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Marissa Lingen

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Fights and the Boogeyman [May. 25th, 2011|12:35 pm]
Marissa Lingen

One among you has asked me about professional hockey fighting. Specifically, this person is a baseball fan and notes that fisticuffs of this nature would not be permitted in America's Pastime. (Well, America's Pastime is probably NASCAR these days. But never mind.)

And look. Hockey is not the same as any other team sport. It isn't similar. It takes place on a sheet of ice. I know this is obvious, but it matters. I'm not sure it's possible to play hockey without any incidental physical contact. In baseball, there is one very well-defined place in which players from the opposite teams might accidentally run into each other, and that's while running the bases. I suppose it could happen that a catcher and player could come into incidental physical contact; and, of course, there are elaborate rules, both written and unwritten, about the pitcher hitting the batter with a pitch and what forms of retaliation are acceptable there. Baseball fans should keep this latter case in mind, because it's highly relevant.

See, pretty much everyone who follows baseball understands that sometimes the pitcher will screw up and hit the batter. This is not by any means a good thing, and the batter gets to take a base if it happens. But nobody argues that any pitcher who hits a batter under any circumstances should be banned from the league or fined a substantial fraction of their year's pay or anything extreme like that. Hitting the batter with pitches is part of the game.

And yet most fistfights in baseball immediately follow batters hit by pitches.

So what gives? The rules have accounted for this situation, right? Why does anybody ever start a fight, knowing that the rules have accounted for it?

What happens there is that the written rules are not perceived by the players to have accounted for all possible cases of a pitcher hitting a batter with a pitch. Sometimes pitchers are blatantly vindictive or going after players in inappropriate ways. There is a fairly clear unwritten code about charging the mound: a batter won't do it for an ordinary hit-by-pitch situation but will do it when the pitcher's behavior falls outside the accident category.

So let's get back to hockey.

Unlike in baseball, physical collisions are part of hockey. It is an ordinary part of playing the game. Either side can score at any time in hockey, there is jostling for the item in question, and remember the sheet of ice? It is relevant. You have people of a certain size jostling after a very small puck at high speeds. They will run into each other. This is an ordinary part of the game. It is within the context of the rules. There are rules for what is and is not clean physical contact between players, between one player and another player's stick, etc.

The problem is that there are large grey areas. You could not set up pressure sensors inside the uniforms at certain places and have objective confirmation as to whether a foul had or had not occurred, whether a particular play had been against the rules or within their bounds. So the refs have to make judgment calls.

If you are watching hockey with me, and you hear me say in warning tones, "You're gonna start a fight," and then more urgently, "Asshole! You're gonna start a fight!", I am almost never talking to any of the players, not the captains, not the assistant captains, nobody. I am almost never talking to the coaches (although there are a few teams that have a thuggish culture, and I do blame their coaching and managing staff). I am almost invariably talking to the referees.

Fights in hockey happen because the refs are not calling the close penalties. Okay, occasionally they happen for a few other reasons. But the vast majority of hockey fights I've ever seen--and I've seen quite a few--came when one player was physically hassling a member of the opposition and the ref did not call it. If the leeway that the refs give the players to "just play the game" feels to one team--or to both teams--like it's crossing the lines into their players having to tolerate dirty checks and hooking and stuff like that, a player will be designated to draw that line themselves. A player who finds himself in that role a lot is called an "enforcer" because he is enforcing the rules of the game; he is enforcing physical boundaries for his teammates. He is saying, "No. You are not allowed to smash my teammate's head into the boards from behind. You are not allowed to harry my goalie. Thus far and no farther. Back off."

Which brings me to the death of Derek Boogaard.

