December 12, 2011

Explanation of Origin, But Not Persistence

I won’t lie, I’m not a huge hockey fan. On TV, at least, it’s too damn hard to follow what’s going on (I’ve never seen a game in person, so maybe that’s different). Besides, the NHL season goes on way the hell too long before it gets to the Stanley Cup playoffs, which basically everybody gets into anyway. I tend to get into things like the Olympic tournaments, but mainly for the same reason people jump on the USMNT bandwagon during the World Cup – naked patriotism.

That caveat aside, I’ve never understood why fighting is such an inherent part of the game. Yes, hockey is a violent sport in and of itself, but so are sports like football and rugby. Neither of those tolerate, or even celebrate, the kind of fighting that goes on in hockey. The old joke, of course, is that “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” How did it get to be that way in the first place?

This article (the end piece to a long series in the New York Times about the death of a hockey enforcer) suggests it has to do with the ethnic rivalries inherent in the game’s early days:
The first organized hockey games were played here [in Montreal] in 1875 by English-Canadian rugby players looking for a winter sport. For the first 20 years or so, the players were mostly members of Montreal’s English and Scottish elite; French Canadians joined in the 1890s, when the Catholic Church in Quebec started to drop its resistance to sports. Montreal’s Irish, as English-speaking Catholics, occupied a kind of middle ground between the Protestant Anglo-Scots elite and the Catholic French majority.

They all had their own hockey clubs, some of whose names are still etched on the Stanley Cup: the Scottish, represented by the thistle on Montreal’s flag, had the Victorias; the English, with the rose, had the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association; the Irish had the Shamrocks; and the French, of the fleur-de-lis, had the National and the Montagnards. The Shamrocks often allied with French clubs against the English and the Scottish in disputes over who would be allowed into the top leagues.
The theory goes that ethnic rivalries spilled out onto the ice, where they were dealt with using the violence of the game. In other words, a punch out on the ice was one that didn’t happen on the street. It’s an interesting idea, but other researchers haven’t found any evidence that there was a whole lot of fighting in early hockey in the first place. Violent play, particularly whacking other players with the hockey stick (as got one player convicted of assault in 2000 when he clonked an opposing player on the head), was reported, but not game stopping fights.

Regardless of the origins, fighting is fairly endemic in the modern game:
By 1960-61, the N.H.L. averaged one fight every five games, but the rate rose steadily until 1987-88, when the average game had 1.3 fights. Then the rate dropped, and today the league averages one fight every two games.
But why? And why don’t we see the same thing in other sports? After all, football is more inherently violent and there are soccer teams out there who have served as proxy armies in racial, ethic, and religious rivalries for decades (ask anyone in Glasgow about the Old Firm). What makes hockey different? One theory is that fighting developed as a kind of safety valve after more violent play was cracked down upon.
I’m not sure how far that goes, however, given attitudes like this:
Calls for stricter rules against fighting in hockey have been heard for decades to little effect.

‘You can no more ban fighting in hockey than in any other sport,’ [writer Adam] Proteau said last month. ‘But you can punish it more appropriately, starting with a game misconduct and ejection for any fight, and a sliding scale of fines/suspensions for repeat offenders.’
To an outsider, that sounds an awful lot like a rationalization. If you define “ban” only to mean “completely prevent at any time in the future,” then, yes, you can’t ban fighting in any sport or any other walk of life. But compare the aftermath of this weekend’s Cincinnati/Xavier college basketball brawl with a hockey game. Why is extracurricular fighting a part of one game but not the other?

If fighting really isn’t a part of hockey, seems pretty easy to clamp down on it. First offense? Half-season suspension. Second offense? Full-season suspension. Third offense? Banishment from the game. That would cut down on the problem pretty quickly, yes? Unless, of course, it’s not really a problem at all.

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