King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Some hockey fans draw a line between "violence" and "fighting." They're fooling themselves. Plus: ESPN does something exquisitely right.

By Salon Staff
Published March 12, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

After I wrote Thursday that the NHL should ban fighting, several hockey fans wrote in to say that there's a distinction between fighting, which is illegal but penalized lightly, and cheap shots or vicious attacks such as Todd Bertuzzi's on-ice assault of Steve Moore in Vancouver Monday night. Moore suffered a concussion and other injuries. Bertuzzi was suspended for the rest of the season.

"What happened in Vancouver wasn't a fight," wrote David Bone. "It was an illegal hit. An attack really. All the anti-fighting rules in the world couldn't have stopped it from happening."

Luke Andrews wrote, "Your response is typical of sports fans who don't really pay attention to hockey. One must draw a clear distinction between fighting, as it has traditionally been practiced in hockey, and the wicked violence that occurs otherwise: slashing, spearing, cheap-shot sucker punches, etc. Personally, I am not a fan of fighting. That said, the goons [who engage in it] know exactly what they're getting into, and after the fight, the matter is usually considered settled. Players very rarely get injured in fights -- at least when they're willing combatants."

The distinction that some hockey fans want to make between "fighting" and "violence," the latter meaning things like cheap shots, is totally false. It's all part of the same culture, and it's that culture that has to change to save the sport. If you say, "You can fight, but you can't go over this line," it's inevitable that someone will go over the line. The only place to draw the line is at "no fighting."

The defense for fighting is that it's the way hockey polices itself. I'll let reader Michael Grant make the argument: "The fights are an important aspect of the game. If a guy lays a shot on Wayne Gretzky, he's going to get pounded later. He knows that. Ergo, no hit on Gretzky. Get rid of cheap shots, and hotheads like Bertuzzi, for sure. But if you get rid of the fights, it'll be a free-for-all league wide. Might as well paint a bull's-eye on your superstar, because he's getting lined up as we speak."

That argument makes sense. It's a great argument. There's just no reason to believe it.

Hockey, the only sport that allows fighting, is the only sport that suffers from this steady stream of injurious cheap shots. They make the national non-sports news every few years, but lesser offenses happen all the time. Every other sport, every single one, has star players, but no other sport suffers these serial cheap-shot incidents the way hockey does. It's possible to cheap-shot a basketball or football star in the flow of those violent games, and sometimes it happens. Yet fights are exceedingly rare and superstars are not an endangered species.

And if the need for fighting as a policing system is unique to hockey, why isn't it necessary in international or college hockey? For that matter, as my friend Marty Cortinas points out, where do the fights go during the NHL playoffs? If fighting is so important, why does it decrease so much when the games get really meaningful?

Fighting may be the NHL's de facto system of law enforcement, but it's a system that is demonstrably not working. And there's another system available -- no fighting allowed -- that demonstrably works just fine in pretty much every other sport on the planet.

The other argument for tolerating fighting is that it's part of the appeal to real hockey fans, and those who want to get rid of it aren't the league's constituency anyway. Joe Fleissner, who made it clear he thought Bertuzzi's hit on Moore was totally beyond the pale, has the floor:

"Most of the people I know who want to remove all fighting from the game (not all, mind you, but most) aren't really fans of the game anyway. They like to talk about how great European hockey is, but they don't watch that either, so why should the NHL care what they think? Part of the reason hockey fans love the game is because it is a violent sport ... Fighting is part of the NHL culture and removing it isn't going to make the sport any better or more popular."

Yeah, well, again: The current plan is working beautifully. The NHL loses to test patterns in the Nielsen ratings. To call it a minor, niche league on the American landscape is probably to oversell it.

The thuggish, violent nature of the current game isn't solely responsible for that. Overexpansion, a coming labor apocalypse, and the dominance of clutching, grabbing defenses have played significant roles in the league's decline as well. But, while this is impossible to prove without a ban on fighting, I know it as surely as I know anything: The NHL has chased away far more fans than it's retained by allowing the violence to prevail.

