Friday, November 23, 2007

On Fighters

I come to bury Laraque, not to praise him…

If you were going to write the Great Hockey Novel of the late 20th century, it would have to be about a fighter.

A semantic digression: I should explain, perhaps, my unusual choice of terminology. ‘Fighter’ is not an approved hockey term for the players I am discussing. The more common terms would be either ‘enforcer’ or ‘goon’, depending on whether one seeks a laudatory or pejorative connotation. I don’t particularly like either of these labels, and not just for the pseudo-mafioso myth they call up. ‘Enforcer’, I think, has too much hockey fan-fiction in it, it plays to the legend of ‘The Code’ (not, for the record, that I believe there is no such thing, more that the term oversells the referent). Like the sometimes-used metaphor ‘policeman’, it implies a level of structure, a necessity to the role that simply isn’t there. To call someone an ‘enforcer’ implies that there is something in particular being enforced- a rule, an authority- and I’m not convinced that there is, at least, not in any systematic or comprehensible way. ‘Goon’, on the other hand, is unreasonably derogatory, in it’s implication of idiocy and servility. While, as I shall suggest later on, a certain docility is necessary for these men as it is for all hockey players, there is nothing simplistic or thoughtless in what they do. Perhaps it’s easier for us to think that there is, for reasons of our own, but it does them a disservice that is maybe the ultimate form of disrespect to an already disreputable profession. So I choose the somewhat unorthodox term ‘fighter’, which has the twin virtues of being descriptive and nonjudgmental.

Fighters are inherently dramatic players. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, in the present era, a good deal of the romance attached to fighting in hockey has to do with romantic air attached to professional fighters, who embody, in a form of highly theatrical masculinity, many of the irresolvable tensions of hockey’s current place in the world, and more importantly, some of the elements- perhaps incidental, perhaps critical- that differentiate hockey from the other major professional sports in North America. These players loom larger on the narrative and psychological landscape of contemporary hockey than virtually all others, larger than all but the most skilled, most talented, and most charismatic of the game’s stars.

This is not a pro or con opinion piece on whether or not there should be fighting in hockey. I have no idea whether or not there should be fighting in hockey. In fact, hockey being the peculiarly brutal practice that it is, I’m not even sure how one begins the process of making clear moral judgments about the violence of the game, and what varieties of cruelty should or should not be permitted, and under what circumstances. I do not envy hockey’s rule-makers and experts their task in contending with these things. For my part, for this moment, here I begin only with the premise that fighting is currently an established part of hockey. The key word there is established. It isn’t something that just appeared this morning, a scrap of Martian randomosity dropped onto the middle of the ice, it’s something that has been built into the structure of professional hockey in North America. As such, I take the presence of fighting as a precondition of the discussion-to-come, which is not so much about fighting as the people who do it, and specifically those who adopt it as a role.

Fighting is an ambiguous piece of hockey, something that has been consecrated by tradition as an intrinsic part of the Canadian version of the game but simultaneously sits apart from it. Fighting is an off-the-clock activity for hockey players. It takes place outside of official game time, and as such is not really part of the literal hockey game- almost like a commercial break, dead time as far as the play itself is concerned. Its penalties are different- they last longer but result in no numerical disadvantage for the team, so it’s rare that the punishments resulting from a fight affect the play which continues afterwards in any dramatic way. The punishment for most penalties in hockey is a punishment of the team as a whole; the guys doing the PK are, in fact, probably being punished more than the guy sitting in the box. But a fighting major is an individual punishment of the player in particular, essentially a time-out for adults- now go to your little Plexiglas room and think about what you’ve done! And it has about as much deterrence value as the threat of a time-out has on an angry child, which is to say, none whatsoever.

The rules both allow for fighting and deliberately distinguish it from the game itself: it is explicitly kept in the game, but also carefully pushed to the fringes of it. Perhaps this is a half-hearted attempt to preserve the respectability of the game, suggesting that such activities are not really part of hockey but merely an occasional distraction that pops up from time to time when the lads get unruly. Or perhaps it is to preserve the excitement of fighting, for if it was too openly embraced and encouraged it might be revealed for the structural feature that it is and lose entertainment value- the idea that it is spontaneous and unpredictable and somehow vaguely illicit is part of what thrills the fans. Yet, for all its strange status in the rules of hockey, fighting is thoroughly embedded in the culture of the sport. Any time players are asked on their feelings about it, they begin with something to the effect that, “It’s always been a part of the game.” Not many things in the NHL get that precious, emphatic always, and one catches the feeling that even some of those players who are personally ambivalent about fighting as an act have almost a nostalgic commitment to the presence of fighting as a principle- even if no one actually fights, Fighting-with-a-capital-F, as an idea, as a theory, should be a piece of hockey as played in the NHL.

