With the recent injury to Montreal Canadiens forward, George Parros, the debate about fighting in hockey has arisen once again. I think there is still a place for it in the game. Why, you ask? Because the threat of bodily harm is a deterrent.
My opinion comes purely from my experience. In the Western Hockey League, where I played junior hockey from age 16-19, they allowed it. You had to prove yourself. If you played physical, there were a few guys on every team that would make you accountable. Sometimes it didn’t even get to that point. If another team had someone really tough, guys wouldn’t finish their checks as often or as hard. I still remember my first training camp when I hit a veteran player hard, and all the veteran players were yelling “22, 22, 22,” my number. I instantly got ready for him to come after me, but he didn’t, and I knew from that point on that I had him.
A couple years later, I had established myself as one of the toughest guys in the Western League. If another team didn’t have a tough guy, I could do whatever I wanted. Consequently, my teammates could also play bigger and tougher. I remember a game in Swift Current: my line mate, who wasn’t that tough, face-washed an opposing player, and the guy wouldn’t do a thing because I was standing behind him. Sports are all about time and space, the more you have of each element, the better plays you make. If you give a good player time, he’ll make a good play, a great player… look out!
Fast-forward to the NHL, where the guys surrounding you are bigger and tougher. At training camp, you have to prove yourself, and if and when you do, you get more time and space. Does fighting have its merits? Why do you think Wayne Gretzky only got hit hard once in his career, that I recall? Because if you did, everyone on his team wanted a piece of you. If you were playing injured, you possibly didn’t play as tough because there was a guy on the other team that could hurt you badly if you weren’t ready.
I’ll never forget playing the Los Angeles Kings and hitting a player named Nelson Emerson. It was a clean hit, but I knocked him out. I got a 2 minute penalty for boarding. At the time, they had a tough guy named Stu Grimson. Well, guess who hopped over the boards with about 30 sec left in their power play? As soon as he went out, I knew I had to answer for the hit I delivered. We fought and that was the end of that. If I hadn’t, they would have gone after our skilled guys.
There is a very real consequence to every action committed during a game, a code among players. I compare it to having nuclear weapons, or a big army. People know about them, sometimes you have to use them; sometimes the threat of bearing arms is enough of a deterrent. If you ask any skilled player, they are all for fighting. Otherwise, they would get run, night in and night out. If there hadn’t been fighting when I played, I would’ve run guys all night long!
Look at the NFL, where guys get suspended or fined for headshots and big hits. Are the lost wages enough of a deterrent? Apparently not, because they happen routinely. Who knows if fighting will get phased out of hockey. I hope not, because it’s the most effective way of players policing themselves and it’s entertaining as heck to watch.
Follow Chris Dingman on Twitter @dingdish