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Fighting in hockey.

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Where do we draw the line between accepted and shunned?

Ezra Shaw

Every now and then there's an incident in hockey that gets everyone in a tizzy about fighting in the sport. Often times it boils down to one group saying "It's always been in the game" vs another group saying "Okay fine, but it has no value".

Under the "It's always been in the game" group, there are a couple of subsets that bring up 2 arguments. The first group is the "well then let's take hitting out of the game" or "we should remove shot blocks from the game", both on the basis that players also can get injured in those situations. To that group my simple argument is that while both can lead to injuries, we don't stop the game so someone can block a shot or hit someone. We do when 2 people start fighting, so it's technically not part of the game.

The purpose of this isn't to argue against that group. It's a lost argument from both sides as neither will budge. I'm here to argue against the second subset, which typically argues the point that "These are grown men and free to make their own decisions".

In a vacuum, that argument makes some sense. These are grown men and if they choose to fight each other in order to get paid an NHL salary, they've both made that decision. What that ignores though, is that these players, at least in the past, may not have had the proper information to gauge the risks of fighting. It also ignores the fact that many don't start fighting at the pro level, rather at a much younger age.

Over recent years, the deaths of several NHL enforcers, as well as some ex-enforcers speaking after the fact, have brought increase focus on the actual dangers of fighting in hockey. Not just from bare knuckles punching each other in the head, but also from ends of fights when players hit their head on the ice or fall on top of each other. The message is starting to get through and the role of the pure enforcer is slowly dying at the NHL level. The CHL has also taken steps to reduce fighting in major junior hockey (which oddly enough, some are blaming for the McDavid injury).

While all of these steps are good, there is one major issue, which actually relates back to the "it's always been in the game group", and that is the fact that it's still part of the hockey culture. It's great that the education process has started, but what disturbs me is that there are people who still think that fighting belongs in junior hockey.

It shouldn't be hard to see why one would have an issue with this. We shouldn't be telling teenage boys that it's part of the game. They have been told (both from the media and potentially coaches) that it's part of the game and that sometimes you need to stick up for yourself by fighting.

Let's pause and think about this for a minute. This is a group of kids, who are trying to make it in one of the most difficult professions in the world. What do you think is going through their minds when they get a face wash? Do you think they are worried about the long or short term health repercussions, or are they worried about looking "like a pussey" because they skated away?

We don't let a 16 year old drive by themselves, drink alcohol, vote or buy cigarettes, but we are okay with them fighting in hockey? How does this not baffle everyone? We've told them their whole lives that you'll have to fight in hockey. Commentators have been chastising players who don't fight for years. Commentators have been praising guys who are willing to drop the gloves for years. Hell, until recently we had one of the most influential hockey people in the country saying "no one gets hurt" in a hockey fight. Why are kids fighting in major junior? Because they've been told forever that they have to in order to be a hockey player.

The worst part is that there is a trickle down effect to even lower age groups. At what point do we need to teach our kids to fight if it is in fact part of the game? We obviously don't want them to fight for the first time as 16 year old against a 20 year old, so when are we supposed to start? When is it acceptable to start fighting in hockey?

Even in fighting sports, we don't allow children to hit each other without significant padding. Boxing and other forms of martial arts require proper head gear for amateur bouts, yet we allow hockey teenagers to bare knuckle fight with no head protection. This despite the fact that they aren't particularly well trained in this sort of thing.

If grown adults are willing to punch each other in the face despite knowing the consequences, fine. We need to draw the line somewhere though and that line should be in CHL. We shouldn't promote it, hell we shouldn't even condone it. If a kid gets told he has to do it and that no one gets hurt from it, whose fault is it if he does get hurt?