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April 10, 2007
  

The Fight of Our Lives
TFP Columnist Greg Wyshynski speaks with "The Code" author Ross Bernstein about the value of fighting, why it won't be banned and how the NHL should be using it to market the game.
 

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- It began with that chaotic brawl between Ottawa and Buffalo, one whose gravity hurled opposing goaltenders into the fray.

Then came an enforcer named Cam Janssen — a guy who spends more time in the penalty box than he does on line shifts during some games — and his injurious hit on Tomas Kaberle.

And then another enforcer, Chris Simon, thought he was in a Grapefruit League game and Ryan Hollweg's head was a practice pitch.

Finally, there was Predators winger Jordin Tootoo's "self defense" punch to Stephane Robidas' grill and Colton Orr's knockout blow to Todd Fedoruk's skull and Jon Sim's broken left orbital bone at the fists of San Jose's Mark Bell.

While only some of those incidents involved traditional hockey fighting, the suspensions and the injuries in their wake were grouped under the same umbrella by the mainstream media. It was time for NHL discipline czar Colin Campbell to speak up in an interview with Ron MacLean, taking the jellyfish-like stance that fighting should not be banned but that it was time for the league to ask the question on whether it should be.

His comments sparked the most passionate, meaningful and intelligent debate about fighting’s place in the game since the Todd Bertuzzi suspension. Unfortunately, this debate started about three weeks prior to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Cue Gary Bettman, who like a Keystone Fireman grabbed his bucket of confetti and doused Campbell's flames, claiming that the league isn't "looking to have a debate on whether fighting is good or bad or should be part of the game."

Like the commish, I've grown painfully tired of this debate. My fellow defenders of hockey fisticuffs can keep trotting out the usual exonerations like "it has its place" or "it's for protection" or "getting rid of it will lead to even more horrible violent acts." But ask this writer why he defends on-ice pugilism, and from this point on here is what you'll get:
 

Fighting makes hockey more exciting for me, and I love it without qualification.

No politics, no spin, no flimsy justification. Fights are fun. Fights are electrifying. Fights are memorable. Fights are therapeutic in a loss and euphoric in a win. Fights intensify rivalries, or begin new ones. And yeah, I do miss those days when you'd tune in for the Leafs and Wings because Probert and Domi might fight. Perhaps this makes the guy who roots for the wall in a NASCAR race or the lions in a gladiator coliseum. Or perhaps I'm just one of the 17,000 other fans who get their asses out of their seats, screaming and throwing air punches to encourage one player to beat the living snot out of the other one when they drop their gloves — for the sole reason that it entertains me.

I wish we lived in a culture where the NHL could adopt my admittedly extreme philosophy and sell it to the masses, but I begrudgingly concede my message has about as much chance for mainstream acceptance as a Noam Chomsky/Dennis Kucinich 2008 presidential election ticket.

But Ross Bernstein? This guy knows how to explain the fighting thing in a way that strips away its repulsion and accentuates its gallantry. His work could break down every stereotype and negative image the media and sports fans associate with hockey brawling — if the NHL's willing to accept it.

THE CODE

Bernstein is the author of "The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL," a best-selling and well-received book that features interviews with current and former players about professional hockey pugilism.

What makes Bernstein an interesting authority is that he's not a zealot about fighting.

"I'm not a hockeyfights.com maniac," he told me, and he's not surfing the Web checking for punch stats, either. He appreciates a fight for why it happens, and for the identity of its participants.

"I love when [Jarome] Iginla fights. When a captain drops the gloves, it means so much more than when an enforcer does," he said.

Perhaps that's why he considers Gordie Howe to be the greatest player in NHL history "by far," because "Gretzky needed bodyguards."

If you buy Bernstein's book and enjoy it, you won't be alone: "The Code" has a fan in Gary Bettman. Bernstein recently had an audience with the commissioner in the owner's box for the Minnesota Wild, Bernstein's home-state team.

"They're constantly being asked why they allow fighting," said Bernstein of NHL brass, adding that Bettman loved the book because it explained fighting in a very concise and honorable manner.

As for the recent conflict of interests between Campbell and Bettman, "It was a good cop/bad cop," said Bernstein. "Campbell had to say something. Whatever limited sponsorship they have at VERSUS right now probably said, 'Uh, guys, this really isn't good for business.' "

The threat of losing advertising and sponsorship is, according to Bernstein, a primary influence that keeps the league from unequivocally embracing fighting.

"It's the first rule of Fight Club — there is no Fight Club. It's a very tight rope: They have to allow it but they can't really acknowledge and promote it," he said. "In my opinion, it's all going to end when someone dies. Not 'if,' but 'when.' The biggest problem they've got is head injuries."

Both Bettman and Campbell agreed that there will be studies done on that problem in the off-season. Bernstein believes the league will take steps to curtail head injuries — whether it's stiffer penalties or even implementing Fedoryk's suggestion of having enforcers wear UFC-style gloves under their hockey equipment — just like there were steps taken years earlier to curtail bench-clearing brawls and to stop a third player from entering a fight.

"Even with the lockout, fighting majors are down by 30-something percent, and I'm OK with that," he said. 'The fighting that exists now is better. It's not gratuitous."

