Fans are out of their seats and filling the building with cheers and chants as two players dance. They skate a circle, dropping helmets, sticks and gloves. The combatants grab each other’s jersey to restrict movement. One pulls the other off balance with the left hand and connects with a right hand bomb. The other jabs with quick short-range shots. They trade blows, still circling until one falls to the ice and the victor is escorted to his throne; five minutes for fighting.
Exciting or embarrassing, fights happen in hockey. In only 39 games there have been 66 fights in the 2011-12 ECHL regular season. The Colorado Eagles alone have dropped the gloves ten times in six games, including preseason, according to Hockeyfights.com.
“When you look at hockey there’s only two things that are guaranteed to get a fan out of their seat, one of them is a goal and the other is a fight.” said Kevin McGlue, Colorado Eagles’ play-by-play broadcaster.
Antagonists to fights have always frowned on the barbaric-ness and the lack of necessity for it. Recently they have been given more of a platform to speak, with the rise of concussions and head injuries as well as the death of three former National Hockey League tough guys in the 2011 off-season.
On that note, advocates for fighting in Northern Colorado might find it difficult to argue that the record-breaking attendance for Colorado Eagles games at the Budweiser Events Center of 252 consecutive regular season sellouts would be endangered if fights were no longer allowed.
Fighting is not just for entertainment value, though. There are more than a few reasons a fight will break out. One reason often stated for fights is for the sake of protecting “skill players” from cheap shots and big hits, a tactic commonly referred to as “policing.”
“Where it all started is you’ll get some of your more talented players, and a lot of times they are smaller players, the opposing coach will tell their team to hit them as many times as you possibly can to slow them down. That resulted in the other coach saying we can let these big guys run our little guys so you take care of them,” explained Ralph Backstrom, Founder of the Colorado Eagles and six-time Stanly Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens.
Alex Penner, the guy often called upon by the Eagles to carry out the enforcer role, has 37 penalty mintues in four games this season. He also offered other reasons why he fights.
“Some of the other reasons are you just kind of want to kick start the emotion on your team, if your team is kind of flat-lined or not playing well or not skating or not hitting or something. Sometimes they need something to kick-start the emotion and fellow teammates out there and sometimes just to get the crowd into it,” Penner said.
The role of enforcer has been refined and redefined to have a meaningful role in today’s game. Being an enforcer may be the only way for some players to climb the hockey latter to the NHL, but now they are being asked to contribute elsewhere, too.
“You don’t necessarily have to be the most skilled hockey player. If you can skate, and you can contribute a little offensively, but you can be a dominant enforcer, sometimes that can be quickest, fastest way to the NHL,” said McGlue.
If fighting was taken out of the game tomorrow, antagonists have argued that would not deter, rather display the sports athleticism and skill. They often point to the NCAA, European leagues and, most notably, the Olympics as successful, entertaining hockey without the distraction of fights.
“Keep in mind that in college you wear full face gear. There’s really not much sense in fighting. If you want to break your hand, sure, punch somebody in the mouth with your fist. But the NCAA frowns on fighting and it’s a good rule,” said Backstom, who also spent nine seasons as the coach of the University of Denver Pioneers.
Backstrom went on to explain that when a player jumps leagues to where there is fighting, things change and the bigger guys feel obligated to protect their team mates.
“It’s a vicious circle, but that’s the way it is,” he said. “I have mixed emotions about (fighting), I think in some ways its part of the game and will always be a part of the game. I’ve been a part of the game for over 50 years and I’ve seen a lot of things happen out there.”
For more quotes about fighting in hockey from Kevin McGlue, Ralph Backstrom and Alex Penner, check out my blog the Eagles’ Nest.