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.