Monday, June 29, 2009

Stage Management

A discourse on unnecessary fights, following a somewhat tedious introduction.

First principles: games evolve. We are prone to reifying the game, any game, imagining that it is defined by a very specific internal structure which, cosmetic shifts aside, holds essentially true over long stretches of time. But this is a fallacy- games grow and change, and while the pace of change may be sometimes slow and sometimes rapid, the entity itself is fluid and essentially unbounded. Hockey, in terms of its equipment, its surface, its rules, and most especially its styles, is a very different creature than it was when the name was first coined (whenever that was). The hockey of the 1920s, if we could see it now, would likely confuse even the historians of the game, and contemporary fans will often find themselves perplexed while watching vintage games from the 60s and 70s.

The engine of hockey evolution is the pursuit of competitive advantage. In any given era, there is both a set of rules and a set of conventional expectations about how the game ought to be played. Such expectations, broadly speaking, circumscribe our sense of ‘fairness’. Fairness is, in part, complicity with the regulations in force, but more than that it is an ethical sensibility about what is appropriate. When people complain about Crosby’s whining or Avery’s antics, and say such things have no place in hockey, they are not describing a rule violation per se but rather an affront to the prevalent sensibility of this time.

However, it is such boundary-testing that forces the sport to change. Everyone, at every level of hockey, from the GM to the equipment manager, is in pursuit of victory, and for some small measure of hockey folk, this leads inexorably to that murky area between what the rules permit and what the community approves. It is, in the modern parlance, the search for inefficiencies in the strategic economy. Some of these attempts seem ridiculous- Avery’s goalfront dancing, for example, or a faintly remembered story I read of an old-time coach who instructed his goaltender to leave his stick lying across the crease when abandoning an empty net. Others, however, are effective, and take root in the game.

This becomes, in time, a problem, for the hockey community will be faced with new, effective tactics that nevertheless seem inappropriate or even disturbing. A classic example is the development of the trap- a practical, useful strategy that bored, and then frustrated, and then angered a solid majority of fans. One- indeed, nearly everyone- could rage and rant at the trap and it’s advocates for hours of airtime and meters of newsprint, but that didn’t change the fact that for some teams and some coaches, it was a winning strategy, and no one feels shame when winning.

Eventually it reached a point where the NHL found it expedient to try to purge this stylistic development from the game. In theory, with its absolute control of regulations, the NHL has the power to purge what it will. In practice, however, it took several rule adaptations, many of them awkward, to even begin the process, and depending on who you ask, the effort was only partially successful. Rules are blunt instruments. Rather like computers, they find it difficult to identify things which are, to humans, obvious. A human analyst can look at a given play and identify it readily as emblematic of the trap, but the rules see only actions and lines, not the aggregate strategy.

Now, certain forces in the NHL and the hockey world at large are having a similar problem with the phenomena called ‘the staged fight’. Fighting, as a discreet behavior, is by current consensus a necessary part of hockey. Someday, maybe, it won’t be- personally, I think it’s likely that these are its waning years (and for the record, I come down moderately in the pro-fighting camp), but it won’t formally be banned for at least another management-generation. For now, a critical mass of the powerful wants it to persist in the game, and so it does. However, fighting now is not what fighting was fifty years ago. Like everything else, it’s evolved, but in a direction that increasing numbers of hockey people are annoyed or uncomfortable with. There is talk, and even some action, towards using the rules to try to excise ‘staged fights’ from the game.

Like pornography, a staged fight is difficult to define, but essentially everyone knows one when they see it. Organic fights tend to erupt in high-stress situations between clearly angered players. Whether they’re a safety valve or a dangerous escalation is a matter of debate, but there’s no mistaking the spontaneity or the rage. Staged fights, on the other hand, begin at random moments for no particular reason, between players of a particular specialization. Even for true believers in the momentum-swinging power of a good fight, staged fights carry no weight.

If one were to generalize very broadly and quite unforgivably (as I am about to do), staged fights are the natural evolutionary product of modern player-specialization. Hockey is, insofar as the rules, a radically unstructured game. As far as I’m aware (and please, please tell me if I’m wrong here), formally speaking, there are only two positions in hockey: skater and goalie. Even the long-standing demarcation of forward and defenseman is a convention rather than a rule in the pure sense- as a coach, I would be allowed to dress any five skaters I wanted and command them to occupy more or less any position on the ice.

However, from this bare beginning has grown massive specialization of roles: centers, wingers, defensive, offensive, lines, special units, etc. Occasional players go back and forth, but most specialize minutely in some facet of the game, and usually only the declining capabilities of age push them to alter their established specialty.

