Sweaty Men Endeavors

The sports blog with the slightly gay name

Friday, March 09, 2007

To Fight or Not to Fight?

I never got around to writing it, but shortly after the brawl between Ottawa and Buffalo a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to say that the NHL should go back to embracing its roots, rather than try to chase mass-market appeal.

The NHL took its shot at cultural relevance by turning its back on Canada and moving into the southern and Sun Belt portions of the United States, but that market just doesn't exist, and you can't even say hockey is the "fourth major sport" in this country and keep a straight face. It became roadkill to NASCAR long ago. (I really wanted to use an auto racing term there, but would've exposed myself as a total poseur.)

To me, the NHL is like Las Vegas. Remember when Vegas tried to re-invent itself as a family-friendly alternative to Disneyland? That tanked like ESPN Hollywood. So Vegas decided to once again embrace the decadence and depravity that made it such a destination in the first place. I thought the NHL needed to do the same thing. A lot of observers and fans might make faces when they see highlights of fights breaking out on SportsCenter, but hey, that Ottawa-Buffalo melee moved hockey up the queue for a couple of nights. Embrace the niche appeal of the sport. Bring back its cult appeal. And at one time, that worked pretty well.

One of the first arguments you'll hear in favor of allowing fighting in the NHL is that it would eliminate some of the stick work. Rather than resorting to channeling their pent-up rage through the weapon they're carrying in their hands, players can challenge their antagonists to drop the gloves, trade some punches, and settle the matter like men.

I don't know if I completely agree with that contention. Is the cause and effect of fighting vs. slashing really that starkly obvious? But hey, I've never played hockey either.

Would being allowed to fight have prevented Chris Simon from whipping his stick into Ryan Hollweg's face in one of the more frightening plays you'll ever see? Who knows? Simon's a proven neanderthal and his total lack of self-control might have led him toward such an action anyway. But this is the type of incident that truly stains professional hockey's reputation and prevents it from acceptance within the culture at-large.

Simon's been suspended indefinitely by the NHL, which somehow seems appropriate. Not in terms of the punishment; Simon should be kept away from an ice rink for a long time. But the word "indefinite" applies to the NHL and its identity as a sport.

I don't know if the corollary I'm trying to draw here makes any sense. It's probably unfair to project Chris Simon's psychotic tendencies onto the league as a whole. So maybe it's a stretch. But it does seem to reflect a larger problem that hockey's been struggling with over the past decade-and-a-half.

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