book excerpt

There is a place for fighting in hockey: Bobby Orr

Special to The Globe and Mail

Bobby Orr, who went flying after scoring Boston’s Stanley Cup-winning goal against St. Louis in 1970, says if the NHL really wants to see its stars shine, ‘one of the best ways is to give them more time and space to be creative. And that is the enforcer’s job description.’ (RAY LUSSIER/AP)

The opinions I’m about to share need to be understood in the right context. Allow me to begin this section by noting that fighting in minor hockey is something that should not be tolerated. Two peewee teams engaged in a bench-clearing brawl is something that simply has no place in our game, and shame on those people who allow such things to occur.

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I once heard a mother say that she and her husband were considering having their son learn boxing so he could defend himself properly in his league. The boy was seven years old. Something is wrong there, because no child should ever have to step onto the ice worrying about having to fight.

You might think this is an isolated incident, but I recently read about a minor hockey coach who was suspended for giving one of his own players a concussion while teaching the team how to fight. It doesn’t matter what kids see on television – we can and must control our own minor hockey systems. If enough parents, coaches, and administrators determine that fighting will not be tolerated, it can be eradicated from minor hockey. It’s up to all of us to relay that message to our children. After all, we are supposed to be in control of the games they play.

However, there’s always another side to every story, and so it is when it comes to fighting in pro-level hockey.

In “pro level,” I include all professional ranks plus the highest levels in Canadian junior hockey as well. I include junior here because the players in those leagues are there with the main purpose of apprenticing for the next level of play. They need to be ready for what is to come, and fighting is a part of it.

Of course, no one wants to see a goon in junior hockey. I applaud the graduated scale of suspensions the junior leagues have brought in to deter the chronic offenders. For example, in the OHL, once a player hits a certain number of fights in a season, he gets an automatic two-game suspension for every fight after that, and that goes up to four games if he is the instigator. To me, that seems appropriate action for any league to take should a team or individual become too focused on fighting or intimidation as part of their game plan. And as far as staged fights go, I’d be all in favour of an automatic ejection. There’s no room in our game for any of that stuff.

But I would be very hesitant to take fighting out of the pro levels of the game, and here’s why. As a young player in the NHL, I was called out on certain occasions and responded to those challenges to fight because I felt it was my duty to do so. I didn’t particularly enjoy fighting, but I understood its place in the game. I never wanted or needed someone covering for me when the rough stuff started, and as a result I believe it helped me over the course of my career, both with teammates and opponents.

My first fight was against Ted Harris of the Montreal Canadiens. He wanted to see what I was made of – that happens to every rookie. If you answer the challenge, you will have the respect of both your teammates and your opponents.

It is a tough sport, a sport that requires physical play, and sometimes that can lead to frustration. Speaking as a former player, whenever those situations occur on the ice I would much rather face an opponent man to man in a fight than have to deal with sticks to the face as well as spearing to other areas of the body. Similarly, hitting from behind is a cowardly and careless act that has resulted in far more significant injuries than those resulting from fighting, at least in my estimation. If respect for the guy between you and the boards isn’t enough to stop you from running him, maybe what will be is the fear of the retribution that is sure to follow.

A lot has been said in recent years about fighting and its place in hockey.

True, the pro game can be cruel to those who choose fists over skills, and it is a tough way to make a living. But the more I look at the current state of the game, the more I realize a simple truth about it. The threat of a fight, or the fear of doing something that might trigger retaliation, is a powerful deterrent. It always has been, and it always will be.

Historically, skilled players were considered “out of bounds” when it came to fisticuffs, and that was respected around the league. Call it honour among thieves if you like, or the law of the jungle, but it worked. Often, in the current game, I see little pests with face shields or visors acting like tough guys and not having to account for their actions. Those pests take away from the honour of the game and actually help create more opportunities for injuries. Their job is to provoke retaliation, and they are almost never the guy paying the price.

I know that hockey fans are very interested in the arguments for and against fighting. On one side of the argument, you have Don Cherry, who is very much in support of the tough guys. Others call it barbaric and feel it should be banned.

The various kinds of data and statistics brought forward either to support or condemn fighting are often viewed with skepticism regardless of which side of the argument you might be on.

But I would say this about the place of fighting in hockey. I believe that especially at the pro level you need to be held accountable for your actions, and the threat of a fight can accomplish that. The truth is, you couldn’t pull the gloves off certain players if a fight was in their future, yet many of those same players in the modern game take liberties with others simply because they can. That is not right, and players should not be allowed to have it both ways. It leads me to the notion of what is commonly referred to as the “enforcer.”

Take the great Jean Béliveau. Do you think he would have been as useful to the Canadiens if he’d spent more time in the penalty box because he’d had to defend himself through fighting? Obviously, the answer to that is a resounding no, and the Habs appear to have agreed. They hired John Ferguson to take care of that part of the game for him.

“Fergie” was an enforcer, no matter how you want to define the term, yet he also had some twenty-goal seasons for Montreal, which goes to show that tough guys can have more than one dimension. But goal scoring wasn’t his main purpose. John was there to make sure no one took liberties with any of the Habs’ star players, foremost among them Mr. Béliveau. You could bump Jean and take him out during the course of normal play, but go over the line and sooner or later you had to deal with the “law.”

