A few years ago in this corner of The Telegram, I confessed my fondness for hockey fights.
“Bless me, Father Puck, for I have sinned: I love a scrap on the ice.”
Now I don’t want to say this too loudly, and I’m not sure I want too many people to know, but I just might be having a change of heart.
First of all, though, a bit of background: my affection had its seminal moments, I’m sure, way back in the ’50s when, as a tyke at Gander Gardens, I watched members of the Buchans Miners or the Conception Bay Cee-bees or any one of the other senior hockey league teams at the time duke it out with my hometown heroes.
The hundreds of fans who jammed into every corner of that old rink were on their feet, screaming with unabashed pleasure, and, naturally enough, I joined in. No one suggested there was anything wrong with the rackets. Or that there was anything wrong with relishing them, for that matter.
And years later, as a young adult, I thoroughly enjoyed hockey fights at the St. John's Stadium.
One that really stands out was the bench-clearing brawl between the Barrie (Ontario) Flyers and the St. John's Caps during the Allan Cup Playoffs, a Pier Eight brawl that left a number of players as bloody as a clubbed harp seal, a knock down/drag out slugfest that any fan who was there that afternoon will never forget. (I was recently reminded of that particular bloody fight by, of all people, Telegram columnist Susan Flannagan, who normally writes about warm, cuddly family matters, but last week penned a piece about the vicious Barrie-St. John’s series, with a quote in her headline from a player of that era, Hubert Hutton, of “drive ’er, Hubert” fame: “We lost the games, but we won the fights.”)
Around that same time in my life, and right up until just a few years ago, I witnessed many an entertaining racket at NHL games I attended with my father in New York and Philadelphia, the best of the scraps coming during the time of the Broad Street Bullies of Philly and the Big Bad Bruins of Boston.
And as the number of televised hockey games increased over the decades, I rose from my couch on innumerable occasions in pure delight whenever a fight started.
I’ve never felt the need to feel defensive about my fondness for a good hockey fight, but I would point out, just for the record, that the rackets were not the reason I became an avid hockey fan.
It wasn’t the reason I tuned into games on television, or saw as many as I could in person. I simply loved the sport. I loved the game of hockey. A fight, though, always seemed like a slice of decadent dessert served in the middle of the meal.
And don’t get me wrong about what some might interpret as an enlightened view, late in life, of hockey fights. I haven’t had some sort of epiphany, nor have I crawled into the sack with those who would condemn any sort of violence in a sport that is inherently violent.
As a matter of fact, if two players have slashed and face-wiped and knocked each other all over the ice for a couple of periods, then decide to drop and the gloves and have a go at each other, I’d still enjoy every nasty second.
But those sorts of scraps seem few and far between these days.
What we mostly get are a couple of goons who can barely skate asking each other during a face-off, almost politely: “Do ya wanna go?”
What ensues is, for the most part, a laborious jersey-tug for a minute or two and sometimes a reciprocal pat on the head and a loving note of departure enroute to the penalty box: “Good job.”
Caveman Don Cherry, an embarrassment at the best of times, would still sing its praises, of course, “just a couple of good old boys from Kitchener having a little go.” To me, though, those sorts of “staged” fights are no better than an event right out of Wrestlemania. They’re also boring as hell, and too often destroy the flow of a good game.
While watching the exquisite hockey at the Olympics for the past couple of weeks, I suddenly realized just how little I missed the fights.
The hockey games were just wonderful; a fight would have amounted to a violation of hockey purity. Those last two games, wins for Canada over the United States and Sweden, were as close to perfection as any games I’ve ever seen. And there was not even a hint of a scrap.
To be perfectly honest, and perhaps I’m being a hypocrite here, but I wouldn’t like to see fights banned completely from the NHL. I think there’s still room, as I said earlier, for two guys nagging each other shift after shift to drop the gloves and smack each other around for a minute or two.
And a vicious and dirty check often begs for retaliation.
But these “staged” fights have to go. Someday. Someway. Somehow.
And if they do, I, for one, will not miss them.
The Olympics taught me that much.
Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.