A player who takes on the role of a fighter takes on this tension in his own person, and finds himself in a permanent bind- on the one hand expected to uphold what is, in essence, a revered custom of his people, but on the other hand also expected to uncomplainingly occupy a marginal position both on his team and in the literal game on the ice. His is the only role in hockey where the cultural and symbolic value far surpasses any actual game value. Most fighters are poor players, slow skaters with no substantive offensive or defensive value, and therefore see extremely limited ice time and are often scratched from games entirely.

In fact, a fighter’s value as a fighter is somehow dependant on his total lack of value as a player. Part of the expectation of a fighter is that he is strategically expendable- since he has to take extensive penalty minutes and the not-infrequent game misconduct, he cannot afford to be an otherwise useful player. The team absolutely cannot be any worse off, in terms of play, for his absence. This is the critical reason that ‘the fighter’, as a role, is not the same as ‘a guy who fights’. Most players who came up through the Canadian system of hockey-player production fight to some degree or another- it is part of the way Canadians define their version of hockey over and against that in the rest of the world. But while almost all know the basic skill of fighting, the practice of it is closely linked to the hierarchical scale of value on which hockey players are ranked. Very talented players do not fight at all, in fact, their role is explicitly to be fought for. Like damsels in distress, they’re supposed to allow wrongs against them to be avenged by others. Middle-level players- those with useful skills or roles, but no extremely precious or irreplaceable gifts- are supposed to fight under particular circumstances, usually in a retaliatory way, either in defense of themselves or a teammate, or as a symbolic act of taking responsibility for some prior misdeed. But the fighter, as a guy without hockey-talent, is expected to fight not for himself, but in place of his teammates and occasionally on command. He is supposed to fight on behalf of those who have value and cannot risk injuries, and sometimes for other reasons at the discretion of the coach. Sometimes his job is to threaten or attack those who have been perceived as harming or intending harm towards a player of value, and other times his job is to step up in place of a teammate who did something provoking to the other team. The annals of hockey history are full of anecdotes wherein two designated fighters end up, paradoxically, smashing away at each other over some incident which originally involved neither of them.

Fighters are not even necessarily the most violent guys in the game. There are a good number of players who inflict more pain over the course of the season than the designated fighter on a team- the guys who checks particularly roughly, the reckless players who are careless with their sticks and elbows, the short-tempered guys who retaliate for the slightest perceived disrespect with gratuitous cheap shots. Although fighters are often blamed for the level of violence in the game overall, they do not seem to be disproportionately prone to play dirty or to cause serious injuries. In fact, most fighters define their role in explicit opposition to that of the pest or the agitator. Pests and agitators may fight sometimes, but more often their particular brand of violence is confined to cheap shots and marginally dirty plays, liberally doused with verbal abuse. This is because the role of a pest is to escalate the level of anger and violence in the game, and fighting in hockey is what (theoretically, anyway) settles things. The pest wants the other team to feel wronged, offended, enraged, hateful, and that requires that they feel that dirty or offensive behavior has gone unanswered, or unpunished. The hockey fight, on the other hand, is the primary means by which players tend to believe that things are settled or resolved. A fighter’s job is explicitly to restore a sense of balance to the violence of the game. A team, and the fans, put a lot of faith in the fighter’s use of violence. It is in the interest of fighters to seem to be close adherents of hockey’s ethical system (code, if you will), and moreover, to seem to be nice guys off the ice who don’t let their role get personal (i.e. holding long-term grudges after something has been ‘settled’). Even very pro-violence fans and players are sometimes made a bit squeamish by the extreme levels of pain and injury that can be inflicted in the sport- it may be fuzzy, but there is still a line between acceptable and unacceptable violence that career fighters sit very close to, and those who want to stay in the big show have to be careful to be perceived as disciplined, controllable beasts. If people start believing that they are motivated by disturbing qualities like sadism, bloodlust, or personal animosity- that is, if the fans or their teammates begin to suspect that they are bad people- they will be removed. This is perhaps the reason for the division of labor- your agitator, who engages in lesser violence of lesser severity, can afford to be perceived as an asshole, but your fighter, who habitually hurts people in obvious, bloody ways, has to convince people that he knows what he is doing, and that he is not a danger to anyone who doesn’t deserve it.

