‘Code’ not good business for NHL

Hockey’s code is outdated and dangerous, columnist Mark Sutcliffe argues.

OTTAWA — As someone who has never played professional hockey, I am by definition incapable of understanding why it remains the only activity in the world in which random violence and bloody vigilante justice must not only be condoned, but also encouraged, why without fighting the game indisputably would be more violent and dangerous and less appealing to watch.

To the promoters of hockey’s brutal culture, the logic is as clear as freshly resurfaced ice. The code, hockey’s unwritten, subjective and fluid Magna Carta, not only justifies all manner of brutal behaviour, but it also supersedes everything from the league’s rulebook to morality to criminal law.

The first rule of the code is that the code must never be questioned or subjected to a test of logic. Better to ask the Pope to justify the Ten Commandments. The code is like the amorphous, idiosyncratic set of principles invoked by rival gangsters to justify their behaviour rather than govern it: the result, irrevocably, is bloodshed.

The typical defence of fighting goes something like this:

“If you don’t allow fighting, the players will get away with all kinds of cheap shots and stickwork and violence.”

“But the referees and league officials should be punishing that, as they do in every other sport. Besides, even with fighting the dangerous play still occurs. The players who carry out the cheapshots aren’t afraid to fight, so fighting isn’t a deterrent. And that still doesn’t even explain the staged fights.”

“Well, the fans love it.”

I doubt even the staunchest defender of fighting in hockey would use the same logic to apply to any other arena in their lives. Would they accept a similar level of violence in their children’s schoolyard or the criminal justice system on the basis that it serves as an effective deterrent against even worse behaviour? Of course not. But that’s because hockey is somehow unique, something critics of the code simply don’t understand. There is everything else in the world, and there is hockey.

In the absence of comprehensive medical research or anyone with the courage to stand up to the bullies who perpetuate it, hockey’s culture has survived largely untouched for decades. Rules have been tweaked; bench-clearing brawls have been curtailed with automatic suspensions; and the National Hockey Leagueeague has the laughable rule that awards a game misconduct to a player who fights three times. Two is OK, but three is not.

But now the science is becoming more indisputable than the code itself. In separate studies, researchers at the Mayo Clinic and the University of Ottawa have concluded fighting can be more dangerous than the behaviour it’s meant to deter. Waddaya know: Repeated blows to the head can be bad.

Perhaps the science is catching up to the dinosaurs who have controlled professional hockey for generations. Now even former players and current league executives, like Tampa’s Steve Yzerman, are advocating a game misconduct for fighting. As in, for one fight, not three.

It would be foolish to expect quick change. The George Parros incident gave everyone a good scare, but let’s not forget it has been almost 14 years since Marty McSorley hit Donald Brashear on the head with his stick. The news stories following that incident expressed the same shock and expectation of immediate change as those following Parros’s faceplant. Very little happened.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has exerted fierce control over many aspects of the game, but seems to have deferred to the experience of others on fighting. However, there are strong economic arguments that should persuade him to change the culture of the game.

For one, a massive lawsuit is likely on the way. Look at the NFL’s recent settlement with concussed former players. It’s interesting that, when a single spectator died after being struck by an errant puck, the first in 80 years, the NHL immediately put up intrusive nets at both ends of every rink. Yet the risk of death and serious injury continues every time two players drop the gloves.

The NHL is also ignoring the impact of fighting on the potential growth of the game’s audience. Yes, fighting is popular among existing fans. But those fans aren’t going anywhere. As ticket prices have increased, the professional sports client base has shifted to a more urban, corporate audience, including both men and women. The NFL has appealed more effectively to this demographic through compelling storytelling and curtailing testosterone-laced on-field behaviour. The NHL is falling behind.

Hockey’s brutal culture is also stopping some parents from enrolling their children in the sport. Some of the best young athletes in Canada are now playing soccer instead of hockey.

The twisted logic used to justify fighting in hockey has been deployed to resist change throughout human history, from suffrage to ending slavery and apartheid to allowing African-Americans in baseball. Eventually, the outdated thinking has given way either through leadership or crisis management.

At best, the NHL’s glacial pace on addressing fighting is a missed opportunity; at worst, it’s a fatal accident waiting to happen.

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