Bloomberg Wire Service – Oct 5, 2005 – Scott Soshnick – Hockey Missed Chance to End Fighting – National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman, whose league hits the ice tonight after a labor dispute wiped out last season, contends that fighting is a necessary part of his sport. Absolutely, positively gotta have it, he says.
The commissioner’s rationale goes something like this: With stick-wielding players skating — and hitting — at 30 mph, beating the bejesus out of each other provides a cathartic release that’s impossible to achieve with a body check. Translation: The Neanderthal players can’t control the impulse to trade haymakers.
“In the heat of the moment things happen,” Bettman says.
Hogwash! Players fight because no one says they can’t.
Fighters receive a five-minute penalty, the sporting equivalent of a time out for a misbehaving kindergartener. The other leagues, by comparison, eject, suspend and fine players for throwing punches.
National Football League officials are so intent on maintaining order that two players were ejected from a recent Atlanta Falcons-Philadelphia Eagles game for their overzealous pushing and shoving before the game even started. According to Bettman, football players rarely fight because the game is played in short spurts, affording them time to regain their composure before the next play.
`Playing With the Dinosaurs’
“Fighting in hockey is idiotic,” says Dr. John F. Murray, a Palm Beach, Florida, sports psychologist who has worked with a host of athletes, including football and tennis players as well as golfers. “Hockey is playing with the dinosaurs if they continue endorsing fistfights and responding with mere slaps on the wrists.”
The NHL’s stance on fighting is so comical that it’s fodder for one-liners. Did you hear the one about the guys who went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out? In the 1977 movie “Slap Shot,” which centers on a minor-league hockey team, the brawl-happy Hanson brothers wrap their knuckles with tin foil in order to inflict more damage. Exaggeration or is it art imitating life? Back then, after all, the Philadelphia Flyers were dubbed the Broad Street Bullies. The only thing enforcer Dave “The Hammer” Schultz lacked more than finesse was teeth.
Steve Moore isn’t laughing.
Moore played for the Colorado Avalanche until he was sucker-punched by Vancouver Canucks All-Star Todd Bertuzzi last year. Moore is recovering from a broken neck. He may never play again.
There’s a Connection
Bertuzzi is at least the eighth NHL player charged by police with assault in an on-ice incident. Who would argue against a correlation between those kinds of attacks and the league’s laissez-faire attitude toward fisticuffs?
“It’s an indictment of how pervasive the attitude is that welcomes this violence,” said Tim Danson, Moore’s attorney and a season-ticket holder with the Toronto Maple Leafs. “I’m convinced that the NHL has used violence to disguise poor hockey.”
There’s an adage in the television business that says, when desperate, achieve higher ratings by showing a living creature being eaten or eating something else. Think Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. That’s fighting in the NHL.
As for the on-ice product, the NHL during the lockout adopted a series of rules changes aimed at making the game more aesthetically pleasing. The alterations are meant to favor skilled players over goons, for example, by allowing a pass from the defensive zone to cross two lines on the rink. If the NHL can change this old rule, why not banish fighting? There was a time when players didn’t have to wear helmets, either. Things change.
Even without legislation, fighting is on the decline, Bettman says. We’ll have to take his word for it because Benny Ercolani, the league’s chief statistician, said he didn’t have the numbers to back up his boss’s assertion.
NHL does have its limits. The league yesterday handed New York Rangers defenseman Dale Purinton a 10-games suspension for gouging an opponent’s eye. The league cited Purinton’s record — he’d been suspended three previous times for deliberate attempts to injure — for the severity of the punishment.
In terms of TV success, the NHL not only lags major sports like football, basketball, baseball and Nascar auto racing, but golf and tennis, too. Hockey’s television ratings are akin to niche sports like the Arena Football League.
The NHL won’t outlaw fighting because a segment of its fans tune in or show up solely to whoop it up over bloody noses and black eyes. Some auto-racing fans like multicar pileups, but Nascar doesn’t allow drivers to intentionally cause wrecks.
The NHL panders to its violence-addicted fans with its new TV advertising campaign, which begins with a quote from “The Art of War” by Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu. The 30-second promo depicts an athlete preparing not for a game but a life-or-death battle.
Martha Burk, the former chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, blasted the league for selling violence in a society already awash with it.
“By no means do we want to be a bad example,” says Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Martin St. Louis, the league’s point- scoring leader in 2003-04.
Tell that to Bertuzzi, who pleaded guilty to assault in exchange for staying out of jail. Tell that to Electronic Arts Inc., which allows kids armed with joysticks to simulate NHL fights. Most importantly, tell that to Bettman. If he won’t listen, start a fight. Don’t worry about the punishment. The commissioner knows better than anyone that hockey players can’t control their emotions.
sports, john f murray