Perhaps You Should Adjust Your Priorities

The Ottawa Senators took it to the Montreal Canadiens in last night’s playoff game, eventually winning 6-1. It had been close for much of the game, but things quickly got away from the Habs in the third period. By the time it was 4-1, the Canadiens decided it was enough. In a series that had become rather testy, emotion finally took over and we were presented with a full line brawl.

Hockey “purists” tend to defend fighting as an important part of the game. Supposedly, it creates respect between players and teams, it gets your teammates fired up, and it gets the crowd fired up. The resultant cheering in the following video as long-tenured Ottawa tough guy Chris Neil throws his hands in the air shows that the final argument is, no doubt, true.

Whether you like fighting or not, the response by the colour analyst Garry Galley (a former NHLer and an eminently likable broadcast personality) is really messed up. While detailing the fights, and commending players for “standing in here”, Galley says:

I’m ok with everything but the handwaving…

You see, there’s nothing wrong with ten grown men punching each other in the head for a few minutes, but a bit of hand-waving (to fire up the crowd!) is over the line.

This is what’s wrong with the NHL.

Jonathan McLeod

Jonathan McLeod is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario. (That means Canada.) He spends too much time following local politics and writing about zoning issues. Follow him on Twitter.


    • Point: Nob.

      I’d say that the NHL puts too much emphasis on tradition and macho posturing and not enough on player safety. And, of course, Bettman can get a lot of blame for that.

          • Apparently Mario got Cooke to stop being quite a rules-flouting arse. I guess that’s progress?

      • I sort of agree about tradition and macho posturing, but a lot of that is also how the owners choose to market the game.

        The NHL owners as a collective are the most incompetent, evil greedy bastard owners in sports. Which is a tough distinction to get given that they’re competing with the NFL, various college football conferences and the NBA.

        • I would say that the NCAA narrowly beats out the NHL on macho posturing and incompetent evil.

          • Though it should be noted that fighting is banned in NCAA hockey.

          • Or whatever the governing body is of college hockey. It might not be the NCAA…

          • ‘Tis indeed the NCAA. Although there is also club hockey organized under the auspices of the ACHA (American Collegiate Hockey Association); their list of recent ACHA Division III national champions is worth checking out (I say, with something of a bias).

          • You know who won the NCAA Hockey title this year?

          • Ooh! Ooh! I know!

            (Both of the final two teams are from my neck of the woods, and one of the semifinalists is where my son goes to school, so I was paying more attention this year than usual).

          • I have an entirely different group of answers for “you know who did (something)?” questions.

          • Yeah, it was a weird year, with a couple of finalists dredged from the far end of the alphabet. Too bad there’s no D1 school that starts with a Z.

          • I don’t know about incompetence. The NCAA football teams at least make a lot more money than the NHL does.

  1. In the early 90’s, I went to a little AAA hockey game up in Minnesota. They still had fights (the crowd went *NUTS*). One of the players had his third fight and was ejected from the game. He did a victory lap to a standing ovation.

    To take this anecdote all the way to a conclusion: part of the issue is fan expectations.

    • Yes, it really is. And I used to be one of those fans who wanted to see fights – pretty much hoped for them and knew which players to keep track of.

      But I would think that the NHL would be able to put on a better product without fighting. I’m not a huge hockey fan (and I’ve sworn off the NHL a bit because of the fighting), but it can be a damned fun game to watch. Most playoff games don’t have fights and people like them. If fighting was further curtailed, I think most fans would eventually get over it.

      • I’m not sure I see how fighting is worse than normal hockey play (with the obvious note that headshots are still headshots…)…
        I mean, it does seem a little immature to take a game about a puck and then put in ritualized banging people with fists (as opposed to banging people about while in the process of getting or keeping the puck).

        Do you see the fighting as just kinda spoiling the rhythm of the game?

        • I’m not really understanding your question. Fight isn’t a part of hockey. It’s a part of the NHL, but that ain’t the same thing.

          Further, when there’s a fight, all game action is halted. That seems to mean that it is, by definition, not part of the game.

          • despite not understanding it,you answered it amptly.

          • That would be an interesting rule change: when there’s a fight, players currently on the ice are free to join in, but the puck is still live.