I have been trying to figure out what to say about this ever since it happened. The Boogeyman was one of my favorite hockey players ever. I loved to watch him play, and honestly I loved his fights. He always fought clean. Some players, the league has to review their fights to make sure nothing untoward happened. Boogaard wasn't like that. When he got sent out for a brawl, he'd get this look on his face like he was the big brother who's been left in charge of the slumber party and has just discovered his younger sibling's friends microwaving tinfoil. His face--incidentally one of the more handsome faces I've seen in hockey--said, "I cannot believe you are making me sort out this stupidity. But I don't care who started it; I will finish it." With Derek Boogaard on the ice--or even on the bench--I felt like the other guys were safe. If the other team dared to try to run too close to the edge of penalties, even if the refs were terrible, Boogaard would sort it out. Often he would just grab a guy's sweater and smack him a couple of times, and it'd all be over. He'd come on the ice and skate in these slow circles, and I knew it would be all right. He never looked angry. He was calm and rational and in control. On the ice.

And now I will never see him make that face again, not even for another team, because he's gone. Twenty-eight years old. Gone. And while a mix of alcohol and painkillers takes out people from all professions and all walks of life, because that sort of thing is not a respecter of persons, I can't help but wonder if it was related to all the fights he was in--if he might not have struggled with as many pain issues if he hadn't been in so many fights. I'm wondering if I shouldn't wish that more penalties were getting called so that he could have had more ice time just being a great big guy who passed the puck to someone with pretty hands and tried to score a few goals while he was at it.

I don't know. Hockey fighting is there because the league recognizes that the refs are substantially imperfect, and because there are a great many of us who believe that the world is safer for the more vulnerable players with enforcers on the team, going out to make sure that everybody is clear on where the boundaries are. But that doesn't mean that the refs making it necessary a little less often might not be good for everybody.

[User Picture]From: scott_lynch
2011-05-25 05:49 pm (UTC)
It seems pretty un-self-aware for baseball fans (and that's me, by the way) to tut-tut the physicality of hockey. Bench-clearing brawls are not an everyday feature of the game, but they're not so uncommon that people should be shocked when they happen, or as to why they happen.

And you hit the nail on the head concerning the "protective" counter-bean, in which pitchers are expected to wing an opposing batter in exchange for one of their own having been nailed. From one perspective, it's childish and dangerous. From another, it makes perfect sense... it shows a team that a pitcher is willing to get tossed to support them (and if you don't think that sort of solidarity matters to a team's spirit you're nuts). It shows the other team that they won't be allowed to hit batters with impunity, so they'd better rein their own people in.

And then the umpires inevitably do the proper thing and toss players en masse. "All are punish-ed." The tit for tat calms down and the game goes on.

I'm not saying it's All Good And Wholesome And Necessary. I'm just saying it's one of those emergent-rather-than-designed features of the game that's there for a reason.

Also, I thought -Blades of Steel- made it clear (to my generation at least) that the loser of a hockey fight is the one that goes to the penalty box!
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From: mmerriam
2011-05-25 08:31 pm (UTC)
And you hit the nail on the head concerning the "protective" counter-bean, in which pitchers are expected to wing an opposing batter in exchange for one of their own having been nailed. From one perspective, it's childish and dangerous. From another, it makes perfect sense... it shows a team that a pitcher is willing to get tossed to support them (and if you don't think that sort of solidarity matters to a team's spirit you're nuts). It shows the other team that they won't be allowed to hit batters with impunity, so they'd better rein their own people in.

This. As a former hurler, I can tell you there were times when I was told to go out and make a statement. You didn't slide with your cleats up into one of my guys (cleats were still metal back then), you didn't have any contact with another of our pitchers (don't shoulder check a pitcher covering first), you certainly didn't throw at the pitcher when he was batting (though people did sometimes throw at me), and I would brush you back if you were crowding the strike zone.

Had I lived in the upper Midwest instead of Oklahoma, and my Michigan-born grandfather (Red Wings fan to the core)been able to teach me to play hockey, I'm pretty sure I would have filled that enforcer role.
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[User Picture]From: hobbitbabe
2011-05-25 06:10 pm (UTC)
You and I love different instances of the same game. My viewpoint is a little different than yours, but I really appreciate your clear and nuanced description of why there is fighting in NHL hockey.

