The discussion about fighting in the NHL has been a heated debate for years as more information about head trauma and concussions has come to light. One of the particularly thorny issues that anti-fighting advocates seem to have trouble reconciling is the importance of safety in a game in which risky behaviors of other kids are rewarded.
This couldn’t be about a 17-year-old superstar taking an unreasonable risk during a game. It could have been sliding to block a shot or crashing into the end boards chasing a puck or skating though the zone with his head down – any of which would have injured him, none of which would have led to a protracted debate about hockey culture.
Yahoo Sports' Greg Wyshynki's point is a good one: why is there such an intense debate about the merits of fighting in a sport that already includes brutal hits on a regular basis? Why does a blow to a head from a fist result in more discussion than a knee on knee hit or an accidental check into the boards?
To which I ask a hypothetical of my own: why is hitting necessary to hockey in the first place?
There's a nearly unanimous consensus that the game has become a game of skill. Players like Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, and eventually Connor McDavid, are highly prized for their offensive prowess, while players like Krys Barch, Colton Orr, and Paul Bissonnette increasingly find it harder and harder to make their way to an NHL roster. This is for one very simple reason: in a game where the object is to score more, physicality and toughness are ancillary to the ultimate point. They may be useful, but they aren't necessary.
Which is why it wouldn't surprise me to see checking phased out of the game altogether.
It's not as foreign of a concept as you might think. USA Hockey and Hockey Canada already prohibit body-checking in peewee hockey. The rationale for doing so is abundantly simple:
Dr. Carolyn Emery has done the preeminent research on body checking in youth hockey. You can read all of it here, but the most important bit of evidence she found was that body checking increased injury three-fold in a check league versus a non-check league with 11- and 12-year-olds in the categories of concussion, severe injury and severe concussion. So we’re not just talking about bumps and bruises.
More physical contact results in more injury. Hockey development programs recognize that in developing adolescents and children, excessive head injuries early on cause substantial long-term health problems down the road.
But those concussions, broken bones and dislocated shoulders don't stop being a problem once a player gets to bantam. Or major-junior. Or the NHL. The toll of constant injury affects everyone, from Eric Lindros and Marc Savard to Wade Belak and Derek Boogaard. Hockey in today's world remains a violent sport. But it doesn't have to be.
Obviously, violence in sports is not a foreign concept. The most popular sport in the United States remains football, which is particularly notorious for long-term cognitive problems among its athletes. But unlike football, hockey does not need physical contact to function. Contact is not written into the mechanics of sport. Removing contact from football entirely changes the game itself. Removing contact from hockey results in a radical change to the way the sport is played, but not the fundamentals of the sport itself.
So it would not come as a surprise to me to see a future NHL adopt physical contact rules that more closely resemble that of the NBA, where contact between players is technically prohibited, but a fair amount of leeway is given for incidental or minor contact.
While obviously fouls in the NBA are less severe than penalties in the NHL, assessing a minor penalty for a check need not be the only way to enforce a no-contact rule. The league could adopt a standard similar to delayed offsides or playing the puck with a high stick, in which the team of the offending player cannot touch the puck first or receive a defensive zone faceoff. Such a system would discourage checking while simultaneously avoiding levying too huge of a cost on offending teams.
To be clear, this is not a system that I am necessarily advocating to see happen. I don't even know if such a league will exist in my lifetime. But given the continued specter of lawsuits and long-term health effects associated with injuries of all types, and given that youth levels of hockey have already begun to implement non-contact policies, this seems to be the direction that hockey is trending.
An NHL without checking? It's possible. Someday.