John Ferguson knew his job and was not an antagonist, but rather a type of insurance policy for his team.

Now, fast-forward to the modern game and ask the same kind of question: Would you rather see Sidney Crosby performing on the ice or sitting in a penalty box after a fight? Again, the answer is obvious, but today the rules have changed. He doesn’t have a John Ferguson, and that means Crosby is vulnerable. The opposing teams take all kinds of liberties with him, and if no one is going to stop you, why not do whatever you can to slow down a player like that?

The outcome of that vulnerability has become all too evident in the series of injuries Sidney has endured. I don’t want to watch Sid fight his own battles. He’s our best player, and I want to see him healthy and on the ice, not sitting in the box.

Of course, the star players today have a role to play as well. If someone like Sid is going to take a poke at the opposition with his stick, or trash talk while on the ice, then there will be some kind of retribution. You get what you go looking for in this game. But the main point is, if a player of Sidney Crosby’s stature had an enforcer, a true enforcer, whose main job was to protect the star player, then perhaps some of the physical punishment he’s gone through might never have taken place. Enforcers have a very practical role to play. If the league really wants to see its stars shine, one of the best ways is to give them more time and space to be creative. And that is the enforcer’s job description.

Unfortunately, the game seems to be moving in the opposite direction by forcing the referees to call each game by the book. Not long ago, they had much more room for interpretation and could call the game as much by their sense of justice as by the black-and-white of the rule book. What might be deemed roughing in a clean game one night, might not be in a chippy contest the next.

Refs could call the game according to what was fair. But in the search for standardization, that discretion has been taken away from the refs, and, along with it, a lot of their feel for the game.

Of course, officials shouldn’t go looking for penalties to call. Just observe, don’t infer. There are too many cases where referees are reacting to a player falling to the ice or reaching for his face rather than to the high stick that may or may not have come up. Just because a guy goes down doesn’t mean there was a penalty.

Being a referee is a very tough job, and I think they do good work in a very demanding environment. They have to make split-second judgment calls in front of thousands of very partisan fans – millions, if you include television.

It’s a fast game, and players are smart enough to know how to take advantage when the refs aren’t looking. Refs are never going to catch everything. But if officials were allowed a bit more discretion on calls, as they once were, I believe a lot of the silliness that sometimes occurs on the ice could be taken out of the game.

If an agitator goes after a skilled player, then, according to the code I played under, there was always someone waiting to even the score. In today’s game, the lines are blurred, the agitator turtles when justice comes calling, and suddenly the victim’s team is shorthanded and the agitator is on the bench laughing while his team goes on the power play. In other words, this arrangement rewards injustice.

Not long ago, a ref might have looked the other way when the agitator got his due. That may have been a very inexact form of justice, but it did keep the game cleaner.

It works the other way, too. Sure, there are things the refs need to get rid of. But there are other things they should keep their hands off. Specifically, there has been a lot of attention paid lately to big open-ice hits that have left guys injured. No one wants to see anyone lying injured on the ice, whether he’s a teammate or an opponent. But if it was a clean hit, it was a clean hit, and the officials need to let them play on.

You can’t penalize guys for unfortunate outcomes, and you certainly shouldn’t suspend anyone on those grounds either. After all, he was playing by the rules. We need to allow our referees to use that common sense and judgment. They are not robots and will never be perfect, but I would prefer to give some rope to a well-trained official and let him use his discretion when situations require it.

I began this chapter by talking about how the game never really changes, and ended by talking about how I would change it. But I’m not advocating any radical overhaul or any bold experiments. Really, what I have in mind is what the game has always been. As a fan of the game, what I want to see on the ice is what I saw when I was on it myself.

I’d like to see a game where our referees are allowed discretion. I’d like to see a game where barriers exist to allow for greater skill development and to protect player safety. And I’d like to see a game where respect dictates that blindside hits and hitting from behind are not longer accepted.

That’s the way hockey should be played. When guys are playing with passion, you see what the game is really about. Players don’t get paid a salary in the playoffs – just a very small bonus for getting there. And look how much more intensely they compete. Players don’t get paid to suit up for the Olympics or other international tournaments, yet that is often where they play their best hockey. They don’t do what they do in order to get rich. They do it because they love it, and they do it the way they do it because that is just how the game is meant to be played.

The creativity, the competitiveness, the physical battles, maybe even the fighting – that’s the game at its best. We just have to get out of the way. While the game does change in small, unimportant ways, I’ve come to realize that no owner, no hockey executive, and no player is bigger than the game itself. Eras come and go, yet the game always manages to move forward. That is a testament to the integrity of the game itself, and to the passion of the people who love it, whether they are on the ice or off it.

Let’s keep it that way.

Excerpted from Orr: My Story. Copyright © 2013 Bobby Orr. Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved. Hardcover and ePub editions of Orr: My Story will be available in stores and online Oct. 15.

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