As hockey fights go, the only interesting thing about it was that the play-by-play guys were discussing its likelihood as it began. This is the closest hockey gets to postmodern.
“Don’t think he’ll have a target on his back – Edler,” the announcer says. “But we’ll keep an eye on him.”
At that very moment, Wayne Simmonds’s targeting apparatus had located Alex Edler, and was weapons-locking him for attack.
This was one of those get-even fights the NHL got rid of a few years ago. Even worse, Simmonds is a fighter, while Edler is not.
The fashionable thing these days is to tell people you hate this sort of thing, and then turn the volume up when it happens so the neighbours can’t hear you cheering.
Who’s to blame for all this? Well, tradition and Edler, in that order.
A couple of weeks ago, Edler, of the Vancouver Canucks, went knee-to-knee with Zach Hyman of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Whether Edler did it on purpose is not the point. He hurt a Leaf. Now a Leaf had to hurt him. That was the old rule, it’s still the rule, and it will always be the rule.
Simmonds took the duty without much enthusiasm. Everything about his body language said, “I’m not doing this because I want to. I’m doing this because I have to.”
By contrast, Edler looked like a guy who knows he’s due a paddling, and wants to get it over with.
Simmonds asked. Edler accepted. Gloves dropped. Simmonds began with looping overhand rights. Edler buried his head in Simmonds’s chest – not the worst idea. Simmonds gave him a few perfunctory uppercuts. Edler, now hanging onto Simmonds’s jersey like he was halfway out a third-storey window, went down.
Everyone on the benches tapped the boards. Simmonds left with another head for his trophy wall. Edler left with his dignity.
Thirty years ago, people would have said this was the best kind of hockey fight. Today, they’d say it’s one of the worst. Where you fall on this spectrum defines your brand of fandom.
When people talk about ending fighting in hockey, this is the second sort of fight they mean.
The first sort is the prize fight. That’s two full-time pugilists who can’t do much else agreeing to spice up the evening’s entertainment with feats of violent strength. It’s Bob Probert swimming the rink like a Great White waiting for someone stupid enough to look him in the eye.
That fight is gone, but only because the people who fought them went first. The NHL used a few moves taken from big government – change public policy and then attach a (salary cap) tax incentive to smooth transition – to get rid of the enforcer.
But the second sort was just as bad – the choreographed fight. It’s the scrap you can see coming from way off in the distance.
Everyone agrees that spontaneous fights are best – best to watch and easiest to justify morally. If two guys at your office started swinging in the middle of the morning meeting, you wouldn’t say, “It’s about time they got that out of their systems,” but this is hockey. Even the pacifists in the audience like a little blood in their sport. They just don’t like talking about it.
Calculated fights are harder to enjoy, even if you like the fights. There’s not a lot of fun to be wrung out of watching Simmonds rag-doll a guy who hasn’t fought since grade school and wasn’t looking to start. The effect is dull and oppressive.
But it is entirely necessary to maintain balance in hockey’s ecosystem. How do we know that? Because the league and its proxies have done everything they can to dissuade the practice, and yet it continues.
It’s not true that without fighting hockey would turn into a free-for-all. That’s a common defence. Neither football nor soccer are free-for-alls, and those players are in each other’s faces just as often as they are in hockey.
Football players don’t fight because they have no tradition of doing so. They get their aggro out in other ways.
The reason fighting continues in hockey is heritage. The get-even fight in particular has become a sort of northern folk ritual. It’s not practised very often any more, but those who are invested in its mysteries work hard to keep the practice alive.
It works because it serves both parties. Simmonds gets to be the hero. He doesn’t have to be told what to do. He just knows, because he was raised in hockey.
No one expects him to injure Edler. No one even wants him to do that. For the ritual to be satisfied, Simmonds must perform violence, rather than inflict much of it.
For Edler, this process is even more cathartic. He’s a hero, too, but in the Fight Club sense of the term. He is heroic by absorbing punishment. Like Simmonds, he instinctively understands his role. All he has to do is keep his legs under him for a few seconds.
In the end, everyone is sanctified. Well, as much as that can be true in hockey.
The aggregate good here isn’t bleeding off the animus created by Hyman’s injury. These are professionals. They don’t get genuinely angry unless their paycheque bounces.
The real worth of fighting is in satisfying the customs of the game. It reminds everyone what they’re part of. It creates a sense of common purpose that no rule changing or finger wagging can discourage.
They could take fighting out of hockey tomorrow. Change the rules so that Simmonds gets 15 games instead of five minutes. Do that for a generation and fighting is gone.
But no one wants that. People want to occupy the moral high ground, but still be free to get down in the mud every once in a while because that’s more fun. It’s a circular argument.
The only people who are sure of their position on fighting are the Wayne Simmondses and Alex Edlers of the world. They don’t talk about it. They’re out there showing you how it works.