NHL: To fight or not to fight

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As the old saying goes, I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out…at least that’s the thought for generations of hockey fans.

For years the sport has been associated with dropping the gloves and settling differences on the ice without interference of referees, but it seems this year that could all be changing as fighting in the league is down considerably and not everyone likes the trend.

One unnamed fan of the Anaheim Ducks told us as she took her seat, “Our enforcers would never intentionally harm anyone…and most enforcers, I think, are that way. They're sending a message to the other team. You back off, you leave my guys alone.”

Enforcers are also known as goons and many literally take the ice to take on a member of the other team. Statistics for these guys aren’t measured in goals, saves, or assists, but in penalty minutes.

As Anaheim Ducks enforcer George Parros tells me, “Teams play differently when you have someone out there like myself or other physical players. You play the whole game differently. If I'm not in the lineup and the other team gets the indication that it might be an easier type of night, they'll take more liberties out there. If I'm out there, even though I might not be fighting anybody, they play a whole lot differently, so it's certainly effective.

Many fans and players alike argue that if goons are gone, then cheap shots on the ice will increase and that fighting actually helps reduce illegal hits that cause many of the concussion issues facing the sport. While covering this story, players and fans alike mention that NHL star Sidney Crosby, who is dealing with the aftermath of a serious concussion, suffered the injury not from a fight, but from an elbow during play.

“If you allow us to do our jobs more effectively, then players will be more hesitant to make those big hits. Fighting itself doesn't create too many concussions. There are certainly injuries with fighting and obviously some terrible things have happened in the past, but there are much more infrequent than say injuries from just regular checking and stuff like that,” says Parros.

But while the average fan and player seem to fight for fighting to stay, some around the sport support a change. Kevin Paul DuPont is a sports columnist for the Boston Globe and he says that just because fighting has been part of the sport for years, doesn’t make it right…and battles on the ice have become a marketing tool for the league.

“There are four on-ice officials. That's their charge. That's the reason they're out there. If they can't do, either they gotta get better officials or they gotta get more. My argument is, get better referees, have them make these calls and don't leave it to the players for self-government,” says DuPont.

Many players and fans are insistent and disagree with the notion that officials can see and enforce cheap shots on the ice. Hockey fight highlights are all over the web and before the advent of streaming, highlight DVD’s and VHS tapes were sold in stores across North America. Even the coldest of hockey fans understand when the jersey is pulled over the head, the fight is over.

One fan sitting behind the goal during a recent NHL warm-up tells us, “It's like a double edged sword, you know. I'm OK with it, but it sucks to see a big guy fight a small guy.” But DuPont has a prediction, “I don't know whether it's gonna be 5 years or 10 years from now. I think people will look back and say, that was really the Stone Age.”