Of course, the more measures passed that rein fighting in, the more there's a chilling effect on the tradition itself. For lack of a less political and ghastly comparison, Bernstein and I see the trend mimicking that of abortion legislation in different levels of U.S. government: quiet, incremental discouragement can be just as effective — and a hell of a lot less chaotic — than an outright ban.

But at what cost? Part of "The Code" in Bernstein's book deals with fighting as a deterrent to even greater violence.

"There's a certain amount of liability when you're a man and you sign up for this game," he said.

Take the Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore affair, one of the catalysts for Bernstein's opus. Moore broke "the code" when he took out Markus Naslund; just like in the Mafia, in the NHL "if you want to touch a captain, there's a price to pay," said Bernstein.

But when he forced Moore to settle up, Bertuzzi basically shattered every tenet of "the code" with his attack. Bernstein's contention is that the media demonized the action, but did little to explain its origin.

"There's a genesis, a storyline, a flashpoint, and all NBC shows is the flashpoint. What Bertuzzi did was reprehensible, but when you look at the whole thing at least you can understand what went wrong," said Bernstein.

"If there's no instigator rule, there's no Bertuzzi incident. That situation is resolved. The game polices itself."

NO APOLOGIES

The problem for fighting advocates, and for the league, is trying to explain a nebulous concept like "the game polices itself" to the masses or to the mainstream media.

Like sports columnist Dave Krieger of the Rocky Mountain News, for example, who recently opined: "Players argue that without fighting as a deterrent, there would be more cheap shots. As if you could not make exactly the same argument in football or basketball. Somehow, college hockey and Olympic hockey get along without it."

There's nothing remarkable about that viewpoint, just like there would be nothing remarkable should the NHL respond to it. The league would hum a few more bars of the same old song — the one that goes, "It's a part of our game... but it's on the decline... yet it's part of our game... but we don't condone it... oh, but it's part of our game... and we promise to call together a blue-ribbon panel to explore this dangerous trend in full compliance with your concerns."

It would be the league's typical combination of flaccid objection and required shame, as NHL suits self-flagellate like they were characters in a Mel Gibson film. But it's also a completely mixed message: A healthy "wink-wink" to the paying customer that fighting will never leave the game, and a constant state of apology, waffling and embarrassment to the rest of society.

We always seem to be talking about the image of hockey, the identity of the league, and how the NHL allows outside forces to define both of them. How can the league develop a distinct image when it's constantly trying to triangulate its message like a Clinton running for office? How does it define an identity when it's in a constant state of identity crisis?

For the last 25 years, the NHL has been on the defense, explaining to the mainstream in vague terms why there's fighting in hockey. It's time to add depth to that message: Who fights? How does it come about? When does it need to happen?

"It's like when pro wrestling came out and said it wasn't a sport, that it was a form of entertainment," said Bernstein. "Its popularity soared."

The point isn't to stage fights like Summer Slam or to give in to the carnival gimmickry of the wrestling aesthetic. It's about intellectual honestly.

Don't just talk about fighting as a necessity, as a deterrent or as a tactic. Talk about its honor. Talk about its nobility. Don't spend another breath defending it until you're prepared to explain what it means for these players to take a fist to the side of their head because their linemate took a stick to the mouth. Or why there's nothing deplorable or Neanderthalic about earning respect, defending a brother or adhering to a code that's been written with several decades of spilled blood.

Those are universal themes that are completely ignored by the NHL, which is content to sell slick skating and shootout wizardry to a mainstream audience whose majority has never picked up a stick nor put on a pair of skates. These people don't understand hockey — but all of them understand a fight.

"Everybody dreams of beating the shit out of their boss," Bernstein surmises.

But beyond that wondrous fantasy, everybody understands "An eye for an eye!" or "He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue!" or "Spartans! Enjoy your breakfast, for tonight we dine in Hell!" or even those silly "man laws" on the beer ads.

There's an instinctive, primal message about respect and honor to all of them. The NHL, meanwhile, delivers its messages through slapdash comedic commercials and sells its talent with in-game profiles that feature pictures of 'lil Sidney back when he was just a tiny tot on wobbly skates (you know, six years ago).

It's all surface, not substance, and exemplifies the league's inability to explain why anyone should care about its players. There's an entire legion of sports fans ready to embrace this game if the NHL is willing to embrace its primal roots and explain the code of honor that mandates their existence. These fans might not know a slap shot from a tequila shot, but they know what it takes to stand up to a bully, a bad guy or a bastard. They know valor when they see it, and they're drawn to everything from movies to books to Olympic events they'd otherwise never watch just to experience it.

At a recent book signing for "The Code" at a Minnesota Wild game, Bernstein said he was approached by a former enforcer who played in the WHA and the NHL. He was crying as he told the author how he gave Bernstein's book to his entire family last Christmas.

"They look at me totally differently now," he told Bernstein. "They used to think I was a dumb goon, but now they know the honor of what I did. It gave me self-worth."

"Self-worth" is an alien concept for a league that's been battered by mainstream biases, cuckolded by its advertisers and undermined by its own ineptitude.

Frame the men who choose to fight as warriors, characterized by an undeniable humanity and nobility. Frame their fights as acts of heroism and of heritage. Explain what led to the brawl, why it needed to happen and its affect on the game.

And don't be embarrassed about any of it.
 


Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com, and the Senior Editor and Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.
 

 

 

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