We’ve all heard the joke.  “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out!”  In fact, one of the biggest complaints about the game, usually voiced by a non-hockey fan, is that there is too much fighting during the game.  After all, no other sport allows this to happen without players being ejected and teams being penalized.  Besides, doesn’t fighting just make the game barbaric?  Shouldn’t they be showing more sportsmanship than that? 

Those are all valid points on the surface.  Most initial reactions to fighting during a game of any sort are that it should not be allowed.  But let’s take a closer look at the game of hockey and see if these standard rules really do apply. 

Hockey, by its own nature, is a physical sport that involves constant collisions between multiple players, the boards, the ice, etc.  Therefore, the element of physical brutality exists for the entire game.  However (and you may be shocked by this next statement) since hockey is a gentleman’s game, the actual ritual of fighting is kept in check (no pun intended) by the players to a very high degree. 

I know what you’re thinking…”a gentleman’s game?”  Yes, a gentleman’s game!  Let me explain what I’m talking about. 

When you watch a basketball game, do you ever see a player chew the referee’s ear off when he gets called for a foul?  Actually, the question should be, do you ever not see a player argue every single call that a referee makes during a game?  Watch a hockey game and see what happens when a penalty is called.  Nine times out of ten, the player heads straight to the penalty box without saying a word to the referee.  If he does actually say something, he is doing so as he is skating toward the penalty box and does not do it disrespectfully, which means he is not showing up the referee.  You know, he does it in a gentlemanly way. 

At the end of a playoff series, how many other sports have their players line up and shake their opponents hands?  You only see that in kids leagues and professional hockey. 

If a player from each team begins shoving each other during a hockey game, the other players will immediately try to jump between them to break them up.  It’s almost ritualistic the way it plays out.  One player from each team takes a shot at each other.  Another player from team A steps in, facing the fighting player from team B, as another player from team B steps in facing the fighting player from team A.  Then, one by one, every other player on the ice from each team grabs another player from the other team until every player on the ice except the two goalies have a firm hold on someone else.  By this time, the referees have gotten involved and have begun to separate the initial would-be fighters so that the fight never gets off the ground.  No other player leaves the bench.  Why?  Because the gentlemen on the ice have the situation under control. 

You see, the situation that I just described took place for a reason.  More times than not, a cheap shot of some sort had taken place.  Rather than wait around for the referee to call a penalty or to give someone a warning, the players took care of it by going through this ritual.  The message was clear…”Clean up your act or you will be dealt with severely!”  What does this mean?  It means that the next time it happens, the gloves will drop. 

This is an important part of the ritual.  You’ll notice that I did not mention anything in the scenario above about dropping the gloves.  That’s because this situation was still in the warning stages.  When it gets into the fighting stage, the gloves will drop before any action is visible.  This process will play out differently because the declaration has been made by both players that they are willingly going to battle with each other.  What happens next is that all other players will pair up with another player from the other team, not to engage in battle, but to make sure that no one else tries to make the fight a two-on-one.  (You see, gentlemen would not do such things.)  Then the referees form a circle around the two would-be fighters.  Their main function at this point is to make sure no one gets hurt. 

I know you’re probably scratching your head at this point.  If the referees don’t want anyone to get hurt, why wouldn’t they just step in at this point and stop the fight?  The answer is actually very simple.  If the situation has reached the point that the two players have dropped their gloves, that means that the fight will be taking place, if not now then very soon.  Since everyone has taken their proper positions, it is best to get this out of their systems now, while it is still safe. 

At this point, the two fighters begin circling each other, like heavyweight boxers, searching for the opportunity to land a punch.  Once one takes a swing, they both end up grabbing the other’s jersey with their jabbing hand, looking for the chance to land a punch with their swinging hand.  The referees will move in a bit closer now, preparing to jump in at a split second’s notice.  The fight will continue like this until one player gains the clear advantage over the other.  This is done in one of two ways. 

If one player is able to pull the other’s jersey up over his head, he will clearly have him outmatched and could inflict some serious harm.  The referees would immediately jump in at this point and break it up by wrapping their arms around each player so that no more punches can be thrown.  The other situation that would lead to the same outcome is if one or both players fell to the ice, which could become dangerous to both players. 

On a rare occasion, the players would not drop to the ice and the fight would go on for more than a minute (which in fighting terms seems like an hour).  The players would be fatigued, the message would have been sent to and received by each other, and it would be obvious to the referees that the battle was over.  The referees would then step in and the players would stop fighting. 

After the fight is over, the players would both be escorted over to their penalty boxes, while their teammates would collect their gloves, helmet, stick, etc. and bring it over to them.  They will now need to sit in the penalty box for five minutes each and feel shame (a little Slapshot humor there), while the rest of the players continue with the game. 

For a clear example of nearly everything that I described above, take a look at the Phoenix Coyotes at Los Angeles Kings game from Thursday 2/16/12 (see below for a link to the highlights).  Both teams came into the game in a battle for playoff positions, with the Kings sitting two points above the Coyotes for the #7 spot.  The Kings are a very physical team, so the Coyotes knew they would have to match that toughness to stay in the game. 

When Dustin Brown of LA checked Rusty Klesla of Phoenix early in the first period, Klesla had to be escorted off the ice after being down for five minutes.  He did not return to the game.  The hit was not a dirty shot, but the message was sent to Phoenix nevertheless.  “You’re in our building so we’re calling the shots.” 

Shane Doan of the Coyotes was having none of that.  He lined up next to Brown just outside the circle on the ensuing faceoff and began saying “a word or two”.  As soon as the puck was dropped to the ice, the gloves were off and the ritual began.  Before the first period ended, there were three fights and 40 collective penalty minutes between the two teams.  Even Mike Smith, the Phoenix goalie, was involved in a fight, going after the King’s Anze Kopitar, who came into the crease and leveled Smith, with no penalty being called. 

After that period, the referees took control of the game, and no one else was hurt during the game.  There were no cheap shots and the players kept the game clean, as gentlemen would be expected to do. 

I challenge you to show me another sport that could possibly engage in the activities described above and still do it in a respectful way.  When a fight breaks out in baseball, every player on both teams, including the bullpen, are expected to come running on the field and begin wailing on anyone in their way.  If a fight breaks out in football, everyone jumps in and usually there ends up being several players singing a couple of octaves higher. 

Only in hockey can fights take place, everyone walks away in one piece, and they shake hands when their done.  You know, like gentlemen would expect!

Link to Coyotes vs Kings highlights —



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