Fighting is never worth it.*
...until it is.
I agree with Sarah on some points: I am skeptical of the presence of dedicated fighters as a “deterrent” for dangerous or dirty plays; if it truly was, than we should expect to see fewer “non-obstruction” related penalties (slashing, cross-checking, boarding, etc.) on teams that had dedicated enforcer types versus teams that didn’t. The data does not bear that out.
But I think we approach fighting the wrong way. I think we spend so much time looking at what the perpetrators of bad behavior do and don’t do that we ignore another important part of the puzzle: their teammates.
After all, how many times has a fight been justified as “sticking up for a teammate”? It’s a pretty frequent comment on Fox Sports Arizona’s broadcast, and it’s certainly something that players who choose to fight believe they’re doing.
We see this constantly in professional baseball. A player gets hit by a pitch, and subsequently gets on base. Even if that player comes all the way around to score, the score may not be “settled” until another player on the opposing team gets beaned as well.
That instinct doesn’t go away with fighting. So how else do you stick up for a teammate injured by a slew-foot or a high hit? The constructive way, of course, would be to score on the ensuing power play, preferably more than once if it’s a major penalty.
Yet the number of potential power plays wiped out by a roughing minor in the ensuing scrum suggests players aren’t thinking about that.
The advantage of fighting is that it by and large channels the retributive instinct into a (somewhat) manageable situation, complete with widely accepted “rules”. Two combatants commit, always by removing their gloves, and often in the scrum, their helmets. They aim primarily for the face, don’t go low, and (usually) relent either when the linesmen step in or when one player hits the ice.
Without fighting, the instinct still exists, but the way to release the pressure doesn’t. And it’s not unfathomable to think that a more baseball-esque system of justice could emerge instead. But a plunk on the leg or the arm is nowhere near the same severity as a blow to the head or a broken wrist from a slash.
I will be very happy when fighting is no longer a part of the NHL game; the cost of CTE on the long-term health of players is staggering, and the link between concussions and CTE that everyone (save the league office) acknowledges exists makes the need for a permanent change all the more important.
But until we see a change in the mindset of players and coaches at every level, I fear that outlawing fighting will only increase the number of injuries like this. When a player like Zac Rinaldo openly gloats about how his illegal hit “changed the whole game”, that is a culture that still emphasizes retaliation. It’s not a choice between fighting and no-fighting; it’s a choice between one form of retribution versus another.
Given that choice, I’ll take the option that at least has unwritten rules versus the one that doesn’t.