Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Might of a Fight

The latest move by the brainiacs that run the NHL (stands for National Hockey League for those that don't recall the sports organ-I-zation) is to limit and eventually stop fighting in hockey.

Just as a bit of background, the NHL was once the least popular of the big four sports (baseball, football, basketball, hockey) then under the leadership of now NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, has subsequently completely fallen off the national sports radar behind golf, MMA, tennis, soccer, and even figure skating. Once seen on ESPN several nights a week, the NHL is now on Versus, a channel hardly anyone can find or care to look for. Visibility is at an all time low, oh, and did I mention there was a strike a couple of seasons back. A strike! It's laughable. So that's where the NHL is now, and here is where it's going...the way of the fucking brontosaurus.

To the non-sports fan, no fighting should sound like a positive, but in hockey it's a part of the culture. Not only legal since as long as I've heard anything about hockey, fighting is a safe way to protect other players on the ice. See these are large guys, flying around on blades throwing elbows, sticks, and anything they can in order to gain an advantage on a play, while not drawing a penalty. When players get a little carried away, to the point where it's upsetting to the other team, then two representatives from each team will have a conversation on the ice and throw down their gloves and have at it. Sure, sometimes it gets out of control, or sometimes way too in control, but that's the nature of the game. It's a tough sport originated by tough Canadians, who had nothing better to do in Ontario on a freezing pond.

The problem with this movement, aside from the in-game enforcement aspect, is that it is par for the course for what is killing the sport of hockey. It is trying to be like every other sport. This selling out in order to become mainstream has been going on for some time, since the NHL made notable efforts to increase scoring in the league. Granted, at the time, all the clutching and grabbing was not hockey, but larger goals, smaller pads, technologically advanced sticks have all accomplished this goal. Then they expanded. Took teams out of Canada and into Florida, Anaheim, and Columbus to make it more of an American sport. All absolutely terrible moves.

Now removing fighting is the one side of the sport that you can walk up to a non-hockey fan, and actually get him or her excited about watching a hockey game. The parts of the sport the NHL should be marketing, the flash, the speed, the fighting and the attitude are being muted in order to fit in with the cool kids.

A prime example is what happened with Sean Avery. The infamous agitator referred to his ex-girlfriend, Elisha Cuthbert, as "sloppy seconds" during an interview. This garnered headlines and press for the NHL in an ESPN world where no one cares. Clearly, this was in poor taste, but the NHL should spin this bad publicity into the kind of passion in sports fans. It's good vs. evil, rivalries and opinions. That's what gets people into sports.

How did the NHL handle it? They suspended Avery, which was fair, then basically dragged him through the streets like he was a Holocaust denier or something. He lost his job with the Stars, which was the team he was with at the time, relegated to the minors and banished until the NY Rangers came calling. If this happened in baseball or the NFL, you'll probably get some disciplinary action, and this has probably happened multiple times in the NBA and no one raised an eyebrow. If there is an opening to get some attention for your business, then you have to jump on it. The NHL once again turned away and just wanted to be a square peg trying to get into a round hole.

Hockey isn't just another sport. It is unique and they have to accept that. Grow in Canada, focus abroad, and realize that due to the semi-complex rules and low scoring it will never be on par with football or baseball. The NHL has it's best chance in being something different. A change of pace for the sports fan who is looking for a different outlet. There will always be the diehard fans in the NHL, always. It's a matter of getting those people who aren't fans. Fighting is a way to do that. But the NHL will never learn.

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