Fighting in the NHL is morally reprehensible, ideologically indefensible and one of life's guilty pleasures, like watching Chevy Chase in one of those Vacation movies or eating a hunk of leftover cherry cheesecake for breakfast. Maybe a few breakfast bingers, before scarfing down the cheesecake with some milk drunk directly from the carton, might seek intellectual underpinning for their pig-out—Hey, I'm getting protein from the cheese, fiber from the crust and fruit from the topping—but realists accept that an occasional wanton act of gluttony needs no further explanation than Just because....
This is the unspoken truth about fighting in the NHL: In measured doses—and through the league's efforts fighting is becoming less frequent (page 180)—people like it. Not people who write editorials. Not people who are predisposed to dislike the sport, who turn their rheumy eye to the NHL only when Marty McSorley attempts to perform a hockey-stick lobotomy on Donald Brashear. The people who like hockey fights are the ones who go to the games, the ones who pay the freight in a league that still derives more than 60% of its revenue from the gate.
When a fight breaks out on the ice, the noise level in the arena swells fivefold, electricity crackling along with the odd haymaker. In living rooms the visceral response is to pay closer attention to the television screen, not to click to the Discovery Channel. The traditional, tired justifications for fighting—its spontaneity, the safety valve it provides for those who might otherwise be tempted to commit mayhem with a stick—are hooey, of course. Fights in the NHL are simply part of the show, the equivalent of the chorus in Greek drama. They provide a respite from the action and a commentary on what already has occurred (usually a fight will break out in a chippy game), and then the narrative resumes.
The league would survive, and maybe thrive, without fighting, just as the cheesecake commando would do fine if force-fed a daily bowl of Raisin Bran. But some of the good, irrational fun would have seeped out of the sport.
If that's the case, let us eat cake.