To me, the roughness of a game (not just whether there are fisticuffs, but how much slashing and tripping and roughing there is) is dependent on two things, what the referees do and what the social contract is among the players.

What the referees do seems to depend on the league organisers' expectations and on their own skill and judgement. It may also depend on the local-culture expectations of owners, marketing schemes, and fans -- but it shouldn't. I do not like to watch minor-league pro hockey or Canadian Major Junior A hockey, because I am really bothered by not just the number of fights but the way the fighting is tolerated and cheered. I love to watch games in the World Junior Championship, though, because there is very little fighting in international hockey and what there is, is penalised more severely. In children's hockey any good officials don't let a fight go beyond one or two punches, and then the players are suspended, so it's hard for me to see letting a fight continue as anything other than a choice on the part of the league organisers.

The social contract among players is what makes it possible to play a hockey game, a tennis game, or a sailing race without any officials at all - and it's still a factor in a game with referees (line judges, umpires, etc). I much prefer playing with referees, because it's easier to play intensely and know that someone else is watching the limits than to worry that I'm playing too roughly for a fun game. But only, as you say, if the referees have consistent expectations appropriate for the league.

I know that there's also an argument that at the very intense aggressive level of professional men's hockey, fighting is safer than rough stickwork, so a little bit of fighting keeps the game safer. I'm not convinced the second part is true.

What really bothers me about the acceptance of fighting as part of high-level hockey is the way that filters down to the kinds of hockey I care about. Lots of boy players know that hockey fights are only for men, and so do their coaches, so boys who get in the occasional punch seem to be accepted as cool and manly. There are still many families whose daughters don't play hockey because of the fighting stigma, and probably some families whose sons don't play either. (As more options such as soccer become available in youth sport, the families choosing hockey will probably become more self-selecting, which may become more of a problem.)

Plus, after almost 40 years of playing, I am really really sick of people asking, har har, if I've ever gotten in a fight or why I still have all my teeth.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-05-25 08:15 pm (UTC)
See, in Minnesota we are probably fairly blind to the fighting stigma applying to daughters, because there are just so darn many little girls playing hockey here, and playing hard. That just...really didn't occur to me as a gendered thing. I agree that there are almost certainly people who don't want their kids playing hockey because of the perception of roughness, though.
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[User Picture]From: jhetley
2011-05-25 06:35 pm (UTC)
With exactly the same players (NFL pros), there was a noteworthy absence of fights at the Olympics. Different refs and rules . . .

I watch a fair amount of local college hockey, with players that aspire to the NHL. A number of them make it. Very few fights.
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From: swan_tower
2011-05-25 06:37 pm (UTC)
I'm curious if you have anything to say about how this varies with gender. In college I used to go to both men's and women's hockey games as part of the band, and one of the guys with us used to complain that he didn't like the women's games as much. We pressed him to explain what he meant -- given that Harvard's women's team was VASTLY better at the time than the men's -- and finally he said it was because there were fewer fights in their games. (We promptly told him he was an idiot for valuing that over actual skill.)

But I'm wondering whether you think that distinction is true, and if so, why. Are women less aggressive (or more nimble) in pursuing the puck, therefore have fewer high-speed collisions, therefore have less ill-will over the possibility that it went too far, or more chance for the refs to see it and call it? Or do they feel less of a need to enforce the boundaries in that particular fashion? Or maybe I'm wrong, and women fight just as much, but a) our team didn't really show it or b) I just didn't notice. (Entirely possible. IANA sports fan in general, so I miss a lot of subtleties.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-05-25 08:08 pm (UTC)
Women are penalized far, far more severely for ordinary checking, much less fighting. The checking part is changing, but keep in mind that they originally tried to make women play ringette instead of hockey because real hockey was Just Too Hard/Physical.