The power of a fight to resolve violent tension in a hockey game is, in essence, the ultimate placebo effect. It works not so much because of anything it does in itself, but because of what the concerned parties believe it does. As such, it’s a highly imprecise conflict-resolution technique. While there are many incidents one could point to where two fighters thwacking at each other after a dubious incident provided satisfactory resolution to both teams, one can also point to at least a few very high profile cases where a fight not only failed to resolve tension, but perhaps escalated it. It may indeed be a safety valve of sorts, but it’s a defective one that can fail at any moment. However, whether or not fighting serves the function people claim for it is somewhat secondary, because what matters for professional hockey-fighters is that placebo effect- the belief that it can control the inherent danger, violence, and unpredictability of the game. Surveys occasionally show that players generally like having a fighter on their team- not, perhaps, because he actually makes them any safer, but because he makes them feel somehow safer.

The problem is that, absent any troubling incidents or out-of-line opponents to thwack at, fighters themselves become a risk factor. Not every hockey game, these days not even most hockey games, need involve any questionable violence. Coaches tend to bench their fighter for games in which they anticipate no particular risk of escalating, retributive hate. However, when a fighter is dressed for a game in which he’s not needed, his very presence becomes troubling. Even playing minimal minutes, his deficiencies in skill show through, and even erstwhile supporters may become uncomfortable with his position in a slot that could potentially go to a more talented, or more stylistically entertaining, player. But moreover, absent some sort of pest or asshole to wreak vengeance on, fighters themselves can become that asshole. Needing to prove their value, or even remind folk of their existence, they start fights that don’t need to be started, that serve no particular value whatsoever. If they manage their role properly, they choose a moment and an opponent that won’t be perceived as unethical, but merely random, and thus results the classic ‘sideshow’ fight, that has nothing whatsoever to do with the game and merely gives two otherwise bored fighters a moment of half-hearted glory. If they manage their role badly, however, if they choose an opponent who seems too vulnerable, a moment that seems wrong, or a style of fighting that seems unnecessarily vindictive, they become exactly the sort of player whose behavior they’re nominally supposed to stop. For all the rhetoric, the difference between ‘clean’ violence and ‘dirty’ violence is mostly a matter of context and necessity, and any habitual practitioner of the former will at times engage in the latter as well.

As a fan, it is sometimes easy to hate fighters. It is easy to hate them when the team is doing poorly and it pains you to see a weak player taking a shift. But it’s perhaps easier to love them, especially where your team is concerned, because a good fighter, a trustworthy fighter, provides an unmatched (although illusory) sense of security. Hockey can be a terrifying game to watch, the vicious hits and nasty plays that can take out the weak or unsuspecting, and I think every team has a player or two so loved that you fear a little every night for what might happen to them. That’s the injustice of hockey, that the skill for it is so very rare and so very fragile and so very easily destroyed, all it takes is one of those pests, or one of those chronically reckless guys going just a hair-fraction further than usual, and someone’s out for the season, if not beyond. Having a fighter, and enforcer, provides a feeling of security, that there’s someone on the ice, in the game, trying to look out for our boys the way we wish we could, someone who will protect them if possible, and avenge them when needed.

If fighters are attractive to fans, they’re like narrative crack for hockey writers, and you could probably fill a dozen anthologies with all the hyperbolic prose that’s been written in praise of players who were better without their gloves than with them. And one can hardly blame the game’s literati for cozying up to the game’s thugs, for lack of skill is much easier to understand than skill. The great hockey player is revered, but the great hockey fighter is adored in a warm, fuzzy, personal way. Hockey skill is fundamentally mysterious, even to those who have it, and therefore is difficult to talk about. Sidney Crosby couldn’t explain to you why he’s better than everyone else, and it’s not just because no one has asked him in the right way yet, or because he’s exercising some sort of self-control by not gloating about his superiority publicly- get the poor boy stoned out of his head such that he says everything the second he thinks it and ask him every question in the world, he still wouldn’t be able to explain to you why he can do what he does- he just plays hockey and miracles happen. Fighting, on the other hand, is something more universally human, something that we can all understand to some degree.