Most of this specialization is probably good for the game- strategic refinement happens for a reason, yes? [Although I harbor a secret yearning for some eventual tactician to find a way to blow the doors off the current system simply by disregarding one or the other of the player-position conventions that have come to be thought of as rules.] Fighters are, from an analytic standpoint, a tremendously useful specialization. Back in the day, everyone used to fight, including the scoring stars and the occasional goalie. From a coaching standpoint, however, it’s ridiculous to have your stars fight- all you do is get them penalized, tossed from games, possibly injured, and generally put in situations where they’re not likely to score goals. Furthermore, at some point (I’m tempted to locate this point somewhere around the back of Wayne Gretzky’s 18-year-old head, but perhaps I blame/credit Gretzky too much for everything), there developed an opinion that stars couldn’t fight, that a scorer was somehow to frail and delicate of a creature to face punches, or even indeed be responsible for avoiding them on his own. Both of these are compelling reasons to dress a specialized fighter, one whose entire responsibility is to take up the defensive and aggressive fighting responsibilities that might otherwise devolve on actually talented players.

The problem with fighters as a specialization is that they’ve evolved to the point where their interests are, on the most fundamental level, different from the rest of the team. Most players on a team keep their jobs by getting points, preventing goals, and generally playing hockey well. Fighters keep their jobs by fighting. They’re playing a different game, and their contribution to winning is at best a matter of conjecture. It’s rarely, if ever, tangible or measurable. It relies mostly on faith, which in turn relies mostly on making an impression. They have an incentive to fight whether or not it helps the team win, in fact, their impulse to fight is structurally indifferent to the game. Which is, if I’m not mistaken, the definition of a sideshow.

Laraque, most loquacious of goons, is right in pointing out the difficulty of prohibiting staged fights based on the moment in the game, because the moment in the game is more or less irrelevant to whether or not a fight is staged. The causal mechanism that generates staged fights is the rational self-interest of a small, intensely specialized sub-category of players. As long as these players are in the NHL, they will find a way to stage fights, because fighting is what allows them to stay in the NHL, and one can’t expect them to wager their job security on whether or not they get enough organic fighting opportunities in the rare seconds of ice time they get. Moreover, standard punishments- i.e. heavy individual penalty minutes- are actually counterproductive in this case. A designated fighter doesn’t expect to play much anyway. Sitting in the penalty box doing nothing is more likely to get you on camera than sitting on the bench doing nothing, and besides, higher PIM totals only enhance his standing in his chosen field.

Trying to develop rules to prohibit staged fights, without banning all fighting, is going to be like trying to prune dandelions from a lawn with a jackhammer- it’s going to make a huge mess and it’s not going to work anyway. I can think of, broadly speaking, only two potentially effective routes: 1) penalize the entire team, rather than just the fighter, or 2) try to eradicate the specialization by penalizing the franchise for carrying a fighter (or the fighter himself for being such).

Consider the first option. It is possible that, if a fighting penalty were in the same category as an ordinary minor penalty, it would be a major deterrent to staged fights. Not many coaches are going to want to kill for two minutes just to watch marginally talented fourth-liners break orbital bones. However, this would be a major deterrent to all fights, since- even when emotions are high- genuinely belligerent players would force themselves to think twice before putting their entire team at a disadvantage. Presuming that the NHL doesn’t want to eliminate all fights via the backdoor, this measure is too broad.

The second option has more possible enactments, but none of them are good. One could try to mandate a minimum play time (barring injury) per dressed skater, such that it becomes disadvantageous to teams to dress a player who they don’t trust with significant minutes. One could automatically disqualify a player for the remainder of the season after he reaches a certain number of fighting majors. One could develop an arcane formula that requires players to produce X amount of points per fighting major, on pain of a massively punitive fine. But all of these tactics, and things like them, are only going to burden coaches and accidentally end up walloping non-goon players who are having particularly surreal seasons.

There is now, in the NHL, among the major powers, some sort of dim will to eliminate staged fights. Where it comes from, I’m not entirely sure- perhaps horror over the man who died in that amateur league last season, perhaps the mounting medical evidence that all those punches to the face have more serious consequences than a charmingly gladiatorial visage. Wherever it comes from, though, I doubt it’s a strong enough will to actually address the wild complexity of the problem, and after this most recent defeat, I somehow doubt that the issue will arise- formally- again. Staged fights are going to be part of hockey until the death of fighting itself. Bring popcorn and enjoy the cultural artifact for what it is.


Joe said...

