Hockey fight!

On Saturday, instead of fighting the pre-Saint-Patrick’s-Day crowds at the Irish pub where we have lunch nearly every weekend, J and I went to the one place in Boston where you don’t have to use St. Patrick’s Day as an excuse to get drunk or have a fight in the middle of the afternoon. Who needs green beer when you can watch an honest-to-goodness hockey fight?

Gloves off!

Pacifists will, I’m sure, claim that hockey is a brutal and bloody sport…and at least half of that statement is correct. If you’re a mother looking for a safe and quiet sport for your little darling, hockey probably isn’t the best choice. As graphically illustrated last month when Florida Panther’s forward Richard Zednik had his carotid artery sliced by the errant skate of one of his teammates, most of the bloodshed in hockey doesn’t come from fights. Instead, most of the bloodshed in hockey happens as an accidental by-product of a game that’s played by intensely passionate players on the slipperiest of playing fields. If you’re skating with sticks on blades, already you’re in a precarious place; when you add two teams’ worth of players intent on doing just about anything to get their puck in the other team’s goal, you just upped the blood ante. Throwing a fight into the mix is the least of your worries.

Gloves and helmets off

And yet, the bare-fisted fisticuffs J and I witnessed on Saturday between the Bruins’ Shawn Thornton and the Flyers’ Riley Cote was the first honest-to-goodness hockey fight we’ve seen in the half dozen Bruins games we’ve attended this season. In the NHL at least, on-ice fights are tightly regulated events. Yes, fights happen; yes, referees stand back and allow them. And yes, both teammates and spectators cheer wildly for their side in any given fight. But all that isn’t to say there are no holds barred in a hockey fight.

If you watch enough hockey fights–and yes, they do replay classic fights alongside highlight-reel goals as a way of pumping the crowd at any given NHL game–you’ll notice an unwritten code that players follow. Fighters drop their sticks rather than using them as weapons, for instance, and they drop their protective gloves for the same reason: the punches that fall in a hockey fight are bare-fisted, not weighted with heavy protective gear. Raising a hand against a referee is strictly verboten during a fight, and strict rules prohibit teammates from joining the melee. The moment either fighter falls to the ice–or the moment any official decides a particular fight has gone long enough–referees descend to haul both participants to their respective penalty boxes, and even the most feisty fighters comply. As soon as any given fight has ended, participants accept their penalties and the game continues: business as usual.

Break it up, gentlemen!

I’d argue that an occasional hockey fight helps minimize the overall amount of violence exhibited in the game. Because there’s an orchestrated (albeit not officially sanctioned) manner in which players can vent frustrations by engaging in momentary fisticuffs and then being done with it, grudges don’t linger for long in hockey. Instead of insisting that rivals somehow magically get along, professional hockey protocol admits that tempers sometimes fly and an occasional tussle can serve as an important safety valve. Compared to the kind of injuries hockey players are used to receiving from the exertion of play itself, an occasional black eye or bloodied nose seems a small price to pay for a game that on most days manages to be intensely physical without erupting into complete lawlessness.

Can't we all just get along?

I can’t help but wonder whether there’s a social lesson to be learned from the unwritten rules that govern hockey fights. Instead of expecting two teams to compete without conflict, the ethics of hockey fights allow disagreement and heated emotion. You don’t have to love your rivals; you simply have to play–and sometimes fight–fair. In these days after Barack Obama distanced himself from Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s fighting words about race in America, I can’t help but wonder whether we all can truly get along if our attempts to be politically correct stifle honest conversation.

The world’s a lot bigger than a hockey rink, but passions on the slippery playing field called “life” sometimes get heated. Rev. Wright was right in many of his oft-quoted comments: growing up as a fatherless black boy in America is different from growing up as a privileged white woman, and presumably nobody ever has called Hillary a “nigger.” You don’t have to agree with or even like Rev. Wright’s comments; in the hockey rink called “America,” though, you have to respect his right to make them. What concerns me most about the Rev. Wright’s comments is the pressure put upon Barack Obama to calm or even erase the upset they caused. If our politically correct attempts to “make nice” prohibit honest dialogue about things like race, is it any wonder that long pent-up frustrations sometimes erupt into something more dangerous than a black eye or bloodied nose?

Like two zambonis crossing in the night...

In her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich argues that professional sporting events are one of the few remaining places in modern America where the public and communal expression of joy is permitted. I’d go a step or two further to wonder what’s wrong with a society where professional sporting events are one of the few remaining places where it’s okay to disagree and even lose one’s temper, the expression of fighting words being seen as a natural and even necessary part of the game. We all want to live in a society where we are judged by the content of our character rather than the color of our Zambonis, but still: without the ability to speak freely and even fight, how will we ever learn how to all get along?

Click here for more photos from Saturday’s Bruins game. We might credit the luck of the Irish for the outcome of the game, the Bruins winning in overtime after scoring a game-tying goal in the last minute of regulation play. Wooooo!