The right discussion for the wrong reasons

Editorials Opinions
Emily Thiessen (graphic)
Emily Thiessen (graphic)

When 17-year-old uber-prodigy Connor McDavid broke his hand in a fight during an Ontario Hockey League (OHL) game, jeopardizing his participation in the upcoming World Junior Championships in Toronto, the debate surrounding the future of fighting in hockey was re-ignited.

The McDavid incident has caused many to claim that fighting has no place in hockey—especially at the junior level—and losing the talents of McDavid for over a month due to a fight is simply another exhibit in the mounting evidence that fighting causes far more harm than good to the nation’s beloved game.

In a sense, this argument is correct. Fighting’s days are numbered at all levels of hockey, and a growing number of fans, journalists, and league officials seem to be moving towards this conclusion. However, McDavid’s broken hand is being senselessly used to galvanize anti-fighting support when there is a far starker problem at the heart of hockey’s ethos.

The NHL and many other leagues around the world have taken unprecedented steps to address the spectre of the long-term effects of head trauma to its players. In doing so, the NHL has both acknowledged the danger that concussions pose to players while simultaneously allowing fighting to remain a component of their business and their professional brand.

The question that should eat at hockey fans all over North America is: how, in good conscience, can the NHL maintain this dualism, and is there a reasonable explanation for this institutionalized disjuncture?

Some North American hockey institutions are beginning to question fighting’s place in the game, especially at the junior level. David Branch, commissioner of the top Canadian Junior hockey league, the CHL, revealed to the New York Times in 2012 that “the appetite is there” to eliminate fighting full stop from junior hockey.

However, the NHL remains resolute in its belief that fighting remains an intrinsic part of the professional game. Concurrently, the NHL has taken many steps to try and eliminate deliberate targeting of the head during games. This has included harsher suspensions and fines for players deemed responsible for deliberately causing head trauma. The NHL has also included new rules to regulate fighting but has not—as of yet—ever seriously considered its outright ban.

Plainly put, the rationale for allowing fighting to continue in the NHL is logically inconsistent with the NHL’s stated goals of reducing head trauma to its players. There is no situation during a hockey game where a player is at risk of severe head trauma other than when he is engaged in a bare-knuckle brawl—sometimes without the protection of a helmet.

For these reasons, fighting should—and in all likelihood will—be eliminated from hockey at all levels of the game. It is presently unclear how quickly those changes will occur. However, when that day comes, it will not be because Connor McDavid broke his hand, or Sidney Crosby broke his nose, or Alex Ovechkin separated his shoulder. It will be because it is what is right for the game.