Hockey fights excite, unsettle and ultimately prove costly
It's not a band.
Sixteen years ago, during a late-night session at a Los Angeles recording studio, a representative from my record company informed me that the male singer-songwriter was dead, so I had to either come up with a band name or attend my own musical funeral. Thanks to a Marty McSorley bout I had witnessed at a Kings game earlier that evening, I sarcastically suggested, "Five For Fighting."
That decision -- and the decade of disconnect between the band name, the style of the songs, and the songwriter -- has probably cost my record labels (Capitol, Columbia, Wind Up) over a half million units in sales. But for me, it greased the rails for high profile performances at sports events that became career highlights. I'll take the trade.
Though the name Five for Fighting started as a joke, fighting in the NHL is no laughing matter. In the wake of the NFL's $765 million settlement with former players who suffer from the lasting aftereffects of concussions, the age-old argument about fighting in hockey has new parameters and higher stakes. With the league meting out multi-game suspensions for checks to the head, a meager five-minute penalty for deliberately targeting the head with a fist is not just hypocritical, it's a potential liability. In this new world, even traditionalists are turning pragmatic.
I spoke to Kings GM Dean Lombardi, former L.A. sniper and current broadcaster Jim Fox, and a guy nicknamed Lucky (Kings president of business operations Luc Robitaille, a Hockey Hall of Famer) about where we are headed.
Fighting in hockey protects the skill players and insures the integrity of the game! Right?
Not according to this Deadspin article about the negative statistical impact of enforcers. SI.com's Sam Page made a similar point in this blog post. Lombardi agrees with the bloggers. Staged fighting is on the way out, a melancholy fact for old schoolers and aspiring Dave Semenkos (the Oilers enforcer who came to be known as Wayne Gretzky's Bodyguard in the 1980s), and the desire to win is naturally eliminating enforcers. Good teams like the Los Angeles Kings don't have fighters, they have good players who can fight.
What about fighting in the heat of the moment, standing up for your teammates?
Luc Robitaille envisions a system for hockey that is similar to baseball's, where fighting is rare, in the heat of the moment, and is penalized by a game ejection, as well as a likely suspension. So if Sharks superpest Raffi Torres were to hit Kings center Jeff Carter in the head with the equivalent of a high fastball, L.A.'s Mike Richards would drop the gloves and get an early shower. Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NFL all (kind of) have fighting, but severe penalties discourage players from making fisticuffs a regular feature of the game.
What will happen to the game if fighting goes away?
Lombardi says that college hockey, where fighting is illegal, is a stick-swinging free-for-all. Nobody wants to see that in the NHL. Fox suggests that brawling has become a bit of joke in the age of mandatory visors, with bloody hands cut on reinforced plastic. All agree that it's impossible to predict outcomes when tinkering with the psychology of intimidation. Whether it's chirping in the face-off circle or the threat of getting your nose broken, for folks in hockey the game is inextricably bound to its culture. More than a few matches have been won or lost with a glance, a response, or a taunt. Lombardi reminded me how Celtics star Larry Bird could affect his opponent's performance with his chatter and a few fights.
What about the kids?
What kind of father can lecture his kid on the dangers of violence and, in the next instant, jump to his feet screaming when he sees a hockey fight? I am, and so are likely many of you. I have no excuse. Hockey fights are entertaining for most of us because the players rarely get hurt. We don't want our kids to fight, but we enjoy hockey brawls because the players only occasionally get hurt in them. On a smaller scale, Slam that between a debilitating politically correct culture and the rise of the UFC, and welcome to parenthood.
I wanted a take on the subject from an elite non-hockey athlete, so I asked the LA Galaxy's soccer wizard -- midfielder Landon Donovan, the all-time goals leader for the U.S. Men's National Team -- if he wished he had an enforcer to protect him from soccer's cheap-shot artists. Donovan said that, though he understands the argument for fighting, it would send a bad message to those watching the game, particularly children. How is he wrong?
Lombardi tells me that the penalties for fighting in junior hockey have greatly increased, and as young players grow up in a game without fighting, perhaps the issue will take care of itself.
So what's your take, Five For Fighting guy? You sound like a hypocrite.
Well, if you want to have a rational discussion on the irrational, don't talk to sports fans. I imagine I blurted out Five for Fighting to that record company rep because deep down, I respect the person who will take a punch to the face, sit in the box, and come out and do it again and again. That sort of indomitable spirit was certainly what I needed to make it in the music business, and that kind of resolve allowed me to realize my childhood dream after more than a decade of face-wash rejections.
I also have high regard for the Hockey Code. Unlike a combatant in UFC, which promotes beating your opponent to a pulp, a hockey fighter will usually stop throwing punches when it becomes apparent that his opponent has had enough. Also, I've reached a place as a fan where though I like fighting in hockey, I don't need it. Watching Kings coach Darryl Sutter's honest, tough team for the past two years has been a fan's dream, with very few fights.
I expect that fighting in the NHL will diminish with harsher penalties, but that it will never be fully eliminated. Things are certainly moving that way. Fox, who a few years back didn't want to hear about hockey without fighting, is now open to the conversation. Lombardi, a traditionalist who bleeds the game, understands that lawyers may end up making the final call. Robitaille would still rather show you one of his hockey fights (he had five) than any of his 668 goals. So it goes.
Of course. if a player is killed in an NHL fight, it's over. That YouTube moment will be the end of it.
Let's hope that is a song we never hear.
John Ondrasik (aka Five For Fighting) is a multi-platinum selling recording artist whose major hits include "Superman (It's Not Easy)", "100 Years", "The Riddle" and "Chances." He released his sixth album, "Bookmarks" in September.