The gloves hit the ice and blood lust erupts. As two players start throwing punches, the crowd rises as one to roar when fists connect. The energy in the arena is undeniable and powerful.
The 2011-2012 NHL season opens Thursday, following the deaths of three enforcers who had engaged in such theatre: Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak. In the wake, many of their brethren testified to the psychological conflicts imposed by a job that obliges them to beat the tar out of one another for a living, for the entertainment of fans.
In recent days, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told a Toronto radio show he believed “there are some people” in all 30 NHL cities attracted to hockey by the on-ice fights. Brendan Shanahan, the head of league player safety, stated the NHL would be willing to look at fighting and its value to the game, but when and how was left open. Commissioner Gary Bettman pledged it is time to look at fighting, while quickly qualifying his statement by saying it’s not a front-burner issue.
In essence, the league has put it on the backs of the fans, asking them to decide what’s best for hockey. And so, knowing what they know now, how will fans react when fights break out in games this weekend?
Are they in some measure responsible for the continuation of the carnage?
“I suppose the crowd is complicit in a way because we pay for tickets and stand up and applaud during fights,” Montreal Canadiens fan Jean-Marc Nolet said before a preseason game at the Molson Centre. “Except that people always cheer way louder for goals.”
“I don’t have a problem with [fighting]” added Alain Vaudry, who attended the same Canadiens game. “As long as it’s not gratuitous or staged. It’s part of the spectacle, I guess, but let’s put it this way: I don’t come here for the fights.”
Sports psychologist Paul Dennis, a former assistant coach in mental skills for the Toronto Maple Leafs, believes people see the punching and battling as entertainment without considering the repercussions.
The “silver lining from those tragedies,” Dennis said, is everyone in hockey accepting the possibility that repeated blows to the head can lead to catastrophic results.
If fighting has been kept in the game to do, as Daly said, attract fans who enjoy the physical element, the belief is it’s for the Americans, especially those in non-traditional hockey markets such as Carolina, Phoenix, Nashville and Florida.
“They get fired up in St. Louis,” Blues president John Davidson said. “We fill the building and there’s a huge history of teams that stood up for each other with the Plagers [Bill, Bob and Barclay] Kelly Chase, Tony Twist, Cam Janssen. The fans have loved them here.”
Many Canadians have proven to be just as enthusiastic about fighting. They watch it; they support it. They believe in its time-honoured purpose, partly as an emotional release for players.
Since 1989, enthusiasts have bought two million copies of Don Cherry’s Rock‘em, Sock‘em Hockey videos, with Cherry’s voice repeating: “Two good guys going at it. Nobody getting hurt,” as players pummel each other.
Liam Maguire, hockey fan and historian, is convinced fighting will never be taken out of the game completely.
“I’m a big supporter of fighting in hockey,” he said unabashedly. “The detractors fall into two camps: the media and those who never played.
“The death of the three men this past year has been beyond tragic,” Maguire added. “For their families, I feel so, so sorry. … But if there is a correlation between their deaths and fighting in hockey, then you or anybody who espouses that view is clearly a full-trained doctor or professional the likes of which we’ve never seen.”
Allan MacKay is one fan who did play the game as a boy and is now treasurer of the Ripley Wolves, an Ontario Senior-A team that prides itself on being “the team with more growl and less howl.” Even so, MacKay is fed up with the fisticuffs.
“They could take it out of the game for all I care,” he said. “I don’t go to the game to watch the fights. I absolutely don’t. It’s kind of a waste of time. … Maybe if it was something that was just left alone it would disappear, except for the big leagues.
“It won’t disappear in the big leagues because they know it brings fans. And it’s big money to them.”
Jim Boone, president of the NHL Fans’ Association, a group with about 30,000 members, 60 per cent of them in the United States, believes the role of the goon will diminish.
“I think there’s still a place for fighting, but these big slugfest, heavyweight brawls. … I think more and more fans are getting queasy about watching those sorts of tilts,” he said.