      • I find that the fact that you admit to not being much of a fan, but yet still want the game changed to suit your needs slightly condescending. In other posts you have called for the firing of Don Cherry. When I hear people groaning about hockey fights, or how old and wrong Don Cherry is, I always have the same thought…..Ok, lets change the game to suit the non-fans ideals, and fire that old bugger Grapes…. so what? So that they can still not watch hockey? There is less fighting than there was a decade ago, and if fighting is to be gone one day I think it will be a gradual decline until they are a rarity.

        • Umm… as I think I noted, I stopped watching hockey (for the most part) because of the fights. So I’m really more of a former fan than a non-fan.

          Beyond that, it’s blogging. By it’s very nature I’m going to comment on things that aren’t any of my business!

          [Edited to add:]

          Further, Don Cherry is a CBC employee. I’m ok with any Canadian weighing in on the state of the public broadcaster.

    • I have to confess that I’m guilty of this. I really enjoy the physicality and strategy of hockey, the way that setups have to be structured so quickly and how teams learn one another’s game-by-game strategies as the periods wear on.

      Olympic hockey is fantastic for this because fighting is simply not tolerated — if you fight, you’re ejected, period. And Olympic hockey is a lot of fun to watch for this exact reason.

      But when I’m watching an NHL game and a fight breaks out, something primal gets activated down in my cerebellum and I’m viscerally stimulated — and pleased. I like it. I can’t help myself. Almost like exposure to pornography (perhaps a lot like that), the stimulation happens at an unconscious level and I cannot really control my excitement as a response to it. I try to control it, often enough I can realize that what incited the fight was a permissible body-check, but an honest disclosure is that I do like it.

  2. What bothers me most is the clear racial double standard we apply to fighting in hockey and, to a lesser extent, baseball in comparison to how we view the same in basketball.

    Tall, muscular tattooed black men fighting is everything that is wrong with that thugged out sport and probably deserves more than the automatic ejection and suspension it garners.

    But short, squat white guys pounding on each other, which often goes largely unpunished, is just a part of the game.


    • Baseball “fights” often consist of both teams milling around giving each other threatening looks, possibly accompanied by some minor scuffling. It’s a form of conflict resolution with little or no violence. Everyone’s favorite fight was Robin Ventura charging the mound because he thought Nolan Ryan threw at him. Ryan got Ventura in a headlock and punched him in the head a few times before it got broken up. It’s fun because no one got hurt, and Ventura got what he deserved for starting it: to be humiliated.

      Kermit Washington almost killing Rudy Tomjonovich was something else entirely.

      • That’s some really convenient cherry picking. Most NBA fights nowadays are of the “Hold me back” variety. And I can point you towards a melee between the O’s and Yanks from about a decade ago that had guys throwing each other down the dugout steps.

        The reality is, be it sports or elsewhere, we see black people fighting and think something very different than when we see white people fighting.

        • I can’t recall the Yankees-O’s fight, but if it was a decade ago I expect it included a significant number of black players. The worst one I can think of was Juan Marichal hitting John Roseboro with a bat. That’s a Latino fighting with a black guy, leading to a general 14-minute brawl that included players of all races, eventually brought under control by Sandy Koufax (a white guy) and Willie Mays (a black guy). Marichal wound up with a nine-game suspension; no one else was punished.

          I’m not seeing a racial pattern.

          • My point is that, when NBAers fight, they’re labeled as thugs and menaces and the league polices it tightly because it drives (white) fans away.
            When NHLers fight they are cheered by fans, allowed by the league, and praised as gamers. Even guys employed to do little else are “enforcers”, not “thugs”. Why? When is the last time an NHLer was called a thug?

          • I think the NHL is unique in not only tolerating but encouraging fighting. Both the NFL and MLB fine and suspend players for fighting.

            The NBA doesn’t encourage fighting, but fans and broadcasters do love hard fouls, and especially love the playoffs because the refs call fewer fouls and just let them play.

          • The culture of fighting as a specific and deliberate tactic to intimidate and dominate the other team for one. Fighting and “enforcers” have a long history in pro hockey at all levels. The subculture of fighting is focused mostly in Canada and is all about toughness and macho. Euro players are rarely ever enforcers or fight as much ( good for them). Some players work their way up through the hardscrabble minors solely on fighting. Most enforcer type players don’t have enough other skills to make it in the NHL. You might have a hard fouling center in the NBA, but he still has to be able to play a little center to get on the court.