But more than that, the existence of specialized fighters presents a moral conundrum distinct from that of fighting. Whether or not the act of fighting should be licit, the question becomes more pointed when it becomes whether people should be employed on a hockey team to fight rather than to play. For hockey teams fighters clearly solve any number of practical problems that arise from playing such a violent game, but from a more general human perspective their existence is frankly sad. The fact is that fighters are, in addition to being romantic figures, somewhat tragic figures. Our use of hockey players is always somewhat exploitative, but in the case of fighters it is borderline abusive- although it sounds odd to say that about men who make their living physically abusing others. But think about it: these are guys who barely get to play at all, who make very minimal money on the scale of the sport, and who have to take massive amounts of direct physical punishment. And unlike say, boxing, we have trouble being honest about it. We have to keep up the illusion that what they’re doing is hockey, not mercenary face-pummeling, even as it becomes more and more separate from the action of the play, even as it becomes so specialized and so distinct that it ceases to effect the majority of players, even as most players with even minimal talent renounce it all together. Once upon a time, fighting may have been a part of the universal hockey skill set, but nowadays it is not, it is only the lowest echelons who are expected to routinely offer up themselves up for beating. Other players may engage in it occasionally, according to their temperament, and there are certainly some skilled guys who rather enjoy it, but for them it is an option that they can always take or leave, because should they choose to leave it, there will always be some goon to substitute for them.

Of course, the goon freely consents to substitute, doesn’t he? Fighters are, in fact, among the most passionate players in the game, the most desperate for what scraps of ice time they can get. They often cultivate what is almost a puppy-dogish eagerness to please, a jovial, accommodating demeanor off-ice with teammates, fans, and reporters alike. They are grateful for the opportunity to play five minutes a game, 40 games a year, and get metal plates repeatedly screwed onto their orbital bones. It’s a privilege for them. An honor. Rarely in life will you ever see someone with such an apparently painful, brutal, demeaning job seem so fanatically enthusiastic to do it. And why shouldn’t they be? In spite of all the downsides, they are living their dream.

It’s not even their dream, it’s The Canadian Dream, it’s what every good Canadian boy wants. Can we meaningfully say that they have freely chosen this life? Or have they been coerced into it, conditioned into it, having come up through a system that taught them there was no higher value than playing in the NHL, and deprived them of the education or experience to have chosen anything else? Is it exploitation, to offer up such a prize at such a price? And expect not just compliance but gratitude from those willing to make that kind of compromise?

And yet, take any given fighter and ask, what would he have been, if he weren’t a hockey player? Would it have been better for him to be a clerk in a gas station? A postman? Would that have been better for him, not to have had the opportunity to play hockey professionally on such sadistic terms? Would it be better for us? Would he have had a happier, more fulfilled life behind a desk in a beige room, skull intact? And is it even fair to think of his role as a devil’s bargain, to presume that he doesn’t really want to fight but merely to play and is using fighting as an opportunity to play? Or does he believe in his role? Does he believe, however misguidedly, that he is protecting his teammates, helping them? And in the end, is he playing for the five minutes of on-the-clock skating, or the five minutes in the bleeding in the penalty box that generally follow?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

They say that these are the twilight hours of fighting in hockey, the last days of the enforcer/goon. The sport is not becoming less violent, not by any means, but something is nevertheless changing. The older hockey fans around me can sense it, although they cannot name it, like that faint indescribable change in the air that lets you know, somehow, that it is going to rain. It’s a different world, they tell me, than it was, and part of that is the faint but certain sense that the days of ‘real’ brawls are gone or going fast. The consecration of fighting as a tradition passed down from the time before memory sometimes blinds us to the fact that the role of the specialized, professional fighter- fighting as a job rather than a hobby, you might say- is probably not much more than thirty years old. It was a custom that evolved in a particular moment in the game’s history, but that moment is gone, the world is changing, and their position in the sport seems increasingly maladaptive and problematic.

