roots for someone to take a puck to the throat, and taking a puck to the throat is not the intended outcome of shot-blocking. Yet, we do root for someone to punch someone else in the face, and knocking the person unconscious is the intended outcome of fighting.

A recent study showed that in the current NHL pucks cause about as many concussions as fights, though that ratio will probably change as the visor-free players gradually disappear. That is without considering the more frightening injuries that pucks do cause and that fights by and large do not. If I had to bet on the cause of the next on-ice death in the NHL I would certainly back an ill-timed or unlucky shot block over a fight, and I would not need even odds.

I think the reason you keep referring to “on-ice” deaths is that you know perfectly well that the persuasive argument to ban fighting is not that it may someday cause someone to die “on-ice.” It’s that the point of a hockey fight is for one player to concuss another player, intentionally — and for us, the fans, to root for the players to concuss each other. Limiting the conversation to “on-ice” death would be like arguing in favor of smoking because so far you haven’t seen anyone spontaneously burst into flames. That’s not how they’re dying. Smoking causes cancer. You die later. Concussions cause brain damage, dementia and early death. You die later.

Shot-blocking has its specialists, just as fist-fighting does. When we are denouncing fighting, we argue that the George Parroses of hockey must be forced to quit for their own sake—spared the lucrative temptation to risk life and health in the name of entertainment and vicious machismo.

They would only have to quit if they weren’t good enough at hockey to make the team.

Shot-blocking, much more obviously than fighting, is not something a sane person would do for fun.

I don’t think you understand shot-blocking then. Personally, I think it’s fun — not that “I think it’s fun” should be our standard. Punching people in the face must also be some kind of fun, otherwise why are people spending literally billions of dollars to watch people pretend to punch each other in movies and on TV, or to pretend to punch people in video games? The key word being “pretend.” There’s a difference between — on one hand — getting out your aggression by pretending to punch someone in the face, or by living vicariously through a digital representation of drawings punching each other in the face, or through actors pretending to punch each other in the face — and on the other hand — getting out your aggression by cheering the actual damage to an actual person’s actual brain.

But how are the death-defying shot-blockers regarded?

There are no “death-defying” shot-blockers. If it were reasonable to expect death as the outcome of blocking a shot, no one would block shots, and no one would encourage anyone to block shots, and no one would cheer someone when they blocked shots.

It should suffice to point out that the official league statistics do not tabulate the fights the game “tolerates,” but do count blocked shots.

Last I checked they keep track of these things called penalties.

Even the kind of relatively evolved hockey commentator who tut-tuts disapprovingly at an honest scrap will revert to old-timey type when some courageous plug stops a Chara one-timer with a face or ankle or scrotum.

Use of the scrotum for shot-blocking is largely frowned-upon. Again, the difference is that, if you block a shot with your scrotum or face, it is by accident and/or catastrophic miscalculation. For example, a coach might say, “hey, Bob, that was great how you blocked that shot, but next time, try not to do it with your face.” Compare that to a fight, in which punching someone in the face is not an accidental or unusual by-product of the fight. It’s the whole point of the fight. It’s intentional. It’s the main event. You would not hear the coach say, “hey, Bob, it was great how you stepped up and fought Ingmar, but why did you have to hit him in the face?”

It is “taking one for the team,” which is precisely the unhappy, self-sacrificing behavioral pretext that is unanimously decried when Parros gets an owie.

It is decried because of extensive owie research, which has shown that owies cause brain damage, dementia and pre-mature death, and which informs USA Hockey’s Owie Awareness campaign.

How can manly bravado be an ugly vestige of Neanderthality in one context and a stony old Roman virtue in another? Try explaining that one to your kids.

“Son, intentionally attempting to hurt an opponent is wrong.”

“But, dad, I read that article in Maclean’sIt said that fighting is just like shot-blocking!”

“And did that make sense to you, son?”

“No, I thought it was a false equivalency. But am I supposed to use my face or scrotum to block shots?”

“No, son. In hockey, you must strive to protect your face, the faces of your teammates, and the faces of your opponents.”

“I will, dad.”

“And we don’t use the scrotum at all.”


  4 comments for “Macleans defends fighting, issues challenge, I accept

  1. USHA#17
    October 14, 2013 at 7:52 PM

    I used to block shots in recreational leagues. One hand over the cup the other the neck and face guard…no big deal except for the occasional idiot who couldn’t lift a puck and hit my toes.

    The league long ago left Broad Street and moved to a very different place. Fighting by appointment, is a joke…there is no purpose. The near complete absence of fighting in the last two playoff years makes a compelling argument for those who feel fighting no longer has a place in hockey.

    I feel fighting still has a place if top players are being targeted…through I strenuously object to all the bullshit fights that result in response to hard, clean checks. Its a hard game these boys are paid to play…..and what attracts many fans..

    I have an idea that may satisfy all involved; game misconducts for fighters who remove their gloves or any player who continues to fight after he or his opponent has lost a helmet.

    • October 14, 2013 at 8:47 PM

      Suspensions for fights will solve the problem. Classify a fight that involves hits to the head as — durrr — an intentional hit to the head, and penalize accordingly. There may be the rare fight, but knowing that a suspension and forfeiture of pay for a fight in which you punch someone in the head will cost actual cash money will force the necessary culture change.

      But I guess that wouldn’t satisfy “all involved.” Never mind.

      • USHA#17
        October 15, 2013 at 8:29 AM

        OK, maybe my idea wasn’t so hot. But make no mistake, I am not on the side of “gratuitous” fighting. I simply believe it will occur periodically in a game of this nature. At least the players are smart enough to skate away in the playoffs.

  2. Tyfighter77
    October 15, 2013 at 4:16 PM

    I see fighting in hockey as a separate thing with a life of its own. It’s really very strange that its there. Or maybe it’s strange that it isn’t a part of football, soccer or basketball. Either way, it has coexisted with/within hockey since the beginning and evolved along the way. It will take a natural course determined by cues from sports entertainment culture. Another “invisible hand” if you will. That could go either way.

    Increased public consciousness of, and decreased tolerance for head injuries in sports has built some momentum in recent years which could easily result rather soon in a fightless NHL that resembles (as Quisp points out) the rest of world hockey.

    However, human nature being what it is, societal desensitization may (as the doomsayers predict) send us down the Roman road where bloodthirsty fans relish the fight more and more. The much more brutal bare fisted UFC and mma fighting seems to have completely crushed boxing in popularity to the point of irrelevance in the last decade. Hockey is above all entertainment, and a business – especially in the eyes of the League. And they will do what sells tickets. Only the NHLPA could pose an obstacle should things trend that way – and who knows what they want anymore.

    The most interesting thing to me about fighting in hockey, is that it IS, and whether and how it will proceed from here. If you have a philosophic nature, there will be some fascinating revelations about North American culture.

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