Hockey is sport of rugged beauty. True hockey fans appreciate the swift skating and smooth scoring capabilities of finesse players like Bobby Orr that beat you with speed and skill. They also appreciate the dominant physical strength of players like Jerome Iginla who combine their physical dominance with puck handling skills to overpower and defeat their opponents. True hockey fans admire the ethics of a sport that is designed to systematically reward the teams that focus on playing with skill and toughness with winning. It is a sport of harnessing emotions to be tactically advantageous. These emotions can boil over and occasionally lead to fights of passion and frustration between players, but it’s time for us to stop accepting players who are strictly designated fighters as part of the game.
There are two main arguments that proponents of designated fighters (enforcers) use to justify their place in hockey:
- Teams use fighting to gain an advantage over one another.
- Enforcers make the game safer because they allow the players to police themselves.
If these two arguments were true, then we would be seeing the amount of fights per game rise every season or remain at a steady pace as the league tries to make the sport safer and teams try to improve. The following graph shows how the amount of fights per game in the NHL has declined by almost 66% since the 2008-2009 season:
Data gathered from http://www.hockeyfights.com/stats/
This consistent decrease in fighting has been mainly due to the decline of teams that consider enforcers important for winning hockey games. To understand why enforcers no longer have a place in hockey we have to understand and poke holes in the reasoning supporting the two arguments in favour of enforcers
Response to arg. 1 using Parry’s Violence and aggression in contemporary sport
In Jim Parry’s article Violence and aggression in contemporary sport, he argues that in certain circumstances, violence in sports can be legitimate. He shows that violence can be legitimate in certain sports because violent acts can be allowed within the rules to achieve a certain goal. This is evident in body checking in hockey. If somebody body checked another person on the street, they would be arrested for assault. However, body checking is allowed within the rules of hockey to gain an advantage over the opposing team. Proponents of enforcers argue that teams use fighting as a part of their strategy to win games as well. The thought process behind this is that when a player fights, it gives their team momentum because of their teammates extra motivation to win for the player. This is because he was willing to put himself on the line for the sake of their team by engaging in a fight.
The immediate argument for why strategic fights between fighters and body checking are not in equal under Parry’s terms of legitimate violence is that body checking is allowed within the rules of hockey, but fighting is not. I don’t think this argument proves their point because fighting can be considered similar to fouls in basketball. Basketball players will strategically foul their opponents to try to gain possession of the ball after the free throw. This shows that it can be acceptable to strategically break the rules and that the mere fact that fighting is not within the rules does not necessarily make it illegitimate.
I argue that strategic fights between enforcers are illegitimate because they do not provide teams with advantages over their opponents in the same way that body checking does. A successful body check separates your opponent from the puck and takes them out of the play thus giving your team an on-ice advantage. Fighting does not give your team an on-ice advantage because both players get sent to the penalty box for the same amount of time. This suggests that it must be the momentum gained from watching your teammate fight. Players say that they get fired up when their teammates win a fight. However, they also say that they get extra motivation when their teammate loses a fight because they want to play better to show that the fighter didn’t lay his safety on the line for nothing. This shows that both teams gain momentum after a fight regardless of who wins and they cancel each other out. Therefore strategic fights between enforcers don’t give either team an advantage over the other, so it doesn’t apply to Parry’s account of legitimate violence in sports and shouldn’t be accepted as part of hockey.
Response to arg. 2 using Savulescu et al. Why we should allow using PEDs in sports
In the Why we should allow using PEDs in sports, Savulescu et al. argue that a major reason for allowing PEDs in sports is to ensure the safety of the athletes. While their conclusion is not relevant to the issue of strategic fights between enforcers, their premise on the importance of player safety and occasional necessity for paternalistic rules shows why these fights no longer have a place in hockey.
Proponents of fighting say that fighting makes the game safer because it allows the players to police themselves. Brandon Prust, a hockey player who fights regularly said in The Player’s Tribune that “If they take fighting out, and guys aren’t worried about answering the bell, I guarantee more people will get hurt from an increase in open-ice body checks.”
In the past several years, researchers have discovered that CTE, a degenerative brain disease, is caused by concussions and repeated sub concussive blows to the head. In the past several years, several ex-enforcers have committed suicide or died of overdoses and have been diagnosed with CTE post mortem. CTE causes behavior and mood changes and interferes with cognitive abilities and memory. It is believed to have been caused by the repeated blows to the head that occur in a career of fighting and to have been a significant factor in the depression and subsequent suicides or overdoses of these ex-enforcers.
In determining if the enforcer should be a part of hockey, we need to recognize that policing the game through strategic fights is not safer than putting an end to the prominence of the enforcer and reducing the amount of athletes that will suffer from CTE. Savulescu et al. argue that we need consider athlete’s safety as a paramount concern. Harley Haggarty, a player in the WSHL, said in The Player’s Tribune that “Squaring off against a big, tough guy who wants to knock my head off doesn’t scare me. But walking away from the game that’s defined my life up until this point, well, that’s terrifying.” This shows that paternalistic rules and norms are necessary to prevent players like Harley Haggarty from putting themselves at risk of developing CTE for the sake of playing a sport.
To briefly conclude this post, I want to point out that when I go to a hockey game, I intend on watching just that, a hockey game. I have no interest in watching two guys who are not good at hockey punch each other until one falls or gets injured. I have shown that fighting serves no tangible benefit to the sport in terms of helping teams win or improving safety. As a result, it appears clear that there is no place for strategic fights between enforcers in hockey.
Parry, Jim. Violence and Aggression in Contemporary Sport, 205-224