And so I do, it seems, come to bury them, but also maybe to praise them a little. For as much as they do sometimes frighten me, and as much as I do sometimes wish they would take their little sideshow somewhere else, they are the last vestiges of something that survived in hockey a little longer than it did in the rest of the world, a little scrap of that saintly barbarism that believes that there is something just and good in violence, that there is an honesty in pain that allows it to calm the soul and resolve disputes. It used to be the way of the world that virtually all matters of honor were settled with blood- the blood of men and women and animals shed to make things right, and not even right with anyone in particular but right with the universe, whose law used to involve the routine exchange of body parts- eyes for eyes and lives for lives. But one by one we have given them up, all those vulgar things, the duel and the sacrifice and the honorable suicide. Five thousand-some years of all that and we suddenly decided that none of it really solved anything, and that the real solution was rules and discipline imposed from overhead by an uninvested, bureaucratic supervisor. So now we rely for our justice not on our friends or our families or our communities, but on big abstract systems- the Government or the Corporation, and wherever we sense lingering barbarism we try to create these structures, because even where they function poorly, we no longer believe that things can be properly just without some ordering, organizing bureaucracy. And so goes hockey, more and more we look to the League offices to solve all problems, to make the game safe and good as well as fair and entertaining, and we are frustrated by their inability to act as a sufficiently harmonious and orderly bureaucracy, to oversee as we now accept that all things should be overseen. Hockey is still in no small measure barbaric, hockey players among the last people willing to openly admit that sometimes the most reasonable solution to a disagreement is to break someone’s face. Perhaps the attraction to fighters, then, is that we all in some measure still feel that way. We have not entirely lost the instinct that real justice is reciprocal, equivalent injury, but increasingly we have few outlets where we can indulge that feeling. Hockey is one of the last remaining activities that allows for that sort of ethical sensibility, hockey fighters one of the last classes of people who practice it, and for that reason, we are loathe to concede their irrelevance, their outdatedness, and their probable extinction.

11 comments:

Doogie said...

Yet on the other hand, the NHLPA has been fighting tooth and nail to get rid of the instigator since its inception, and to this day, they keep up the fight. Clearly, the players still believe in the role that punching dudes in the face plays in the game. And certainly, there's a degree of psychological fact behind it, related to classic reward/punishment models, though one has to wonder how effective it really is on people who make their living getting pummelled six ways from Sunday within the rules.

There's a book out, I believe called Enforcer, by Valerie Wood, about a fictitious NHL enforcer who hates his job, but does it for the sake of staying in the NHL, and turns to drugs and women because of it. Sort of a John Kordic type of story. Certainly, it's hard to envy the minimalist role that enforcers have, and you do feel for them when they're told to stuff it when they try to seek more responsibility. Of course, when they're given it, they usually blow it, but you have to respect them for at least trying to be more than the hired muscle. I don't recall Dave Schultz ever doing that, even after Larry Robinson fed him his lunch in '76.

Personally, I would rather return to the days when there wasn't necessarily a need for a dedicated fighter, when there were literally a dozen guys on the team who could and would do the job if the situation called for it. I think the elimination of the instigator would make that much easier, as I believe the instigator punishes the wrong kind of fight. The fighting that belongs in the game (such as you can say it) is the kind that results from the play, not the kind that's set up outside of it for the sake of theatre or catharsis. I'd much rather see a dozen Jarome Iginlas or Vincent Lacavaliers than two dozen Georges Laraques (bless his Edmonton-loving heart) or Donald Brashears. I wouldn't argue for the return of the bench-emptier, either (though I wouldn't say no to some more frequent line brawls, because some situations just call for everyone to get involved), but I would certainly like to see a little more real spontaneity. There's many reasons why I love the WHL, and one of them is that there are no shrinking violets, and when they drop 'em, they mean it.

=====

Something I wanted to touch on in your last game recap, but which I might as well talk about here, is the idea of a momentum-changing fight. You dismissed it on the basis of hockey players not getting intimidated that easily, which is very true: anyone who suddenly loses their spine over watching someone get the crap beat out of them is not suited for professional hockey, because that's just a fact of life. But there is a deeper reason why it works, which has nothing to do with intimidation, and everything to do with physiological arousal.

Get your mind out of the gutter.

Arousal is basically a shorthand for "mental activeness." The more aroused you are, the more activated your nervous system is, and the more capable you are of feats requiring strength and power, but the less capable you are of feats requiring fine motor control and thought, and vice versa. For something like brain surgery, very low arousal levels are optimal; for something like championship weight-lifting, very high arousal is necessary to get the job done. Most sports, including hockey, fall in the middle. Physiologists have found through dozens of studies that arousal and performance follow an "upside-down U" curve: at very high and very low levels of arousal, performance is low; optimal performance comes somewhere in the middle. That optimal level varies from person to person and from activity to activity, but the general concept holds regardless.

