Guest Post: In Opposition to Defenders of Fighting in Hockey, a Defense of Fighting in Hockey

Photo by Steve Jacot, Flyers Faithful

Michael Baumann writes about baseball for Crashburn Alley and Grantland. He also writes about basketball for Liberty Ballers. He will be joining us occasionally on Flyers Faithful to share his thoughts on hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @MJ_Baumann.

My relationship with hockey is dominated by emotion. I don’t have the “analyst” hat I’ve developed with baseball, where I have to put my childhood biases aside so I can wax poetic about Jason Heyward or Andrelton Simmons one moment, then turn around and hurl vitriol against his team, the Atlanta Braves, an organization I hate on a level that usually begets sectarian violence.

But to quote the immortal fictional hockey coach Ronnie Hortense, “This is not f—ing baseball.”

Baseball is thrilling in its inaction, when the go-ahead run is at the plate and the pitcher holds the ball long enough for you to see different scenarios develop. Hockey is thrilling because those scenarios play out before you have time to think, which gives the viewer the feeling of being perpetually in the first half-second of the first drop on a roller coaster ride.

Baseball is objective. It’s a series of discrete individual confrontations played out over and over again, hundreds and thousands of times a year. It is incredibly quantifiable, and that quantifiability makes it incredibly easy to separate those who lazily cite doctrine and axioms from people who actually know what’s going on. Hockey is subjective. Not only is the gameplay fluid—the names, positions and combinations of players are never the same twice—but context determines the decisions the players, coaches and referees make.

This is incredibly frustrating. As the inherent subjectivity of the game decreases, so does my own subjectivity. As I found it satisfying when Mike Richards and Danny Briere went into the corner and carved up opponents with their sticks when the referee turns his back, so too did I find it outrageous when Brooks Orpik or Patrick Kaleta did the same. As I cling desperately to my old Dan Carcillo Flyers shirt, I struggle to listen to Matthew Barnaby analyze a game without vomiting. I loved Chris Pronger and hated Scott Stevens. Claude Giroux is a hero and Sidney Crosby, who is more skilled and (if you asked, say, a San Jose Sharks fan) no more petulant or dirty, is an effete man of execrable moral constitution.

It’s all subjective. I love the Flyers, and I hate the Penguins, Devils, Rangers, Senators, Sabres and whoever else is inconvenient at the moment.

And because I hate those teams, I want them to be visited with physical violence. I find it entertaining. I enjoy watching it. It gives me an emotional rush that very little else in sports does.

I want the NHL to keep fighting in the game because I like watching it, and I am not ashamed to say that, because I don’t think there’s any other defensible argument in favor of keeping it.

Winning a fight doesn’t generate any measurable psychic benefit for a hockey team. Fighting doesn’t reduce cheap shots by allowing players to take out their frustrations on each other in a controlled space. These claims have been tested, and there’s no evidence to support either of them. Now, absence of evidence isn’t necessarily evidence of absence, but absence of evidence does make for a difficult road to hoe when you’re trying to prove your point.

Go canvass 100 fans, media members and personalities and see what arguments they have in favor of fighting. What you’ll get is a pretty good card if you want to play Bingo with logical fallacies:

  • It’s always been part of the game. (Argument from tradition)

  • Fighting is unsafe, but so are other aspects of hockey, so why ban fighting? (Nirvana fallacy)

  • I know you can’t prove fighting makes the game safer, but Player X says it does, so it must. (Appeal to authority)

  • Anecdotal evidence of a fight sparking a team to a positive outcome (Post hoc ergo propter hoc, confirmation bias)

…and so on. The more I hear people who agree with me argue in favor of fighting, the more I consider jumping to the other side. And that’s leaving out the argument that fighting is somehow integral to hockey’s “toughness,” a line of reasoning that often as not leads into xenophobic, homophobic and sexist commentary, sometimes veiled and sometimes not.

The more ridiculous these arguments become, the more damage they’re going to do to fighting’s standing in the game. Particularly when the following argument exists:

Hockey is supposed to be entertaining, and if fighting is entertaining, leave it in the game. I welcome evidence that fighting is a turn-off for would-be fans. I’ve lived in New Jersey, where everyone loves hockey, in South Carolina, where nobody likes hockey because it’s a bizarre ice game played by Yankees and foreigners, and Wisconsin, where hockey’s okay, but nobody cares much about the NHL because it’s not football. But I can’t generalize that experience—if the NHL loses two million fans by banning fighting, but gains ten million, it’s an easy decision, as it would be if the converse were true.

Similarly, if there were to emerge some data that fighting alone, and not the game of hockey in general, were of significant danger to the players, then this is a different argument.

But until then, I like it. It’s fun. I don’t care if it impacts the game or not—it’s an emotional rush for me. Maybe fighting poses an economic threat to the game or an unreasonable physical threat to its players. But until then, give me something base, and petty, and visceral. I want fighting to persist because I like it. There’s no shame in admitting that, and compared to other arguments in the same vein, it’s the only way to defend fighting without sacrificing intellectual integrity.