This article also appears on AllPuck.com
Another pro-fighting gauntlet was laid today by an active NHL enforcer. I figured his argument was worth examining. Maybe he would cover some new ground in this era of Rule 48 videos and a heightened cultural sensitivity toward concussions.
Let’s be clear on one thing first: I’m not inherently anti-fighting. I’m not inherently pro-fighting either. I’m pro-facts and I’m skeptical of any argument that is framed in black-and-white terms. “All fighting should be banned” isn’t a sophisticated argument. I doubt anyone within the game, from the front offices of NHL clubs to the players on the ice, holds this opinion. But maybe I’m being naive.
The argument must be a powerful one, because Montreal Canadiens winger Brandon Prust took the time to argue against it in his essay “Why We Fight” for ThePlayersTribune.com. The premise had me intrigued. Hockey enforcers are generally some of the most articulate athletes I’ve interviewed. I thought Prust might have a strong voice to add to the conversations I’ve had with George Parros, Todd Fedoruk and others over the years.
Prust certainly brings the passion. “There’s nothing like that moment when a guy asks for a fight and a rat turns them down,” he writes. “It does something to the atmosphere of the entire building. If fighting didn’t exist, those guys could skate around all game trying to head-hunt the skill players on the other team with no repercussions.”
This is the crux of his argument: The threat of the fight has to exist as a deterrent to prevent dirty hits. It’s almost enough of an argument for the anti-fighting crowd to get behind. Hits, not fights, cause the majority of concussions. Parros once told me he never suffered a concussion as a result of being hit in a fight (though he was famously concussed in 2013 by accidentally hitting his head on the ice). Parros was perhaps the most tactically sound fighter of his era, so maybe he’s a bad example. A concussion expert told the New York Times in 2011 that enforcers reported concussion symptoms after “one in four or one in five” fights. The facts say that banning fighting would only eliminate a minority of concussions, assuming players behaved the same in a game without fights.
Prust doesn’t think players would behave the same in a game without fights. If that’s true, it’s a shame. It’s a shame because I’ve heard the same argument before. This is an excerpt from the Times piece, which was published in 2011:
(Robbie) Ray, who said he sustained 10 to 12 concussions and still has days when he loses track of what he’s doing, said it would be “a big mistake” to outlaw fighting.
“You need to have that fear: If I hit someone wrong, someone’s going to come after me,” he said. “Without it, you’d have far more head shots and hits from behind.”
Ray’s belief in the effectiveness of fighting as a deterrent is widespread among the hockey community. Yet despite the threat of a retributive fight, taking aim at injured players persists.
Since that article was published, the powers that be have spent considerable time and money trying to change the status quo. There’s Rule 48. There’s an NHL department of player safety. There’s a still-active lawsuit filed by former players claiming the league has ignored the dangers of concussions. There’s a sense that the NHL is inching as close as it can to banning fights without actually crossing that line. Yet despite the threat of a retributive fight, to quote a line written four years ago, taking aim at injured players persists.
Here’s the kicker. Prust takes aim at vulnerable players himself. He violates the very behavior he’s trying to “enforce.” We know this because he admits doing it at the end of his own essay (words in bold for emphasis):
I knew nobody on the Rangers was going to give me a fight. So I had to go out there and hit some people and cause havoc so that I force someone to come after me. On my first shift, I saw a blue jersey making a pass at the blue line and I came across him and tried to finish my check hard. He didn’t see me coming. He went down and stayed down. I knew it was a late hit. What I didn’t know is that it was Derek Stepan, one of my closest friends on the Rangers. I broke his jaw.
The verdict: It’s easy to respect Prust as a professional athlete for all the hard work he put in to reaching the NHL. But I can’t respect his argument for fighting when he undermines it himself.
We know why players fight. In light of the facts, the better question is why should they?