March 22, 2011

More Fighting Curbs Concussions

Fighting and concussions have been a couple of the NHLs hottest topics over the last few years. While they have been debated plenty, these two words have not been used in the same sentence as much as they should.

The concussions that have caused so much buzz have been almost uniquely a result of hits to the head. From Matt Cooke to David Steckel, players have been getting away with too much. The league’s officiating has taken most of the heat for this alarming trend, especially after Zdeno Chara’s perceived cheap shot that went unpunished outside of a game misconduct, and another Matt Cooke incident.
But some have linked the infamous instigator rule to the lack of respect players are showing. Many pacifistic members of the hockey world have scoffed at this logic. You can't fight fire with fire, right? The reasoning does seem odd at first glance, but a thorough look reveals that fighting is, in fact, the perfect combatant against concussions.

The one thing everybody can agree on is that respect is at the root of the problem. Don Cherry'll tell ya, the kids today got no respect for the head. It is certain that there were less cheap shot artists in the days of Syl Apps, and it is even more certain that those few guys were dealt with much more harshly.

Hockey is a unique sport, because it has always been governed not only by regulations, but by a code. The unwritten rules established by players, and enforced by players. The threat of violence was enough to force tough guys to control their aggression. This system has balanced rough-and-tumble with civil for over a century.

The balance was disturbed when the league limited the enforcer's role, via the instigator rule in 1992. There was nothing more to repel dirty hits. So the NHL tried to counter the effect by imposing today's "zero tolerance" officiating. But calling games more strictly has failed to put a serious dent in the dangerous plays causing brutal injuries.

Instead, this movement has only succeeded in removing physicality from the game. The role of the grinder is diminishing, and even clean hits are not as prevalent as they once were. What once was a selling point is now discouraged. Is hockey without hitting and fighting a desirable product?

Not only have these limits watered down the game, but has made it more hazardous for the players. Preventing players from starting a fight has in turn made it impossible for them to stand up for their teammates, and for themselves. Hockey needs fighting to keep the rats in check.

More fighting leads to less cheap-shots, which reduces the need for "zero tolerance" rule enforcement, creating a more physical, entertaining game, and happier fans. It is exactly what the critics say it is, fighting fire with fire. A crazy idea at first glance, but in practice, it works.

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