Players fight because we let 'em

You fight because 150 years of North American hockey demand it. You fight because the culture of the game is deformed around fighting. You fight because you're angry. You fight because they're angry. To fire up your team. To short-circuit theirs. You fight because it feels good to hit another man in the face. Because you're slow. Because you're willing. Because you're afraid not to. You fight. You fight. You fight.

Because Don Cherry. Because Lord Stanley. Because Major Junior. Because Moose Jaw and Saskatoon and Guelph; because Kelowna and Chicoutimi and the 'Soo.

Because.

You fight because you fight.

The idea that fighting in hockey somehow curbs greater, dirtier violence committed with sticks or skates has never had any empirical support. There's no evidence that it's a safety valve -- or even that the game needs one. Bats and clubs and spikes and a hundred other weapons are common across every sport, and yet no other league encourages fighting. It's an absurdity used to sell the game to its old audience, its core constituency, and to sell hockey fight highlight DVDs.

All those ancient, circular arguments. There are always excuses to fight.

Even in a lunch-hour shinny skate in Manhattan. There's a low-contact pickup game at a rink on the West Side. Kids just out of Yale or Colgate or Hamilton up from the investment desks on Wall Street; middle-aged men from the publishing houses in Midtown; actors in from Hollywood on a location shoot. One of whom has backed in and parked himself in the crease for years. And for years I've tapped and hacked and slashed at his ankles without conviction or success. I've never thought of fighting him and he never thought of fighting me. But another well-known actor plays in this game, too, and when he does, he picks fights. He chips. He hacks. He wants to go. He drops his gloves.

The rest of us roll our eyes and skate on.

He fights because he wants to fight.

Bang! Boom! Pow!

Check out the lists of most famous hockey fights here and here and here. Then ask yourself why there's no mention anywhere of Bob Probert's degenerative brain disease. Or Derek Boogaard's death.  

How much has fighting cost hockey? How many players and how many fans? How many dollars?

The NHL is a $3.5 billion-a-year specialty business suffering serial failures of labor and management, and in which as many as half the teams lose money.

It's impossible to prove the negative, but it's worth asking whether the growth and health of the game have been limited by its addiction to violence and the rough justice of the goons and enforcers. How many kids were never allowed to play? How many tickets were never sold? How many television deals never made? How many hundreds of millions of dollars lost? We'll never be sure. The true cost of fighting in hockey -- and to hockey -- is incalculable.

Is there a single honest argument left on its behalf? Is there any evidence anywhere to suggest that fighting brings in a single 21st century fan or a single 21st century dollar? Does it curb more dire acts of violence on the ice? Or are those just the lies we tell ourselves? Lots of sports prize physicality and sacrifice and high-speed contact -- and duty, honor, loyalty -- but the fighting culture of NHL hockey remains unique. As happens so often in sports, hockey is an institution made great and then imprisoned by its own traditions.

And this tradition is a chapter out of Orwell: Only by fighting can we keep the peace.

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