            You simply cannot separate fighting in the NHL from decades of Canadian love of hockey and the legends and rituals that built up there. You certainly don’t see the level of fighting in american college hockey since you really can’t fight nor do you see it in European hockey with their bigger rinks and focus on skill.

          • Fighting is not written into the rules of hockey (AFAIK), but it’s strictly controlled by unwritten rules. The refs will let people punch each other for a while, but when they go to break it up, it stops immediately, and no matter how out-of-control the fighters might have seemed, neither of them will so much as touch the ref. And the ref has the same demeanor as an umpire who goes to end a too-long conference at the mound.”

          • You don’t think there is any racial element to black NBAers slap fighting and getting called thugs and NHLers boxing and being called enforcers? You don’t think Stern shits bricks over fights while Bettman shrugs his shoulders because the fans have a different visceral response to the imagery? You don’t think the Malice in the Palace gets held up as all that is wrong with “NBA hip hop culture” while NHLers scaling the boards to fight fans is barely a blip because of anything to do with race?

            I’m not saying the rules or leagues are racist, but that race factors into our response and the narrative (largely media driven) that arises.

          • NHL players going into the stands was a huge deal in the NHL when it happened. It’s just that , like i said, the NHL is a regional sport while NBA is world wide. If you get Sky Sports, they show NBA scores after showing all the world wide soccer leagues, cricket and rugby. Go to a minor league game in Moose Jaw and you just might see rabid fans cheering a bloody fight.

            It says a lot more about the different markets and backgrounds of the sports. You are overreacting to a few words.

          • Even Stern has spoken out about, albeit tacitly. Is he overreacting?

          • Why is the nBA the only league with an off-court dress code? White fans don’t wanna see certain things, chief among them black guys in baggy pants and/or fighting.

          • Kazzy,
            (re: thug) Oh, the last time Cooke took the ring.
            Man’s an asshole, and good at his game.
            But his game USED to be cheap shots, any shots.

            Surely there’s something off about a slap fight
            being called a real fight. And there’s something
            WAY off about an offcourt dresscode.

            People don’t seem to be using fights as intimidation…
            More an expression of “frustration” and a way to
            “help out their team”

          • I should expand… It is not just fans, but corporate sponsors and other “suits.” But there are intense feedback loops between the groups.

            Regarding NHLers in the stands, were any suspended for an entire season?

          • Kazzy, I think you’re going too far with the ‘we’ here.

            NBA/NHL fan base crossover is vanishingly small.

            The NHL stands out among professional team sports in the way it polices it’s game and player safety – the fact that the players are primarily white is important but you’re letting that fact do all the heavy lifting.

          • That’s fair, Plinko. I am painting with broad strokes, in part because a number of my comments were made via my phone which does not lend itself to more thoughtful expositions.

            When I say “we” here, I mean society as a whole. There is something going on that the media and the internet and the fans who drive both largely celebrate fighting in hockey and view it as the scourge of the earth in basketball. That is about more than the cultures within the game. Rush Limbaugh waxing on about “NBA hip hop culture” in the wake of the “Malice in the Palace” was not an accident; he was tapping into something very real. David Stern knows that his corporate sponsors want to distance themselves from certain images because of how those images are received elsewhere; they don’t want Coke to become associated with do rags and sagging jeans and giant white T’s. It is not just a racial issue… class and other factors play in as well… (The NHL might seek a dress code if players were showing up in “wife beaters”).

            Stern himself addressed it after the Pacers/Pistons fight (which assuredly was a horrible incident that should not be allowed to happen at any sporting event): “When Ron Artest went into the stands, it was, ‘All those players are …’ … And I know for a fact that they’re not all the same, so I wonder why they’re so easily generalized. Maybe we’re not doing as good of a job as we should be doing, or maybe there’s something else at work.”

