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
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.