Of the major North American sports, which one has lost the most prestige and popularity in the last few decades? The one with all the fighting, that's which one.

Would the last fight-loving NHL fan please turn out the lights when you leave.

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ESPN gets it right [PERMALINK]

I spend a lot of time beating up on ESPN, and I've decided that in the interest of full disclosure it's time to finally come clean about the real reason I do that.

It's because ESPN does a lot of stuff that sucks.

I mean, come on: introducing "Cold Pizza," Page 3 and "Dream Job," hiring Rush Limbaugh and firing Tuesday Morning Quarterback, all in one year? Yeesh. And that's not even mentioning ... I can't even type the name of that obnoxious "Pardon the Interruption" knockoff on which newspaper columnists compete to see who can be the loudest and dumbest.

But when ESPN pays attention to its best customers, it's a beautiful thing. Case in point: spring training baseball.

Most of what's bad about ESPN is its constant striving for the dollar of the non-sports fan. That certainly makes sense from a business standpoint, since sports fans are going to put up with pretty much anything ESPN does to get to the games, matches, news and analysis, so it's non-fans whose dollars are a resource to be tapped. But it leads to a lot of artistically unpleasing programming for fans. Such as, well, have I mentioned "Cold Pizza"?

This spring ESPN and its hench network, ESPN2, have been showing spring training games on weekday afternoons, and I have nothing but good things to say about these broadcasts.

I've long missed exhibition baseball games on TV. Growing up in Los Angeles, I got to watch a few local telecasts of Dodgers games from Vero Beach and Angels games from Palm Springs every year. I loved the odd, sun-bleached, quiet atmosphere, the golf clapping, the guys wearing uniform numbers like 88 and 72, the pitchers running laps on the warning track. It was the first chance to see traded players in their new colors -- wow, Richie Allen with the White Sox, Vida Blue in a Giants uniform -- and, more important, it was the first baseball on TV in five months, the first crack at sizing up the cut of the home team's jib in the coming year.

When I moved to the Bay Area in the early '80s, I was surprised to find Giants and A's spring training games ignored by local TV except on the last weekend before Opening Day, and even more surprised that only selected games were broadcast on the radio. National television was always out of the question.

That's more or less been the case until this year, unless I've really missed something. Good for ESPN to find time in its weekday afternoon schedule between the billiard tournaments and the "SportsCenter" and "Game Night" reruns to show some baseball, the only sport whose preseason exhibition games are worth watching.

And ESPN's been doing a nice job with the actual broadcasts, too. The sideline reporter phenomenon is a blight on the sports landscape, but in the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues, ESPN is using these -- I guess we should call them grandstand reporters -- to good effect. Part of that is because of the unusual access. Players who have come out of the game have been submitting to interviews, and the managers have chatted directly with the booth announcers.

But on top of that, the sideline interviewers have mostly avoided the "How does it feel to watch your son play?" nonsense and asked reasonable questions of important people such as new Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta. ESPN seems to be assuming that there's no way anybody who's not already a baseball fan is going to tune in to an exhibition game on a weekday afternoon, so it's aiming the broadcasts at its best customers, hardcore fans. It's wonderful.

ESPN's busy with basketball conference tournaments this week, so the exhibition baseball returns Monday at 1 p.m. EST with the Braves and Cardinals on ESPN2.

And by the way, even though I have my problems with conference tournaments, I've also loved ESPN's blanket coverage of them, especially the smaller ones earlier in the week. Much as I dislike the lackluster big-conference tournaments -- I hear you, ACC fans: Yours is an exception -- I appreciate the chance to watch all those small-conference schools that fill up the bottoms of the NCAA brackets. Fox Sports Net has offered some good coverage too.

And now, back to normal: A press release arrived this week hyping ESPN's three-hour "Selection Sunday Special." Among the highlights: Famed mentalist the Amazing Kreskin will reveal his bracket picks. Good thing the show's been expanded from two hours to three. We wouldn't want to miss the Amazing Kreskin's Final Four.

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