            I don’t think this is deliberate, conscious racism at work. It’s the more insidious, subconscious, unrealized kind. In the same way that assertive women get labeled as “bitches” and assertive men get labeled as “leaders” without anyone choosing such language in a deliberately sexist way, calling NBA players who slap fight once a year “violent thugs” while celebrating NHL players who fight once a game is indicative of a broader perceptual issue, in part (but not wholly) predicated race.

            And I’m going to step back because I’m not sure anything more productive will come of this convo.

    • The really big whopper of a difference is the history of and large place fighting between players has in hockey compared with other sports. Fighting in hockey is actively cheered by some. Players who start fights have a specific role to do just that to intimidate the other team. Fights in hockey are also fairly common despite occasional talk about cutting down on them. There was an incident a few years ago when some hockey players went into the stands after fans…..that was a BIG deal. There is a lot of history and context to why fights are treated one way in hockey and other sports. BTW, there are some black NHL players, they don’t get treated any worse then the other guys.

      • Greg,

        I’m talking about the broader perception, not specifics. Did the NHLers in the stands get the same media treatment as Ron Artest et al? Especially given how much more of a concerted effort they had to make to get there?

        • the NHL’s got a full ration of poop for going into the stands. As i remember the fans had also been dumping beverages on a player in the penalty box i think. The other thing to remember is basketball is a major sport throughout the US. Hockey is really only big in a couple regions, the upper midwest and northeast. I’m sure Artest got more attention if only because he plays in a big sport.

          Some additional perspective courtesy of a site called
          They log recent fights, have clips of all the fights and rank how good a fight it was.

          BTW here is one incident. Not the one i was thinking of.

          FWIW. I played hockey in high school and college. I hate the fighting. I degrades the game. The NHL is the worst run sort of major sports league EVAR.

          • my comment is in moderation…….F that….drops gloves and starts swinging…

        • Kazzy, I think Plinko covers some of this quite well.

          Fighting in hockey has a far different tradition than most sports. I know that in the ’70s, there was a fair amount of fighting in basketball, but I don’t know how much a part of the culture it was (please correct me if it was decades-old and governed by a bit of a code). In the NHL, there’s something called the Gordie Howe Hat Trick – where you get a goal, an assist and get in a fight. I think that shows the degree to which fighting is a part of the NHL.

          I’ll agree that the NBA (and maybe the ABA?) decided to clean up basketball back in the 70s to make it more marketable. But, here’s the thing, hockey has taken steps to curb fighting (insufficient in my view, but undeniable they’ve done some things). The most prominent reason for this was to increase market share in the U.S. And if you look at things, the NHL didn’t get rid of it the way the NBA did, and they haven’t had the success in the U.S. market the way the NBA has. I think it’s pretty clear that the NHL isn’t getting special treatment from the U.S. society.

          I would argue that comparisons to the NFL or MLB fail along the same lines.

          In Canada, hockey is the major sport. The next closest would probably be the CFL. The CFL doesn’t have the fighting that the NHL has, most definitely not. But, here’s the thing, it never did – even in the past when it had an overwhelming majority of white players. Decades ago, the demographics of the NHL and CFL wouldn’t be that much different, but the fighting culture was. I think this shows that the NHL really is just unique in this in the major North American sports.

          That doesn’t mean you don’t have legitimate complaints about the treatment of NBA players (and the racial aspect of that treatment) or of the treatment of black athletes, in general. You’re just picking the wrong discussion point to try to link it the “acceptability” of fighting in the NHL.

          • JML,

            I’d urge you to show a hockey fan a video of an NHL fight.
            Then do the same with an NBA fight.
            Compare their reactions.

          • First of all, I don’t think a hockey fan who likes fighting would be turned off by a basketball fight.

            If they are, I think it’s more likely that it comes back to the nature of the sport (‘what, they’re fighting because someone bumped into the guy when he took a shot? that’s what hockey is, man!’). Keep in mind, there are still some rules to fighting in hockey. There’s a code, and a lot of hockey fans who approve of fighting don’t approve of fighting when it goes against The Code.

            And, in the end, if we’re talking about racial issues, I’ll point out that one of the most prominent goons of recent memory was Georges Laraque. His goonery wasn’t frowned upon because he was black (though, as Mike noted, a number of black NHL players have received deplorable treatment from fans). Laraque is now actually the Deputy Leader of the federal Green Party. So I don’t think Canadian society has judged him that harshly.

