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The Final Word On Fisticuffs

Okay, so this is the final word on fighting in hockey from me.  From everyone else, well, that debate may last longer than the National Hockey League itself.

I wouldn't even bring this up if Sean Avery could keep his mouth shut and I wasn't also reading Bob McCown's book McCown's Law: The 100 Greatest Hockey Arguments.  Fighting is one of those one hundred arguments, if you can believe it.

First of all, Sean Avery has always been a punk, so even if he didn't make an insulting remark about Jason Blake's fight with cancer, Darcy Tucker was probably still justified in beating Avery's ass.  Well, justified if you believe fighting has a place in hockey.

According to Damien Cox of ESPN:

There's no right or wrong answer. Just opinions, lots of loud ones, for a sport that still wonders what it wants to be.

Which is, of course, a total cop-out.  Of course there's a right or wrong answer, but it depends on the question you ask.  Asking "is fighting right for the NHL?" can't be answered unless you first ask "what is the ultimate goal of the NHL?"  

If the ultimate goal of the NHL is to appeal to hardcore, old-school fans (of whom many still exist), primarily those in Canada and the City of Brotherly Love, then fighting most certainly has a place in hockey.  Absolutely.  In fact, the more the better.

You have to consider, though, that the hardcore fans in Canada are low in number, relatively speaking, and can't sustain any kind of significant revenue growth for the league, or even most individual teams.  And, as McCown points out in his book, there is a good argument that fighting doesn't really attract non-traditional fans in any significant numbers:

I find it hard to believe that fans in non-traditional hockey markets these days are shelling out $70 or $80 a ticket on the off chance that someone might drop the gloves.  I'm not saying the old-fashioned line brawls, the kind that had coaches sending players over the boards a la Slap Shot, didn't attract a certain element of the population.  Of course they did.  But those free-for-alls are almost extinct, to the degree that going to a game in the hope of seeing the benches clear makes about as much sense as buying a lottery ticket.

Hell, forget bench-clearing brawls (which are illegal and result in big penalties nowadays), what about just regular old one-on-one fights?  Those don't happen very often anymore, let alone every game, and some teams almost avoid them altogether.

So the appeal of fighting, especially as a marketing tool, is minimal.  Current hockey fans either like it or don't mind it, but fighting alone is not drawing any additional fans.  Keeping it in the game would only ensure that current fans keep showing up---most of whom would show up with or without the fisticuffs anyway.

But if the goal of the NHL is to mimic the rules and feel of leagues like the NBA in an attempt to appeal to a broader fan base, then fighting has no place.  You can't be like the NBA or the NFL if you allow the fists to fly.  Sure, sometimes a scrap happens in those leagues, but the ejections are immediate and the penalties are steep.  No five minute time out for the offending participants, that's for sure.

So, if the NHL determines that being more like the NBA is a good way to grow the fan base, then it most certainly should ban fighting forever.

But here's the tricky part; does fighting actually drive potential fans away from hockey?  Has a guy in the United States, in his 20s or 30s, ever said to himself, "Man, I'd like to go see a hockey game tonight, but there might be a fight and I just don't want to watch that."  I highly doubt it.  Those American guys in their 20s and 30s are the typical sports fans so highly lusted over and competed for by the rival professional sports leagues in North America.  And I can guarantee most of them aren't turned off by fighting.  Just look at the rise in popularity of mixed martial arts and the UFC in recent years.

I don't know if any of you have ever been to a college or pro football game in the United States, or even a college or pro basketball game.  Compared to the fans at those events, hockey fans (even in Nashville) might as well be university professors.  The typical kind of guy that goes to an NFL game or an NBA game is not the kind of guy that would be turned off by a quick exchange of fists by two heavily-padded hockey players.  Fighting is not driving those fans away, lack of interest in the sport in general is keeping them away.

Ultimately, I don't think fighting has any impact on the popularity or reputation of the National Hockey League at all.  It does make the sport distinctive, though, and anything that separates one sport from another in the crowded sports media atmosphere is a good thing.  Get rid of fighting and you eliminate one of the most well-known aspects of the sport among American fans.  Hockey becomes even more "boring," that way.

But let's not kid ourselves and say that fighting contributes anything of real value to the game, either.  "Keeping the stars safe" doesn't have to be done by enforcers (if they even do so at all), it can be done by harsh penalties, fines and suspensions, like in other leagues.  As McCown points out in his book, fighting doesn't even help teams win important games, since most teams abandon the practice entirely during the playoffs.  The enforcers rarely even suit up.  Fighting is primarily a side attraction that appeals to traditionalists and those who like violence in general.  Ultimately, it doesn't make a difference to the game itself.

So, where do I stand on fighting?  I say, keep it in the game until it goes away.  That may not be a very good answer, but I don't think it really makes any difference at all.  

That said, if fighting was eliminated, I'd sure miss having Ian Laperriere around to kick Dion Phaneuf's ass, most definitely.