When people take part in -- or even watch in close proximity -- a fight, it activates the fight or flight response. The effect of raised epinephrine levels is obvious: arousal increases. For teams that are sluggish or struggling, that boost in arousal can be exactly what they need to get their heads back in the game. For teams that are already succeeding smoothly in a moderate-arousal environment, the adrenalin rush will either have no effect, putting the teams on more even footing, or even worse, result in overarousal, and cause their performance to suffer. This effect is obviously mitigated depending on whether the fight is a clear decision or a tie. A clear decision in favour of the winning team may weaken the effect of the fight on the struggling team, while a clear decision in favour of the struggling team might amplify the effect even further.

I don't have any concrete data to back this up right now, but I can always talk to my mind-sciences professor on Monday and see if my theory is correct, but I'm willing to lay down money that that's why the momentum-changing fight works.

alice said...

It's an interesting juxtaposition that you posted this essay the same day that James Mirtle posted a quantititative assessment of the (marginal) contribution of enforcers/goons (even the choice of label implies a political position, or, at least, political within the context of hockey): http://mirtle.blogspot.com/2007/11/study-in-enforcement-what-do-goons-do.html
His conclusion is that, even when considered as third- or fourth-line players, the best you can say about these players is that they aren't liabilities (and you can't say this about all of them).


It's tempting to intellectualize a disdain for the role by looking at the career arc of, say, Bob Probert and assert that his off-ice problems were, somehow, a consequence of his on-ice role. Of course, the reverse is just as likely, and it's even possible, if cloyingly romantic, that hockey--in whatever role--limited the extent to which he snapped in "civilian" life.

More disturbing to this view, however, is the career arc of someone like Stu Grimson. I was sort of familiar with the discrepancy between his on-ice and off-ice personae when he was playing in Hartford, many years ago. Features about him regularly described his, apparently quite sincere, religious faith, and he has since attended law school.

Which one is the prototypical enforcer?

Delicious said...

...they are the last vestiges of something that survived in hockey a little longer than it did in the rest of the world, a little scrap of that saintly barbarism that believes that there is something just and good in violence, that there is an honesty in pain that allows it to calm the soul and resolve disputes...

"To live outside the law you must be honest." (Forgive me, I just saw that Dylan movie.)

Rick Marnon said...

I'm a fan of the fighting. If two guys want to get at it that's fine. They have been trying to ban fighting but I don't think that it will go anywhere. Let's hope not.

Matt D said...

The last few paragraphs are the best explanation of Foucault's Discipline and Punish that I have ever read. I will now always explain that book in terms of hockey. Thank you.

Baroque said...

I'm reluctant to read your blog too often, although I love your writing, because so often you articulate what I think so well that I don't want to unconsciously plagarize your posts.

I can take or leave fighting, myself, although I can see it gradually leaving the game. It does appeal to me on some level for the same reasons you stated: I don't think so much of it as a "saintly barbarism" as a desire for the simplicity of settling a dispute, after you have talked yourself blue in the face and all logic seems to have failed, by smacking someone right in the face. What a cathartic experience that must be.

(And the fragility of hockey talent absolutely terrifies me. It's why I can never bring myself to watch the All-Star game or other exhibitions; I spend the entire time crossing my fingers until they ache thinking, "don't get hurt, don't get hurt, don't get hurt" as long as one of my favorite players is on the ice. Nerve-wracking!)

E said...

sorry it’s taking me so long to respond to comments, i’ve been on the road…

doogie- i’m well aware that most players favor the elimination of the instigator penalty, i’m just inclined to attribute it mostly to a psychological and cultural need for security, rather than any practical difference in the level of risk they’d face. as you point out, it’s hard to imagine that the threat of a fight is that much of a deterrent, since the risk of pain and injury from ordinary, blameless in-game events is just as high if not higer, and all players face the threat of it every game. but the advantage that fighting has (and this is another topic for another post) is that it is the one form of violence that is entirely within the control of the players. most of hockey violence is chaotic and ambiguous- the fights are the only time, really, when all parties involved can choose the time and the place of the risk. and i think most hockey fans, given the choice between the pre-fighter days when it was a generalized skill and not a role, and the latter days of specialized fighting, would prefer the former, but i’m not sure it’s possible to get back to that- in general, hockey roles seem to have become increasingly specialized over time, and to a certain extent specialized fighters become necessary at the exact moment you have specialized non-fighters. as long as you have fighting, but have guys who are too precious, to valuable to risk having to engage in it, you run into the logical problem of needing someone to take up the slack when they are involved in a fight-worthy events (either as victim or perpetrator).