            In the Sens-Habs game, PK Subban (who is black) went after Kyle Turris (who is not), “winning” their fight. He didn’t receive any special punishment from officials or the league for his behaviour.

            You are, no doubt, right that society’s that are still struggling with issues of race are still struggling with issues of race in sports. But fighting in hockey just doesn’t fit this issue particularly well.

          • Kazzy,
            Okay, I did that (as a hockey fan). (found a video on youtube of fights from 2011-2012. it was 7 minutes long, I watched the first two)
            My expression was of complete bewilderment that the NBA would even consider those fights.

      • Sorry, not true, and this thread is full of half truths and lies. Black players get treated VERY differently in the NHL. Ask Philly’s Wayne Simmonds. In a Exhibition game in London Ontario, someone threw a banana at him when he was on a break away.

        • Yeah, there’s been some really ugly stuff.

          But I think what greginak is saying is that the black NHL players don’t get treated differently by Gary Bettman and the league offices than white players do. I think that’s probably a fair assessment – though I think the league treatment of players is insanely inconsistent, I just can’t say that it breaks along racial lines.

          • Yes that is what i was saying. There has certainly been racism directed at black players…no doubt about that. But there is no evidence i’ve ever heard of the league treating fighting by black players differently than white players.

          • Greg,
            Just to be clear, I wasn’t referring to the league but the broader societal response. I don’t think Stern enacted the dress code because he has a problem with the clothes all that much. But he knew his sponsors did, at least in part because of their connection with hip hop culture and the conflation of that with gangs and the inner city and poverty, a conlation that is rooted in race. Again, not out and out racism, but race playing a part.

        • Jon, It should be noted that racial slurs come from opposing players as well as fans, frankly I think it is rampant and not limited to blacks, and not limited to NHL players. I Do not feel however, colour has anything to do with how we view fighting from sport to sport. As a matter of fact, I think Georges Laraque proved hockey fights are colour blind.

      • Mike Schilling, the breaking up of hockey fights is taken care of by the linesmen, not the referee. They wait to break up the fight, when it gets so lopsided, that someone is going to get hurt, or the more common, let them tire themselves out. The NHL has VERY strict rules on fighting (Instigator, fights in the last 5 minutes of the third for examples) I am not sure what game you are watching but I’ve never seen a player intentionally lay a hand on one of the officials, but the odd errant fist or elbow has landed on one you can be sure. To compare that to an umpire visiting a pitcher/catcher conference at the mound is like comparing weiner dogs and toilet bowls.

        • I admit that I was unaware of the linesman/ref distinction, but otherwise we’re mostly agreeing. Players don’t intentionally strike linesman who break up fights; they obey and go quietly. And the linesman watch the fights happen, and use their judgment about when to break them up. The league tolerates fighting and doesn’t feel any need to stop it. That’s totally different from any of the other major sports, where fights either get broken up right away or lead to penalties, fines, and suspensions.

      • greg,
        What players are these, again? Like, can you name one?
        As a fan, I’m sort of curious.

        I realize there are some folks known for fighting…but…

  3. Speaking here as a former fan (of the Sens, no less) who’s given up on the game because of the NHL’s inability to manage the game, this kind of stuff always makes me shake my head. This is a big part of why I gave up caring.

    Fighting has it’s place in the NHL largely because the League and it’s owners are afraid to properly police the game. If they called every violation, the entire game would be played on the power play for a long time until everyone adjusts.
    When they try to pick and choose, they get into the situation they’re in now. Many players all try to figure out where the line is, some push it harder than others. WHat penalties get called and what suspensions get handed out seems capricious and random, meaning they’re hardly deterrents.
    Retaliatory violence and fights are the threat that keeps players in line since the League refuses to do so. So, we get these cheap shots and shoving matches that degenerate into fights and brawls.
    I don’t like the way you hit my guy, so I’ll slash you when the ref isn’t watching.
    Your tough guy feels like he needs to go and lay out one of our players with his head down. Then I have to go and start punching some other guy just to send the message that we’re not gonna let all this go by without a message being sent.

    If and when the NHL ever decides to grow up and enforce their rules and police their players, I might come back. Until then, no way.

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