Really good article. I agree with your thoughts and think we're stuck with one of those issues that needs to be addressed from within the locker rooms. I don't think there is a plausible solution from a rules perspective.

Interestingly, I've seen several occasions where one team had a goon dressed and one didn't. The goon in this case ended up taking penalties because he has no one to fight and must run around instigating things. The response to this is obviously for the man-advantaged team to score.

So you need to chose mutually assured destruction versus the potential for a faster fourth line. So I think a lot of the potential change here resides with the coaches/GMs.

Mr. Mills said...

Another great article. It was "interesting" this past season to watch Laraque on the Habs and how he (and others) viewed his role.

Was wondering if you had some more insight into what exactly constitutes a staged fight ( I know we usually recognize it when we see it, but....) Is retaliation for a previous offence a possible candidate for staged fight status?

It would seem that where we draw this line would help determine whether or not staged fights do serve a purpose (psychological uplift/satisfaction, pre-emptive strike, retaliation) or are instead just the trotting out of that small, specialized sub-set of players who have no other contribution to make.

What I would really be interested in reading are your thoughts on the role of hitting in the game. I find it interesting that fighting is tolerated (at least among the dedicated fighters) but hitting receives so much ink, what with the discussion regarding shots to the head etc.

Furthermore, given my own biases regarding the role of hitting in the game, I fear that it won't be too long before we start to see hits along the boards and open ice/ neutral zone hits lumped into the category (like you did with certain types of fighting)that does not include the game the scorers/hockey players are engaged in.

What then the fate of body checking defensemen? I recognize the mutable nature of the game of hockey, but I shudder to envision the future of the game if many of the talking heads get their way when it comes to body checks.

Wow, I got a little off point there didn't I? Sorry about that. Anyway, great article.

E said...

joe- the problem is, it won't be addressed from within the locker room, because a) goons tend to be friendly teammates, in a measure directly proportional to their expendability, and b) if it's a choice between losing their jobs and the criticism of teammates, they'd rather take criticism and stay in the show. right now, there are enough gms who believe in the usefulness of dedicated fighters for 'code'-based purposes that they'll sign them and tolerate the staged fights as a necessary evil or minor irritant.

mr. mills- to answer your question, no, i don't consider retaliatory violence in the category of staged fights, because retaliatory violence (fighting or not) by definition has a distinct cause. staged fights are fights with no particular purpose- if they're rationalized, it's with vague ideas about 'getting the crowd going' or 'creating energy'. the antagonists are almost always two dedicated fighters, or occasionally one dedicated fighter and a rookie or call-up trying to make an impression. they're usually started by mutual agreement.

could you clarify a bit what you're getting at about hitting? i'm not sure i follow your train of thought there...

MikeP said...

Strictly speaking, all fights that don't have an instigator penalty called could be considered staged. Theoretically, unless both participants agree to fight, there ought to be an instigator called.

That said, I know what you're driving at. As you say, I know a staged fight when I sees one, and I doubt you'd see a great deal of disagreement on some statistically significant number of fights regarding their status as staged or not.

Regarding positions: I don't know what the rule is, since the NHL doesn't seem to have all its rules openly available, but I recall in 2006-07, the Oilers had injuries to practically their entire defence corps at both NHL and AHL levels. Rather than dropping Toby Petersen back to D and recalling a forward from the AHL, they were forced to recall Sebastien Bisaillon from his junior team. There's some discussion on the matter here:

Quite why the NHL would feel the need to constrain its member teams in such a manner is beyond me, but there it is. It's possible the Oilers misunderstood something, but I really can't see that as a reasonable alternative.

Returning to the topic at hand, I'm not a big fan of 'staged' fights, but like you, I don't see a good way to eliminate them. Laraque jokes a lot, but I think he was serious when he said fine, we'll just wait 7 steamboats and meet in the corner. I don't like the staged ones because I think they waste time, but as numerous folks say, the fans in the stands who carry the mail seem to appreciate fighting, and I don't see anybody turning their backs when BG and Donald Brashear are slugging it out at centre ice. So they're in the game as long as there's fighting. Eliminating the hired goon is unlikely to eliminate the staged fight; rather than enforcers with bruised fists and broken noses scrapping, it will be the marginal fourth-liners who want to prove their worth in any way possible. "See, I fought him, that saved Ales Hemsy or Mike Cammalleri from having to drop the gloves."

And if you want a staged fight between two non-fighters, find Mike Comrie vs Daniel Briere from a few years ago, when Comrie was an Oiler. Proves nothing other than little guys can go too, but it's entertaining.