as to your theory of momentum-shifting fights, i agree that it’s logical, but i’m not sure that makes it true. if it were possible, i’d love to think of a way to crunch some data on that, to see if one could at least come up with correlation (causation would probably always be the realm of supposition) between fights and momentum-shifts. my guess is there wouldn’t be much of one, but that’s purely based on my own anecdotal evidence, and hey, i’ve been wrong before.

alice- i’m not sure if there is, actually, a prototypical ‘enforcer’. what i do believe is that there’s a prototypical enforcer-character in hockey lore, a favored way that writers and fans like to imagine such players, and usually this favors the tension between on-ice brutality and off-ice docility. maybe it’s not the truth, but it’s a narrative construct of surprising durability.

rick- i’m probably the only hockey fan in the universe who’s more or less indifferent on the question of fighting. truth be told, i don’t think i’d miss it much if it was gone, but it’s presence doesn’t bother me (especially in comparison to other varieties of hockey-violence). as far as i’m concerned, the decision belongs to them-what-plays, not them-what-watches. but anyway, fighting as a whole is another topic for another day.

matt- there are very few philosophical texts which cannot be productively illustrated via hockey. it’s one of the sport’s greatest charms.

baroque- this is not the time to get into the kind of panics i’ve been driven to by the fear of nonsensical injury to key players. let’s just say i definitely lack the stoicism necessary to take the inherent risks of the game in stride.

FAUX RUMORS said...

1) The newer Instigator rules may have had an unintended consequence to squelch the 'natural' policing of the players BY the players
2) In years past one could expect a response if he committed a questionable hit, etc. Nowadays it can be too costly to do so. Thus one of the reasons we see an increase in the number of cheap/dirty hits
3) BTW, the morons at the NHL offices need to realize that fighting sells! The limp wristed minority can go watch figure skating. The folks who already dislike hockey won't suddenly flock to see it if fighting were banned. So why alienate those of us (real fans) who are the ones who support the game/pay the bills!?!
4) There should be NO instigator rule at all. In years past if the ref thought one guy blatently started a fight he'd get 2 extra minutes for roughing. End of story.

Doogie said...

There should be NO instigator rule at all. In years past if the ref thought one guy blatently started a fight he'd get 2 extra minutes for roughing. End of story.

Or if the fight was entirely on one person (see: Chara v. Latendresse), they'd hit the showers under the little-known, seldom-invoked Aggressor rule, which I believe carries an additional major/five-minute power play.

While I agree that hockey roles are getting more specialized to a degree, I think most coaches would much rather have a team of Shawn Horcoffs and Fernando Pisanis: they wouldn't do any one thing spectacularly, but you could bet they'd do everything well enough that the coach wasn't going to need adult diapers in the last two minutes of the game. Similarly, I think most coaches would prefer a large number of players willing and able to drop the gloves, but also capable in other aspects of the game, rather than one dude whose only purpose is to sit on the end of the bench and look scary for 58 minutes, and spend the other two not getting the team murdered until he can find his counterpart to engage in a little Greco-Roman Wrestling. (It's not like he can leave the bench any time he likes to start shit now with relatively minimal punishment, like he could 20 years ago.)

This is even more true in the salary cap era, when paying someone $500,000 not to play hockey is just not cost-effective. I mean, look at the Habs. They could be giving Andrei Kostitsyn's money, or Kyle Chipchura's money, to Raitis Ivanans still. It's not like the 80s when you needed John Kordic and Chris Nilan on the payroll to balance out everyone else's goons. Instead, the Habs have Tom Kostopoulos, Mike Komisarek, and Steve Begin, who can handle themselves with the gloves off, but who can actually play hockey, too. The Oilers technically have Zach Stortini, but the less said about that, the better.

Doug R said...

An excellent analysis of the role and the individual. Even more interesting would be to establish whether hockey "fighters" are dirty/dangerous players. Due they have more (non-fight-related) penalty minutes per minute of ice time than do other players? And conversely, look at players who ahve had susprensions (normally due to an severe injury they have inflicted)and look at their PIMs per minute played.

Doogie said...

I suspect that might be skewed somewhat by perceptions (of the referee and Colin Campbell), but I'd still be interested in seeing that.