Losing The Fight

http://1.cdn.nhle.com/islanders/images/upload/2011/11/1125HaleyFight_600x500.jpg

Back in April 2012, my soon-to-be wife and I sat in a pair of nosebleed seats high in the rafters of the Prudential Center, New Jersey. This was our first NHL game and I remember being in awe at the perfectly painted white expanse before me as I took my seat.

Hidden somewhere in the stands, the organ was grinding out modern rock classics as names like Kovalchuk, Parise, Elias and Tavares (the Islanders were in town) flashed up on the jumbotron. I sat there with my $10 beer and a souvenir puck in my pocket taking it all in.

Electrifying

About 10 minutes and 2 goals into the game there was a thunderous hit behind the goal. Gloves were dropped, helmets were discarded and two players locked arms and proceeded to pummel each other in the face. Everyone erupted, jumped up.  It was as if someone had electrified all 18000+ seats in the arena. The atmosphere for that 1 minute was palpable as we all cheered for more blows to be landed. Finally, as the two fighters were led away, we sat back in our seats and resumed watching, beer drinking and cheering as normal.

That whole evening was a fantastic experience but, as I sit and remember it now, that fight sticks out as probably the most intense and enjoyable moment of the game. That’s not to say it wasn’t a good game, it was; but fighting has been one of the defining factors of hockey for so long that seeing it live was a special experience.

The Main Attraction?

For so many years the NHL has let fighting become a defining marker of the sport. It’s the one aspect of the game that you could argue is common knowledge even in non-hockey markets. Growing up in South Africa I knew nothing of the rules of the game, but popular belief amongst myself and my friends was that the game was a cross between boxing and field hockey on ice. Now perhaps in my particular case you can chalk that up to video games or films, but still it has to be acknowledged that the toughness and violence of hockey has always been one of its main attractions.

So what’s the big deal? Well, fighting in the NHL is on the decline. Last year 790 fighting majors were handed out to players. Compare this to the 2010/11 season where 1284 majors were recorded. Fighting in junior leagues has all but been outlawed with the Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL) handing down automatic game misconducts for anyone who dares to throw a punch. College hockey penalises players by ejecting them and suspending the offender for a minimum of 1 game.

Like it or not, hockey is losing one of its most unique features, a draw card that separates it from the other Big 4 sports. Now that might be less of a problem if the other aspects of the game were stepping up to fill the void. Instead, scoring is down, goalies are bigger and many argue that individual skill and flair is being discouraged with every second on the ice being heavily coached and monitored.

Finding a Replacement

That moment I experienced those few years ago in New Jersey will soon be gone, and right now there’s nothing to replace it. Now I know that fighting has major drawbacks – a quick internet search will reveal terrible injuries and life lasting damage to many of those who’ve partaken – but the NHL needs to realise a huge part of the game is being eroded and a void will remain until the game can replace that excitement and passion with something else.

I’m aware that I’m writing this as a hockey outsider, neither North American nor European. Nevertheless the Tie Domi’s, Joey Kocur’s and Bob Probert’s were a huge reason why I stayed up all those nights glued to ESPN. Their brazen courage and fearlessness drew me into the game while the skill and speed kept me there.

Cam Janssen and Michael Haley, those were the two players I witnessed going head-to-head that night in New Jersey –  players many people might dismiss as ‘goons’ or perhaps more kindly, ‘enforcers’. But, while their career points totals might not look like anything special; those two men stood toe-to-toe to each other, putting their health and careers on the line to stand up for their club and their team mates.

Does that not sum up hockey to you?

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