Fighting is still a valuable and integral part of the NHL
Posted: Monday December 4, 2006 12:46PM; Updated: Monday December 4, 2006 12:46PM
The Georges Laraque - Ratis Ivanans bout last Thursday night in Phoenix made for very entertaining viewing -- and listening.
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I have to admit it: My NHL includes fighting.
Not necessarily the Slap Shot-style line brawls of the 1970s, although I enjoyed them back in the day. The occasional mano y mano tussle is just fine.
I offer up my position today because these are dark times. The anti-fighting forces are aligning. And for the sake of a game that risks further marginalization, they have to be stopped.
Ironically, the fighting abolitionists were energized last week by the words of one of the league's premier bomb throwers, Phoenix enforcer Georges Laraque. While wearing an open mic last Thursday night, Laraque extended a casual invitation to Raitis Ivanans of the Kings to drop the gloves. Ivanans accepted, and the two engaged in a spirited bout.
Nothing unusual about that. Well, not until the tone of the request was revealed later in the game's broadcast. The preamble to this particular pas de deux -- specifically, the absence of vitriol, name-calling or boiling emotions -- was like chum in the water for the anti-fighting contingent. "It's all staged," they cried. "An assault on the integrity of the game."
Bollocks. You have to wonder if some of these people have ever strapped on skates in a competitive game or if they simply assume these positions for the sake of appearing progressive. The anti-fighting types should have left the tape rolling after the pleasantries were exchanged. It would have been hard for them to miss the roar that ensued from the crowd at Jobing.com Arena.
Integrity wasn't the issue when the decision was made to alter the very fabric of the game by adding a four-on-four overtime period, or a penalty-shot competition just to ensure a winner. Those changes were made, and rightly so, to create a more compelling product. And as the debate about fighting continues, that should be the primary focus. Does fighting add to, or detract from, the game's entertainment value? Because, ultimately, entertainment is what it's all about.
Oddly, the NHL's power brokers seem convinced that less fighting will make the game more palatable to the vast American audience that currently ignores hockey. It may come as a surprise to these folks, but mayhem actually goes over pretty well in the States. Start with the most popular kids' programming and work your way on up to prime time and you'll get all the evidence you need. Violence sells.
In fact, reducing fighting for the sake of Americans and American TV is like halving the horsepower to make a Corvette more safe to drive. It may be what's good for us, but is it really what people are willing to buy?
Look, if you don't lke fighting, that's fine. But you can't argue that the majority of people who have demonstrated a willingness to to pay for the product don't enjoy a round of on-ice fisticuffs delivered with relish and brio. And those people are the ones whose interests need to be addressed -- the folks who have slipped away as the game devolved into a no-touch tea party. They're the future of the NHL, not Sally Soccer Mom who doesn't take her precious children to a game for fear of the "negative influence."
Fighting's not the best part of the game, but you can't deny its appeal. When the Stars franchise moved to Dallas in 1993, the marquee players were the high-scoring Mike Modano . . . and fourth-line brawler Shane Churla, whobecame an immediate folk hero in this non-traditional market. His willingness to drop the gloves helped the Stars become a hot ticket in a crowded sports scene.
Now that the team is struggling to fill seats, the Stars are going back to that well. A billboard picturing feisty Matthew Barnaby in mid-scrap can be spotted along several of the city's busiest freeways. A newcomer to the team this season, Barnaby's name doesn't mean anything to the casual sports fan. It doesn't even merit a mention on the billboard. But the element of potential chaos he brings to the team obviously sells tickets. Otherwise they wouldn't use it.
You want a real integrity of the game issue? Tackle the problems with ice quality. At its worst, it reduces the ability of skill players to perform at the highest level and leads to serious injury. But that's not a sexy soap box, is it?
The bottom line with fighting is entertainment. The WNBA has integrity up the wazoo and the national profile of Dustin Diamond to go with it. Marginalize fighting any further, and the NHL risks heading down that same road to obscurity.