There's a moment in Don Cherry's very first Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Hockey video when, after showing the fancy goals and the furious coaches and the mammoth hits, he reaches the inevitable climax: the hand-to-hand combat.
"But you people that don't like fights, you don't like violence, I'm gonna give you time to turn it off," says Cherry, decked out in a rather sedate blue sport jacket, by the way. A brief pause. "Is that enough time, all the sweethearts gone? They can't complain. Now we're gonna start with …"
And on it goes, the franchise that has made a lot of hockey fans happy at the holidays and keeps serving up the action a quarter-century later (26th edition is out now). It's a Canadian perennial, pretty well timeless. There's just one thing and it's about those sweethearts: For all Cherry's evident scorn, and his continued championing of on-ice punch-ups, the sweethearts are in the ascendant, the diehards just hanging on.
Fighting is down in the National Hockey League, down in juniors. Designated goons are losing their roster spots, pressed to learn skills other than pummelling people. The untimely deaths of former tough guys Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak three years ago heightened attention to the long-term dangers of head trauma. An outright fighting ban is coming – some day.
Yet the old guard isn't giving in.
Witness the TV hockey panels after Connor McDavid of the Erie Otters, the consensus No. 1 pick in next June's draft, busted his hand on the glass in a November scrap.
The commentators, the veteran scribes and players and coaches, cringed at the rekindling of the fighting debate, fanned by the fear of losing the Canadian McDavid for the world junior championship (as it turns out, he's playing). Some appeared physically pained with the effort to rationalize, staking out minutely differing positions like biblical scholars and concluding, well, yeah, cutting back is okay but you can't eliminate fighting altogether.
There followed the familiar safety-valve argument that removing fisticuffs would trigger far worse stick work. Bobby Orr subscribes to that line of thinking, saying that, while he applauds the graduated scale of suspensions for fighting in the junior ranks, he still sees an important place for brawling in the pros.
"It is a tough sport, a sport that requires physical play, and sometimes that can lead to frustration," he says in his book Orr: My Story, excerpted in this newspaper. "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." The threat of retaliation, he concludes, is "a powerful deterrent."
Maybe so, but with all due respect to the legendary Bruins defenceman, that threat is also singularly strange among major sports.
You think they don't get frustrated in football? In rugby? Those are brutal pursuits, too, but the players don't fight for a simple reason: They'll get kicked out of the game, speaking of deterrents. To argue hockey players couldn't be similarly disciplined is only to denigrate them. As for policing the dirty work, that's what officials are for – making participants do it is missing the point.
Then, there's the line about fans loving fighting. Yes, some certainly do; some don't. But everyone seems to love Olympic hockey, in which many of the very same NHL players somehow stifle their frustrations and just play the game – no bare-knuckling tolerated.
Let's at least be honest here. Defenders of hockey fighting like hockey fighting, do-gooders be damned. It's a matter of taste, and tradition. Just please skip the justifications, which make most sense as expressions of a long-ingrained culture, fending off the future. It's like the Old West passing, the railways bringing farmers and ranchers and city folk, law and order on the rise even as some rowdies still shoot up the town on Saturday night.
A confession: I did not grow up with hockey. I came to it late and especially when my son started playing a couple of decades ago. I was taken with the speed and skill, the fluidity and, yes, the ferocity, as evidenced in body-checking, legal and bruising. That's part of the game, and a great game it is.
But the goonery? Baffling. This isn't, say, biathlon, where you score both skiing and shooting. You get no goals for boxing in hockey; it's strictly a sideshow. It's as if chess players, frustrated from intense concentration, suddenly shoved the board aside and started arm-wrestling, before eventually getting back to stalking the queen.
Okay, fine, I can imagine the fight-crowd response: You didn't grow up with hockey, what do you know? Or, as Cherry said: You don't like it, turn it off. Yes, that's an option. Just as it's an option for parents to keep their kids out of the sport, avoiding the violence.
Even some old-time hockey types are rethinking the matter, noting the new knowledge about head hits, the focus on puck possession, the decline of the enforcer.
"As much as I liked a good scrap back in my day, [there are] too many issues here involving concussions, too many problems," said Mike Milbury, an NBC Sports hockey analyst and former NHL tough guy who once bashed a fan in the head with a shoe. "The teams are going away from it. Let's grow up and get rid of it."
Thank you, well said. The scent of change is in the air, plain and pungent as a hockey bag. And, somehow, fans in Canada will survive. The nation that made it through Black Friday without any shopping-mall mayhem will adjust to pucks without punch-ups, and the game will go on.