Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Misplaced outrage over fighting in the NHL

Finish him! (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
If you close your eyes and listen to the hysteria, you’d think there was actually a crisis in the NHL over fighting. That somehow the league was intentionally turning a blind-eye on disciplinary action in order to promote fights for a ratings boost and increased attendance.

More specifically, that fighting was so integral to the sport of hockey in North America that the NHL would never dramatically reduce or ban it completely for fear of its negative impact on attendance. What bullshit.

The NHL and Colin Campbell in particular haven’t been scheming, manipulating and intentionally turning a blind-eye to drive attendance so much as they’ve been flat out incompetent dealing with the primary cause of it.

Fighting in decline

The recent flurry of “Gong Show” hockey in Boston and on Long Island in New York has made for great headlines and stirred the creative juices of journalists and bloggers everywhere but the simple truth is that fighting in the NHL has actually been dropping for decades. Even with the recent burst of fighting majors the last couple weeks, the 2010-11 season is still on pace to be a 3 year low. UPDATE: Season ended with .52 fights per game, a 4 year low.

In fact, it you look at 5 year cluster averages on fights per NHL game, excluding strike years, there are now just .53 fights per game compared to 1.00 fights a night during the Rocky/Drago period, known by some as the mid-1980s. That’s right, fighting in the NHL has steadily dropped a whopping 47% over the past 25 years (1.00, .83, .68, .55 to .53) and apparently, nobody noticed.

Attendance hasn’t suffered because of the on-ice product and there certainly hasn’t been a fan revolt over the decline in fighting. And since fans now need to attend two games on average to have a chance to see just one fight, I’d like to think they’d have noticed by now if that was their primary reason for going.

But it goes deeper than that. Because the number of games with multiple fights has also dropped, fans the past 5 years only had a 37.6% chance on average to see a fight when they did go. And given high ticket prices in markets that care about the sport now limit all but the most hard-core fans from attending more than 2-3 games, it's entirely possible for fans to never witness a fight first hand. Simply put, the claim that fights provide entertainment value and that a major reduction or ban would affect ticket sales and ratings is one of the biggest misconceptions in hockey.

Everyone knows that during the playoffs, when interest in the NHL is maxed out and the league is best positioned to attract new fans, fighting is at it's lowest point. The 2009-10 playoffs started with 16 teams that combined to play 89 games before the Stanley Cup was awarded and there were a total of 19 fights. Just one fight for every 4.68 games played.

It's common knowledge that fighting declines in the playoffs, yet a steady and dramatic 47% decline during the regular season since the mid-80s has gone unnoticed, especially by those who supposedly buy tickets to see them.

The fight-instigator penalty was introduced in 1992 in response to the explosion of fighting during the 80s and it’s had a slow and steady effect on the NHL, returning it to a level where the last time fans saw fewer fights was the 5 year average from 1974-78. I think most would agree a lot of good hockey was being played back then and those who claim the instigator penalty has resulted in more dirty play never watched old-time hockey, when players literally scratched, clawed and fought for their jobs, often using their sticks as weapons.

The Code

Captain Barbossa said it best: “The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules” and he’s right. Talk of The Code is only invoked when someone is getting their ass kicked, by those on the receiving end of said kicking. Case in point, the bulk of the Bruins media who were orgasmic observing the thrashing several Montreal Canadiens players received after they were down and defenseless. Few made any mention of The Code then.

Of course, one doesn’t have to ponder very long or hard how the Boston Bruins and most of the local media would have reacted if Price and Pouliot didn’t adhere to The Code and filled-in Thomas and Krejci the way Pyatt and Spacek were destroyed when down and vulnerable.

After the Islanders/Penguins debacle, Mario Lemieux came across as a complete douche for complaining how his team, who led the NHL in fighting majors (they finished 2nd) at the time, was beaten up. The Code, NHL turning a blind eye, lack of disciplinary action, the horror… the horror. The hypocrite was right about one thing though; flaccid disciplinary action.

Cut the Crap

Referees need to do a better job maintaining control of the game and they can start by consistently handing out additional penalties for punches thrown after they intervene and for hitting defenseless players who are down and vulnerable. The rules are there to deal with dirty, unsportsmanlike behavior that only escalates. Use them.

The NHL and Colin Campbell in particular need to take control and drop the hammer in a manner that at least resembles an attempt to be consistent. Cut the crap on discipline handed out by roulette wheel, Campbell’s mood on a particular day, the perpetrator’s popularity or if his son is involved. Do that and there's no need for situational calls for "The Code" and players policing themselves which clearly, are just as incompetent enforcing as Colin Campbell.

They can start by taking Mario Lemieux’s comments seriously, hypocritical as they were, and throw the book at Matt Cooke the next time he injures someone. Mario was on the ice in Game 3 and 6 in 1991 when Ulf Samuelsson effectively ended Cam Neely’s career so he outta know, and learned from it.

Many claim cheap-shots we see today are based on a lack of respect among the players but that just isn't true. Ever since they struggled to create the NHLPA, players from different teams are inter-acting with each other more than they ever have previously.

Back in the day, players rarely talked to guys from other teams because the rivalries were not only intense but often vicious. Owners, seeking to keep the players divided out of self-interest, certainly encouraged it. Today they often golf, vacation and party together off-season and text each other so times have indeed changed.

Fighting isn't out of control, incompetence dealing with the dirty crap that causes it to spiral out of control is. Cheap shots that go unpunished are the root cause of most NHL fights so if the league was remotely interested in dispensing even-handed disciplinary action there wouldn't be need for faux, situational discussions about The Code and players handling discipline themselves to fill the void.

Do that and fans in the near-future will need to buy tickets for 4 or 5 games to see one fight and continue to be oblivious about the decline. Sadly, it'll likely require a death on the ice to get there if the legal/insurance issues over head shots doesn't force them to act sooner.