Sunday, March 25, 2007

Hockey 101

Did you happen to catch the fight in the Rangers/Flyers game earlier this week? To me, nothing better encapsulated the mindset of a hockey player than those few minutes. A little background:

In the previous meeting between the teams, Philadelphia tough guy Todd Fedoruk was taking runs at some of the high profile “skill” players, like Jaromir Jagr. His motives were unclear – was he running the big guys in an effort to simply rattle them? Or, was he taking shots knowing that his counterpart in the Ranger uniform, Colton Orr, was not dressed for the game? Either way, he did his thing, and hockey fans knew that with another meeting between the teams on tap in a few weeks, this was by no means over.

Fast forward to this past Wednesday, Madison Square Garden. Twenty eight seconds in, both Fedoruk and Orr are on the ice, and everyone in the building knows what’s going down. As Orr skates by, he gives Fedoruk a little tap on the leg with his stick – the universal signal for “let’s do this”. Within a second, the gloves are thrown down and the players are squared off. A typical fight between two skilled combatants ensues, as each has a good grip on the other’s jersey with the left hand, while trying to land shots with the right. Then….well, words don’t do it justice. Let’s go the video:

What’s best about this? Where do I start? First, Orr shows genuine concern for the man he just floored. As soon as Fedoruk hit the ice, the beef was done. Second, Fedoruk went down like a sack of potatoes, which is not something often seen in a hockey fight. The kicker, however, was when the fallen Flyer implored the trainers not to immobilize his neck and take him out on a stretcher. Hockey players never want to go out like that!

As much as they’ve tried, the powers that be cannot legislate this out of the game. It is, and always has been, part of the fabric of hockey. Rarely does anyone get seriously injured, despite what you just saw. This is an aggressive, emotional, fast-paced game. The occasional letting off steam needs to occur, and the players have a way of policing themselves.

The comparisons are inevitably made with other sports, but it really is apples and oranges. Basketball in particular gets hammered whenever a brawl occurs, but few seem to notice the differences between a hockey fight and a hoop fight. Recent NBA fights were nothing more than free-for-alls, spilling into the stands and involving spectators. The fear during these incidents, most notably the Ron Artest flare-up in Detroit and the recent Knicks/Nuggets melee at MSG, was palpable, as chaos reigned. Race is unnecessarily dragged into the equation, but I don’t think that is the issue. If the NBA were an all white league (or all Hispanic, or all Asian), the issue would not be any different. The point is fighting is not part of the game, and that lack of structure is part of the problem. Commissioner David Stern has toughened his stance, imposing lengthy suspensions on those involved, and that is really his only course of action. Once players know that crossing the line will cost them a good chunk of the season (along with the corresponding pay), they will think twice before throwing that right hook.

Baseball, though a little bit more self-policing, still has its share of incidents as well. The majority involve pitchers throwing at or close to hitters, though the occasional hard slide (see Rose v. Harrelson, 1973 NLCS) can lead to a dust-up. As with the NBA, there is no structure, though it usually boils down to a few guys in the middle of the scrum with everyone else trying to keep the peace or break it up. On occasion other peripheral skirmishes will break out, but for the most part the fight is contained. There exists a sense of finality, though, that once each side has had someone get drilled the matter is settled. Suspensions are common, but less severe than in the NBA.

Hockey deals with these issues head on. When a fight breaks out, rules both written and unwritten immediately apply. If you decide to join the battle (third man in), you’re gone. Once two guys square off, the other players must back away and let them go. The referees know the value of letting it play itself out, since breaking it up right away not only runs the risk of getting clocked themselves, but will likely result in the same two guys going after each other the next time they’re on the ice together. The penalties are harsh and swift, and once the dust settles the game resumes. This is not to give a pass to those coaches who employ goon tactics, but is more a defense of the natural occurrence of fights during a normal hockey game. Thuggery can be an ugly spectacle, but the practice has thankfully decreased over the last few years.

Enjoy the intensity of the NHL, which at is core is still a great game, in spite of the mismanagement of the Gary Bettman era. That is a whole ‘nother column.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bettman needs to be fired!