"How we treat our warriors when the battle is over"

One of the films I really wanted to see at TIFF this year was The Last Gladiators (imdb | tiff), a documentary about hockey fighters. But it wasn’t high on Nellie’s list, and when you only see five films in the festival you pick ones that you’re both hot for. I wanted to see it because it was about hockey and because it was directed by Alex Gibney and because the main subject was Chris “Knuckles” Nilan. But mostly I wanted to see it I feel like it could be a document of a turning point that we can’t quite distinguish yet because we’re in the middle of it.

Just before the film festival began Wade Belak, until recently a Toronto Maple Leaf known mainly for his fighting, committed suicide. In August Rick Rypien, another fighter, also committed suicide. In May former New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogard died of an overdose of alcohol and painkillers. This was the backdrop for this documentary, most or all of which wouldn’t have been there when Gibney started filming.

But the fact that I would describe these guys as “fighter” or “enforcer” distinguishes them from the likes of Nilan. Nilan could play. Three times he scored 15+ goals in a season. In six of his seasons he was a plus player. Over his career he earned about a point every 3 games. Boogard and Belak, by comparison, earned a point every 17 games or so, though they were defensemen; Rypien, a forward, earned a point about every 7.5 games. Those three were the type of player commonly referred to as “goons”. So was Nilan, no mistake, but Nilan could play. Likewise, Bob Probert — probably the most feared fighter in the league during the late80s and early 90s — twice scored 20+ goals in a season and averaged a point every 2.4 games. Probert, by the way, struggled for years with drugs and alcohol and died at the age of 45. Even the talented among this contingent weren’t immune from whatever demons haunted them.

There are more stats and anecdotes pointing to the fact that fighters were, and are, a tormented bunch on the whole. That alone should be an emotional jolt sufficient to give the Don Cherrys of the world pause, and wonder whether the price fighters pay is justified. God knows, the logical line of reasoning hasn’t worked.

For the first few years after the NHL expanded from 21 teams to 30 it was fashionable to slag expansion for diluting the talent pool in the NHL. By and large it did at first, but as Europe opened up and talent development in the US accelerated, the talent filled the roster spots. But no talent pool exists to feed the requirement for goons, and so the makeup of teams changed. Before expansion, when the likes of Nilan and Probert played, it was much harder to be a “single-purpose” goon…that is, someone on the team solely to fight. Nilan’s job was to protect talented Montreal players; Probert’s job was to protect Steve Yzerman. Dave Semenko’s job in Edmonton was to protect Wayne Gretzky, just as Marty McSorley’s was in LA, but both men could play. The 21-team market was small enough to filter out the pure goons; you only made an NHL team as a fighter if you could also score or play defense. As so many new teams now felt they needed enforcers, they filled their rosters with what remained: pure fighters. It may seem a subtle difference, but it’s an important one:  if you were a player who happened to fight, like McSorley or Probert, and the game called for playing, you played. You skated, you shot, you backchecked, you cleared the front of your net, and you won. You played hockey. If a fight was needed — a concept that had been around for decades, but became glaringly apparent with the goonish tactics of the Flyers and Bruins in the 70s — then you fought. Today, there are several players — on each opposing team — whose sole purpose in the league is to fight. Their skills aren’t enough to call them up from the minors, or even draft them, if they didn’t fight. This, in the common pro-fighting parlance, is “knowing your role”. And this is what’s killing the game.

The result of what I describe above is staged fights. Everyone knows that the second enforcers from both teams are on the ice, they’ll fight. That’s what they’re there for. It’s all that they’re there for. They’re not sticking up for themselves, or retaliating* for a dirty play against their star teammate. They’re fighting because, if they don’t, they’re out of a job. This self-sustaining economy has infected the league, and it makes the game so goddamned boring and predictable. You see these set pieces coming ten minutes away, and they just don’t mean anything. The fighting doesn’t help the game — far from it, it generally slows down what is otherwise the fastest pro sport on the planet — and it’s usually anti-climactic. The fact that during the playoffs you almost never see fighting suggests it isn’t in any way necessary…it’s just a sideshow during the season, a bad habit that people can’t seem to shake. It’s junk food. It’s reality TV. It’s dutch elm disease, rotting away at something beautiful.

I could have probably spared you this bloody great rant and just pointed you to Jack Todd’s much better argument in the Montreal Gazette a few weeks ago, but it warrants repeating: ban fighting. As Todd says, it’s “cruel, backward and unnecessary.” It’s also really fucking boring.

* I don’t endorse this bullshit either. Part of the reason why league discipline has been such a joke over the years is because it’s assumed that any dirty play will result in the victim’s teammate “straightening the guy out”. I’m hopeful that recent clear and substantial discipline meted out by Brendan Shanahan will improve things.

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