Two seconds into the Rangers' 2013 home opener against the Penguins, New York's Arron Asham and Pittsburgh's Tanner Glass dropped their gloves and squared off, much to the delight of the Madison Square Garden crowd. Asham and Glass -- who'd fought each other last season while playing for different teams -- exchanged punches for nearly a minute before tiring out, at which point they were separated by the linesmen and directed to their respective penalty boxes as the arena roared its approval.
Scenes like this, in which players dropped their gloves mere seconds after the opening faceoff, played out several times during the first week of the NHL season. Detroit's Jordin Tootoo vs. Columbus's Jared Boll, for instance. Or Joe Finley and Matt Martin of the Islanders vs. Pierre-Cedric Labrie and B.J. Crombeen of the Lightning. Indeed, staged fighting has been one of the hottest topics in the early going this season, particularly for those of us who find it hard to get worked up over enthusiastic goal celebrations. (Want to feel old? Theo Fleury's slide across the rink during the 1991 playoffs happened more than two years before Nail Yakupov was born.)
The debate over staged fighting isn't new, but in 2013, it goes beyond a discussion of whether such fights are embarrassing (as argued last week by Ryan Lambert at Puck Daddy). Those of us who believe fighting has a place in the game, as dangerous as it may be, can find ways to justify most fights. But that can't be said about staged fights. They're a different animal, and need to be treated as such.
Hockey fans, by and large, like fighting, and a Globe and Mail poll last spring found that one's approval of fighting corresponds to one's enthusiasm for the sport. More than half of "huge fans" of the sport either strongly opposed or somewhat opposed a fighting ban, and only 19 percent approved of a ban. (The numbers, by the way, look very different for those who dislike the sport.) And frankly, anyone who's ever been to a hockey game doesn't need a survey to tell them that hard-core fans dig fighting. Buildings go nuts when scraps break out.
I count myself among those who believe fighting has a place in the sport. There are many reasons a player might drop the gloves: To stand up for a teammate, for instance, or to change the momentum of a game when his team looks sluggish. If nothing else, it's a sort of pressure-release valve in a sport in which guys move at upwards of 25 miles an hour while carrying a stick that could be used as a weapon. Those of us who are generally pro-fighting can justify the fisticuffs in our minds because we usually see fighting as an attempt to nudge a team in the direction of victory. A fight alone can't win a game, but it can certainly affect it. There's strategy involved, and players routinely drop their gloves for the good of the team.
Those of us who approve of hockey fighting might just tell ourselves these things so we can sleep at night. But the fact is we do find ways to justify it, in most cases. There's a purpose to it, we tell ourselves. It's part of the game.
Except, of course, when there isn't a purpose to it--when it's not part of the game. And that's why staged fighting should be viewed differently. When there's no good hockey reason to fight, it becomes little more than a sideshow to the game itself. It's brawling for entertainment purposes, and even those of us who have convinced ourselves that other types of fighting are acceptable can't justify it.
We can look at some fights and see the participants as courageous -- as good teammates who are willing sacrifice for the good of the team. (And again, we might only do this because we choose to see things this way.) But it's harder to cheer on a fight that only exists to put on a show for a bloodthirsty crowd, or to settle an old score that won't have an impact on that night's game. I can justify other fights for any number of reasons, but it's uncomfortable to think that players are putting themselves as risk for my entertainment and nothing else. The more you read about CTE, the more you think about such things.
Asham, speaking about that early-season fight with Glass, said that he was surprised to be in the starting lineup that night, when he found himself temporarily on a line with stars Brad Richards and Rick Nash after Glass was listed among the Penguins starters. Asham, knowing his role, said he wanted to get his bench and the crowd riled up, but two seconds into the game, it's hard to consider that fight strategic. He's not looking to swing momentum, and as a newcomer making his debut on a new team in the second game of the season, there hadn't been time for bad blood to develop. And even if Glass and Asham (or their coaches) saw it as a way to set the tone for the game, that sort of energy would apply to both teams.
"I asked [Glass] right off and away we went," Asham said, via the New York Daily News. "Two guys doing their job, the same kind of players. It's tough to stay in the league. Like all fights, you get the bench, the crowd into it. I thought it was a good time, but it didn't work out."
In a way, this conversation is as much about us as it is about the players. I can't help but wonder if it's wrong for me to approve of potentially dangerous fights under one set of circumstances because they happen in the name of hockey, while disapproving of other fights because they don't? Or to put it another way: Does doing something in the name of sport make it worth potential health risks? Many hockey fans, myself included, still believe it does, even if we have to talk ourselves into it so we can continue to enjoy a good fight. But I can't talk myself into staged fighting. Even fight fans have to draw the line somewhere.
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Joe DeLessio is a senior producer at New York Magazine's website, nymag.com.