For decades, anyone who has questioned the usefulness of fighting in hockey has heard the phrase “you never played the game, so you wouldn't understand” thrown at them. Of course, the idea anyone needs to have been an NHL player to comment on fighting is bogus – are former politicians the only people who are allowed to comment on politics? – but, for the sake of the following argument, let’s say that’s true and only NHLers are permitted to talk about fighting’s place in the sport. How do fight fetishists reply to the comments new Canucks president Trevor Linden made to Vancouver’s Team 1040 Radio yesterday?
If you missed it, Linden co-hosted the show and was asked about his stance on fighting in hockey. Dimitri Filipovic of CanucksArmy.com transcribed them:
“I think that our game is such a great one,” Linden said. “It’s built around speed, and skill, and hard-hitting, not unlike the NFL. Can you imagine an NFL game where a linebacker puts a good lick on a running back and the linemen get in there and drop their helmets and start bareknuckle punching each other in the face? It seems rather odd. And you can see why there are some fans in the States that have a tough time with that. They say, ‘I watch the NFL on Sundays and they hit hard, play hard, and pop up after hits and run back in the huddle’. That's part of the game.
“Hockey has a different culture, of course. I think there are a lot of fans that don’t care for the needless fighting. The staged, ‘I’m supposed to fight, you’re supposed to fight, so let's fight. We're not really mad at each other, but that’s our job’ type of thing. I tend to agree with it. I think the NHL moving forward – whether it be a Steve Yzerman or various others – have come out and had significant stances (against that)."
“I recall this incident when I was playing – Mattias Ohlund came across and just leveled someone with a great bodycheck, which is a great part of the game that should be celebrated. Next thing you know he’s got some guy that can’t even skate chasing him around the ice. That isn’t right, that's not the way our game is played. But it’s a mentality that has been coached in, talked in – you know, Coach’s Corner influence. We see it in the playoffs all the time; extremely hard hitting, and there’s no fighting. And I’m not sure that the intended use of fighting – which is to protect our stars - actually works. I think it’s something that as we go down the path the NHL is going to have to look at.”
All of Linden’s points – the valid comparisons to other sports; the idiocy of clean checks being followed by fisticuffs; the demonstrably false notion that fighting protects stars – are the things players have told me off the record numerous times over the years. But it isn’t just Linden talking publicly this way. Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman last year proposed assessing a game misconduct to any player involved in a fight and eliminating the flotsam and jetsam scraps that pass for entertainment; and in a THN interview that took place before he accepted his current role as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brendan Shanahan spoke eloquently when he was asked about playing the game the right way:
“I would do everything I could to encourage a young player, if it’s his dream to make the NHL, to work on his skills,” Shanahan told THN this past spring. “There will always be intimidation in the game of hockey. There’s intimidation in baseball. But the answer is no, I would not want to give anyone advice on how to be a fighter. I don’t think it’s a life I’d hope for for my children. The idea of teaching a young person how to develop that skill as a tactic is not something I would ever do in good conscience.
“For me, that’s not a condemnation of these men who have the protective gene. It’s me displaying my protective gene for them, if I could go back and grab them when they were 14 or 15 years old. For the people who spent a career and a lifetime protecting us, this is the responsible thing to say as far as protecting them.”
You’d never question the toughness or character of Shanahan, Yzerman or Linden, yet here they are acting counter to the way some fans will tell you all NHLers feel about fighting in hockey. Like many of us, they recognize the sport can never eliminate or ban fights (two red-herring terms utilized to reduce the fighting debate to the only fighting debate pro-fighting proponents can win). But they played the game and saw what it does to teammates who were tasked only with that job. They understand the science surrounding head injuries makes it all the more important to weed out the garbage that now only is justified by either (a) fighters with a vested interest in maintaining that role; and (b) carnage aficionados who’ve been conditioned (yes, in part by Coach’s Corner) to see it as a key element of the sport.
So you never played the game? So what? As Linden, Yzerman and Shanahan are proving, those who have played the game are changing their views on fighting as so many of us have. Kudos to them for leading the charge.