What’s a Canadian farm boy to do?

Gino Odjick

Did you know his first name was Wayne?

And suddenly, everyone in America cares about hockey. Not in the sense of, like, watching or playing it, God forbid, but instead in worrying about the impact fighting has on the professional game. It all stems from this 3-part series on fighter Derek Boogaard in the New York Times. It’s a captivating read, not even so much for the tragedy of Boogaard’s life and death, but because it makes Canada seem like a foreign, barbarian land, not much closer to the urbane NYT readers than the horse-blood drinking Dothraki of the plains. I can’t deny it – I’m a little bit perversely proud. The piece has generated a plethora of one-sentence concern-troll opinions (see Katie Baker about this) and the strengthening of the “hockey as bloodsport for sadists” view that I once wrote about. But though this has made people who enjoy hockey (like me) double down and take a defensive stance, it’s true that the NYT piece shines a devastating light on fighting in hockey. It’s also caused Grantland to reprint this profile of Joey Kocur from an earlier era, which, along with the Theory of Ice post on fighters I present for your perusal.

Of course, the Boogaard piece once again leads to the same question that Boogaard, Rypien and Belak’s deaths did this past summer: do we need fighting in hockey? Zuuko’s answer is pretty clear on this: no. I would actually be in favour of retaining some fighting, but the role of the fighter has to go. Here’s what ties the Boogaard piece, the Kocur piece, Katie Baker’s and E’s: in all of them, hockey players or experts make the assertion that enforcement is needed to keep cheapshots out of the game. But is there any evidence for this? Maybe it’s a crocodiles-in-Red-Square thing: for now, fighters are in the game, so you can’t exactly see the evidence of the cheapshots that they’re preventing. But here’s my problem with the theory: fighters mostly fight other fighters. I feel like I’ve seen the scenario play out many times: the first team’s cheapshot artist takes a cheapshot. A few shifts later, the other team puts out the fighter, who then goes and fights … the fighter from the first team. That makes the fighters nothing so much as the whipping boys of the NHL – being made to suffer physical punishment so that those more privileged than them learn the lesson. But I’m sure you’re aware that actual whipping boys don’t really work well as an educational tool, and I don’t think the NHL version is any better. The true heavyweights of the NHL aren’t really going to fight pests much because it’s not going to be an even match but instead a merciless pummeling of an overmatched player. And “The Code” doesn’t go in for that.

Just because it doesn’t happen, though, doesn’t mean the “make a cheapshot and then you have to fight” scheme couldn’t, in its ideal, be a pretty good enforcement mechanism. The only way it works though, is if there aren’t fighters for the specific purpose of fighting fighters. The league and the players seem to be in favour of retaining fighting. I don’t enjoy watching fights, but I know many people do. And, yeah, having said that, I’ve drunkenly yelled “Kill Him!” at the TV screen like the rest of us and savoured every moment of the bloodlust. Is that enough to sacrifice the lives of people like Boogaard? This is not as offensive a question as it seems, but still I would say, obviously not. But the destruction of the fighter’s minds, bodies and lives seems to be exactly due to the extreme repetitive nature of the trauma that is the fighters’ experience. The way to make all this work together seems clear: retain some vestige of fighting, but eliminate the fighter as a role on the team. Word is that there are ideas about how to make this happen with escalating penalties for “repeat” fighters over the course of a season. Let’s do this … uhh, damn, are there any hockey teams in New Mexico? (By the way, in case you were wondering from earlier, the state does have trees).

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