I’ll never forget my first ever PC hockey game. The crowd was electric. The Pep Band was grooving. The community-like atmosphere of Schneider Arena made me feel like I was on the ice with the players. During the first intermission, a local Pee Wee hockey team scrimmaged one another. All of a sudden, I watched two kids (no older than 8 years old) drop the gloves and begin to fight. I was astonished. Most of the student section was amused. Nevertheless, those two kids were simply emulating perhaps the most unique aspect that comes in the game of hockey: fighting.
Admittedly, I’m not exactly sure how I feel about fighting in hockey. On the one hand, it’s exciting. Fans enjoy it. It can change the momentum of the game. Two players both agree to drop the gloves, duke it out, and spend five minutes in the box before returning to play. While the two players are going at it, their teammates are cheering them on from their respective benches. Sometimes, the two players will even shake hands or pat each other on the back before heading to the penalty box, offering a sign of mutual respect to one another. Fighting allows for the individual battles that develop on the ice to be sorted out: You have a problem with me. I have a problem with you. Lets drop the gloves then move on. In a sense, fighting is a way of the players self-policing the league of the dirty acts that occur on the ice.
However, hockey is unique in its allowance of such an institution. Throwing a punch in any other major sport comes with an immediate ejection and a subsequent suspension. And more physical sports like boxing and MMA? Those athletes wear gloves, and put Vaseline on the areas where they are most likely to witness impact (like their faces) in order to make the skin more elastic and slippery, in turn decreasing their chances to being cut. Thus, hockey seems to be the only professional sport that allows bear-knuckle fighting to take place. Not only that, but we as fans encourage the fighting to take place. We stand. We scream. We cheer. We pay to see them fight. We pay to see them punch. We pay to see them fall. Hockey players become gladiators on skates, fighting on a slippery surface, in an arena equipped to seat thousands of fans.
Fighting is no longer enough, however. Each team features at least one “enforcer,” whose sole job is to protect his teammates and inflict pain on his opponents. Enforcers are big, strong bruisers. They are supposed to instill fear into the opposing skill players. Presumably, the Sidney Crosby’s of the world will be less aggressive with the puck, less likely to skate across the middle, and less likely to attack offensively if they know that a 225-pound monster is trying to hunt him. Furthermore, enforcers must protect their own offensive skill players from other enforcers. Consequently, what has ensued is an influx of goons on the ice, whose sole purpose is not to put the puck in the net, but to instead physically hurt others.
The latest goon-like actions took place in a game between the Bruins and the Penguins on December 7th. As two of the top teams in the East, and long-time rivals, the game was expected to be fast-paced and physical. What resulted, however, was instead a disgusting and unforgiving act of vengeance. During a stoppage in play, Bruins Forward Shawn Thornton pulled the Penguins’ Brooks Orpik to the ice, from behind, and punched him several times in the head. Orpik left the game on a stretcher, and suffered a concussion. Shawn Thornton received a game misconduct, and has been suspended for 15 games, which he is currently appealing.
The incident followed two other extremely physical moments in the game. Orpik (the victim of Thornton’s attack) knocked the Bruins’ Loui Eriksson out of the game earlier with a big hit. Eriksson, who suffered a concussion earlier in the year, suffered another concussion as a result. Additionally, Penguins’ James Neal struck Boston’s Brad Marchand with his knee as he skated by Marchand, who had fallen to the ice at the time. It should be noted that Orpik’s hit was clearly high, Erriksson never actually touched the puck, and Orpik should have be called for an interference penalty; the ref’s decision not to was horrendous. Additionally, Neal’s knee to the head of Marchand led to a 5 game suspension.
The passion that comes within sports needs no introduction. At every level of the game, athletes fight hard to win. Emotions run high, and sometimes our competitiveness overcomes our mindfulness. It can be argued that Thornton was trying to protect his teammates. He attempted to fight Brooks Orpik earlier in the game, but Orpik refused. Some will argue that had the two just dropped the gloves, Thornton’s actions would have been prevented. However, the fact that Thornton’s actions were provoked by the “dirty,” physical acts of his opponents does not justify his malicious intent. There is a difference between “getting back” at an opponent within the context of a game, and purposely and willfully trying to harm another human being. In hockey and football there are hard hits. In basketball, there are hard fouls. If such physical acts cross the line, penalties are assessed. But Shawn Thornton approached Brooks Orpik from behind with the intention of hurting him. He took him to the ground and punched him multiple times in the head. If such actions were done anywhere else- a shopping mall, a school, a city street- they would lead to an arrest and possibly a jail sentence. But since it occurred in a sports arena, Shawn Thornton was cheered on Bruins fans, and simply given a 15 game suspension.
I’ve never played hockey, but I’ve been around it my entire life. My brother plays in the newly established Premier Junior League, and hopes to be playing college hockey next fall. Thus, I’ve been dragged to enough amateur hockey games in my life to tell you the existence of goons goes beyond the professional level. In fact, I argue that there are more goons at the amateur level than the professional level. I’ve seen hard hits, high elbows, and swing-like slashes. Amateur hockey players imitate their idols. Junior Leagues allow fighting to take place, some giving players a game-misconduct, others just the traditional 5 minute trip to the penalty box. I once witnessed a game where all 10 players on the ice (excluding the goalies) were fighting at once, each member of a team matched with an opponent. We allow this to take place because it has become an accepted part of the sport. (Interestingly, the NCAA prohibits fighting.)
Across the board, professional sports leagues in the United States have been instituting regulations and rule changes to crack down on concussions. Starting in 2011, the NFL moved kickoffs up 5 yards, which led to a 26.7 % decrease in kick returns. Just last week, the MLB announced future plans to eliminate home plate collisions, which has the potential to go into effect starting next season. The NHL has recently outlawed hits to the head, and has released official statements supporting player safety and concussion prevention. (In the 2012-2013 season, 85 NHL players suffered a concussion) The truth is that rule changes won’t stop concussions. They can happen at any time during the game, and often happen as a result of physical acts or hits that are legally allowed by the rules of the game. However, that doesn’t mean that precautionary measures shouldn’t take place in hopes of creating a safer environment for players. We cannot eliminate concussions altogether, but any decrease in the prevalence of such injuries is a victory. I’m okay with rule changes as long as the players and owners agree with them. The safety of the players should come before the entertainment of the fans, not the other way around.
It’s one thing to play physical; it is another to harm an opponent with malevolence. Shawn Thornton has a reputation for being a stand up guy. Although he may be the Bruins enforcer, he’s never been suspended before, and felt remorseful after committing his actions. All of these things were taken into account when the league issued its suspension. Nonetheless, first offense or not, 15 games isn’t a harsh enough punishment to prevent things like this from happening again. In my opinion, Shawn Thornton should be suspended for the rest of the season. I’m not ready to call for the outlaw of fighting in hockey just yet, but the NHL must crack down on the nonsensical acts like those of Shawn Thornton AND James Neal. Fighting should not be the source of worry in regards to concussions. Instead, the existence of goons, who dress for a 60-minute game, but play 3 total minutes in shifts and accumulate 7 minutes worth of penalties, should be concerning to all those who worry about player safety. If the NHL is serious about concussion prevention, then the goons have to go.