On the one hand, I seem to be arguing for calling penalties a bit more than the men's league does, so this is good. On the other hand...I would feel a lot better about the limitations there if they were produced by a committee of past and current women's hockey players instead of built atop past gender-weirdness. Natalie Darwitz and Jenny Potter tell me they don't want checking, okay. Otherwise I am a bit skeptical.
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[User Picture]From: halfmoon_mollie
2011-05-25 07:29 pm (UTC)
With a nod to jhetley, I'd like to say that, IMHO, hockey is one of the most graceful and beautiful games ever. How can it not be, when as you, Mrissa, point out, it is played on a sheet of ice ? Hockey players always look to me like they were born with skates on.

I hate the joke about *I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.*

I much prefer the Olympic brand of hockey or, for that matter, the college hockey that I have seen played by teams from Cornell and Clarkson for example. Yes, perhaps as you point out, in NFL hockey there may well be a need for enforcers. I find that extremely sad, because...hockey really IS one of the most beautiful, graceful and FAST MOVING games ever created.

Edited at 2011-05-25 07:29 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: onyxhawke
2011-05-26 07:34 pm (UTC)
No one, not even the enforcers likes the roles existence, but look at international soccer. All the diving, flat out fakery and playing up to the refs that goes on is appalling. Adding in the additional penalties to a game either for the dives or the stick work would destroy the flow.

Comparing the short seasons (for no money) of a college league, or the national pride involved in very short tournaments for the Olympics/World Championships to a full on 82 game NHL season where people know the average career is 3-4 years for them to make as much money as they can to support themselves and their family is a false comparison. It's comparing steak to haggis. Sure you cook both, but...
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[User Picture]From: retrobabble
2011-05-26 02:17 am (UTC)
My father played hockey and was scouted by both the Canadians and Bruins when he was a young sprout. He used to say this (and I quote somewhat loosely: "When we played in the 50s and 60s, a big guy was 5'8", maybe 5'10". Today's players are 6' to 6'5", but they've never adjusted the rinks for the players. The team owners couldn't bear to sacrifice the seats that it'd take to make the ice more to Olympic standards. The games you see on Olympic ice are more similar to how we used to play...and it's going to take a few more deaths before they catch on."

*shrug* I don't know if they will, but it always made sense to me. He also never went into hockey because in those days, they didn't pay much.

Edited at 2011-05-26 02:18 am (UTC)
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From: swan_tower
2011-05-26 07:42 pm (UTC)
. . . that is a point I had never considered.

Wow. Thanks for that.
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[User Picture]From: lollardfish
2011-05-26 02:44 am (UTC)
Publish this.

Then go start a hockey blog or do some other form of sports writing while writing sci-fi on the side.
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[User Picture]From: reveritas
2011-05-26 07:26 am (UTC)
Yes!! :D
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[User Picture]From: reveritas
2011-05-26 07:27 am (UTC)
I see, I see.

ODDLY enough, tonight our catcher was taken out by a possibly over-the-top play at the plate. Goddamnit. And it was "clean," but Jesus, how about a slide!?


Anyway. Thankyou for the explication here. I'm going to go look up Boogaard now.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-05-26 11:34 am (UTC)
See? There are always those moments. Where you say, "Seriously? That was necessary, seriously?" And sometimes, seriously, it was not.
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[User Picture]From: also_huey
2011-05-26 08:30 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-05-26 11:36 am (UTC)
I believe that was the WaPo equivalent of linking to the YouTube video of "Hit Somebody," but at more personal length. Thanks.
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[User Picture]From: laurel
2011-06-24 04:36 am (UTC)
Interesting. I hadn't really understood the deal with all the fights in hockey nor what an enforcer was. I went to a couple of North Stars games when I was a kid, but never really got into hockey as it wasn't played at my schools which seems like crazy talk given I grew up in MN but there you have it.

I read that Boogaard was still recovering from a concussion (and that he and Justin compared notes a fair bit). Man. It seems like everyone is getting concussed these days, but I hope it's just MLB and other leagues and organizations are paying more attention to concussions and getting athletes proper care and gear.
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