Friday, June 01, 2007

Of Sidesteps and Red Herrings Part III

It's been awhile but now that I have some more downtime, I can devote more energy and thoughts to dismantling the lame arguments that the Ultimate Fighting on Ice (UFOI) Fans use to equivocate the thuggery that mars the NHL.

In Part I we talked about the failure of the NHL's Front Office to properly police the game and get serious about cracking down on the cheapshot artists. This is especially enlightening considering the brouhaha the NBA dealt with a couple of weeks ago now.

In Part II we got all over the UFOI Fans for insulting our intelligence by attempting to claim that some of the ugliest incidents in the history of the NHL had nothing whatsoever to do with fighting.

Today we deal with the UFOI set's biggest red herring and explain to you how because of that the UFOI fans are actually advocating less hitting in hockey. That's right, less hitting. Now if you're a Neanderthal who can't watch a hockey game that doesn't have any fighting in it, you might want to skip the rest of this post because you won't be able to follow along and understand what is being said. However if you aren't mortally offended by a game that your teams loses 6-0 with no fights then please read on.

The most basic argument for getting fighting out of the game is for the protection of the players. Twice this past season we were treated to players being carried off the ice on stretchers after fights (and injecting untold amounts of "passion," "emotion," and "intensity" into the game they were in) and some people began to question the safety of the players. How could fighting "protect" the players when the players fighting were getting injured regularly by the fights themselves?

The UFOI fans knee-jerk response to the injury question is their red herring about the equipment. The leader of the UFOI set, Don Cherry, has been leading this campaign for years. Of course, notice that clip right there was in discussion of the Chris Simon incident so you really have to wonder what shoulder and elbow pads has to do with that because Simon didn't hit Hollweg with his shoulder or his elbow. Simon hit him with his stick and it wasn't an elbow or shoulder from Hollweg that sent Simon into his blind rage. Elbow and shoulder pads had nothing to do with the Marty McSorely or Todd Bertuzzi incidents either.

But if we take Don Cherry's advice and go back to the "soft" equipment to protect these players; we're going to end up with LESS hitting in the game. How you may ask? Well first of all, a vast majority of hockey players who get cleaned out (legally or otherwise) oftentimes end up very risk adverse. That's just human nature and Richard Zednik is a prime recent example of this. Ever since he took a clothesline from Kyle McLaren in 2002 playoffs, Zednik hasn't been willing to cut to the front of the net anymore. He skates down to the goal line by the post and tries to finesse the puck in from there and shies away from contact. While a hard charging game was hardly ever Zednik's style, he was willing to go to the front of the net and pay the price for doing so. And if you want to be a xenophobe and brand him as a "Soft Euro;" then please explain All-American Bobby Carpenter. Carpenter put up 50 goals in 1984-1985 and never again topped 25 after that. Why? Carpenter stopped going to the front of the net where he knew he was going to get punished.

Futhermore, softening up the equipment will not lead to less injuries for the players taking the hits. NHL players today are bigger, stronger, and faster than they have ever been. Part of the reason why the fighters are getting injured is because of this. So lessening the amount of protection every player is wearing on the ice isn't going to mean "safer" hits. But on the contrary the hitters will also become more vulnerable to injury as well.

Take for instance Ol' Puddin Head Erica Lindros. This was a guy who gave himself one of his many concussions when he was applying a hit on another player. If hitters are going to injure themselves more and more when applying their trade, what makes us think that they'll continue to do so? Lindros doesn't throw as many hits as he used to because of his concussion problems and he too can't be dismissed as a "Soft Euro." Scott Stevens also used to run around and hit everything that moved when he was younger but as he got up in age, he was decidedly more selective in the hits he threw. Take away the protection from the players, and they'll be less likely to throw hits because it won't take them very long to figure out they can extend their careers by being less physical.

But the ones who should really balk at this are the owners. Imagine for a second that you're Ted Leonsis. You have an angry, restless, and perennially unsatisfied fanbase. You have a budding superstar in A.O. You have an emerging star in Alexander Semin and you're banking a large amount of your future on Nicklas Backstrom making those guys even better than they already are on their own. You're hoping to get at least 10 years out of each of these players on your team; more if you can manage to do it under the current salary structures. Do you want to put these players in cheap equipment or the most protective stuff you can buy? Of course there's the double edge sword that the protective equipment for one player turns into a deadly weapon for another but are you willing to take the risk that the soft foam of the old-school elbow pad will protect an A.O. as he goes crashing into the boards after losing edge skating at full speed?

I wouldn't and I think it is safe to say that Ted doesn't want to take that gamble either. As a matter of fact, you occasionally hear about how the Philadelphia Flyers ruffle the feathers of grizzled vets by demanding that they use the newer more protective equipment. Think of the millions they spent and lost on Erica Lindros because they couldn't keep him healthy. He was supposed to be the next "great one" and lead the Flyers to untold heights of Stanley Cup dynasties. He never delivered in part because he couldn't stay healthy.

Softening up the equipment though will ensure that more players get injured on clean and legal contact. As the injuries mount, the level of hitting will decrease and remember folks, the UFOI Fans think there isn't enough hitting in hockey today to begin with. But if they had their way, there would be even less in a vain attempt to salvage the circus sideshow that other professional sports somehow manage to create "passion," "emotion," and "intensity" without.

The crusade for the no-touch icing rule somewhat falls into this category. The UFOI fans call for it in an attempt to demonstrate concern for the health of hockey players when they aren't grousing about the equipment. Icing races are pure and simple hustle plays and CW says that the UFOI set would appreciate those kinds of blue collar plays. Furthermore going to a no-touch icing rule will make the game more European. This is like throwing Holy Water on a Vampire when it comes to UFOI fans. (For the record, I'm ambivalent about the touch-up icing rule. I don't have a strong opinion either way.) But please don't think I'm accusing these guys of being consistent.

So there you have it folks. All of the UFOI Fans most popular and common comebacks, retorts, and red herrings have been shot down. If any these guys can conjure up anything new I'll take it on as conditions warrant. But the simple fact that the UFOI Fans are so defensive about fighting in the first place is the first indication that they realize that there is something wrong with it to begin with. Try as they might, most of them can't overcome their own consciences.



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