Assault on Ice: How the NHL Separates Itself From the Rest

While I enjoyed my dinner at the District’s JT Schmid’s restaurant a few weeks ago, I occasionally glanced at the assortment of sporting events being televised. My options were Major League Baseball, high school football or a preseason National Hockey League game. With the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants locked in a pennant race, I gravitated to the baseball game. That is, until a fight broke out. Not in the restaurant, but in the hockey game. As conversations continued at the table, I zoned out. When asked a question, I replied, “Hold on, this dude’s gonna deck this guy.”

Tyson versus Holyfield III had just broken out on ice. I watched as the two players disregarded their sticks and helmets, threw gloves to the ice and raised their dukes in an unusually rapid pace. As the blades on their skates circled around, a hockey game had suddenly made way for a boxing match. While the opponents felt each other out with tentative jabs, the referees stood nearby waiting to intervene if one of the fighters scored a takedown. Then all at once, the blows started to land.

Two men with broken smiles psychotically grinned as their faces were ravaged. Without consideration for their own well-being, their only concern was inflicting wounds upon each other. They threw down haymakers until gracelessly tripping to the icy surface. The referees rushed in, ushering the players to their respective penalty boxes for five-minute lengths. As the crowd roared, the puck dropped once again and the game resumed. That was my cue to continue eating.

In athletics, players are proud of the teammates going to battle alongside them. With an eye-for-an-eye mentality, retaliations are common across the board in professional athletics, but none blatantly allow assault to take place without serious punishment like hockey does.

When a hockey fight breaks out, a fan watching at home can almost hear the announcer move to the edge of his seat as he does his best Howard Kossel impression. He doesn’t scoff at the spectacle, rather encourages it.

“With that left hand he’s very experienced,” one announcer explained, “He’ll throw a couple of short uppercuts to the chin with his left, until he has the chance to release the right.” If the same encounter were taking place outside of a bar, the two men wouldn’t be sitting in penalty boxes, but in the back of cop cars with handcuffs on.

What makes the game of hockey so unique is its complete nonchalance to the violence that is taking place. For other sports, there are ways to gain redemption besides starting a melee.

Take baseball for instance. Although there have been numerous instances of batters charging the mound throughout history, the skirmishes of baseball occur much less frequently than those in hockey. If Dodgers’ pitcher Clayton Kershaw plunks St. Louis Cardinals’ slugger Albert Pujols in the ribs, it is Pujols’ pitcher’s duty to retaliate.

As an unwritten rule in baseball, players are expected to defend their teammates. So, in the bottom of the inning, if Cardinals’ pitcher Chris Carpenter drills Dodgers’ first baseman James Loney in the hip, the teams are even. The umpire will then likely point to each dugout and threaten both sides, meaning that the next pitcher to bean a batter would be ejected from the contest. I’d say that punishment is a tad more severe than hockey’s “go sit in timeout for five minutes and think about what you’ve done” admonitions.

In the NBA, if the Celtics’ Paul Pierce commits a hard foul on Kobe Bryant, Kobe’s teammate, Ron Artest, will likely be looking to settle a score. As for refereeing, it’s even stricter than baseball. Whether the intent is there or not, sometimes even incidental elbows have resulted in an ejection.

With players jockeying for position on the ball throughout contests, a soccer player can, at any point, be just one or two slide tackles away from hitting the showers early with a red card.

So why does Canada’s beloved sport separate itself from the others? In a game that has often struggled to catch Americans’ attention, the brawl is one avenue for players to seek revenge, and for the NHL to diminish its apathetic viewership. Sadly, for some fans, it’s the only reason to watch.

I once shared these sentiments as a spectator in the comforts of my home, until I attended my first Anaheim Ducks game years ago. A brawl can entice novice fans to attend, but it’s the talent on display that has the ability to keep them coming back. The beauty in the sport can only truly be captured in person. Some diehard fanatics may be able to watch the game on TV, but I find it dull. In person, an observer has the ability to witness gifted athletes precisely pass from stick to stick on an impulse.

Keeping my balance on ice skates is a challenge in itself, but these guys can stop on a dime, sprint like Apolo Ohno on a straightaway and cut through defenders like running backs, all while maintaining control of a stick and brandishing blades beneath the soles of their feet. It’s a sight to see.

For those who haven’t caught on, give it a chance. After all, the 2007 Stanley Cup champion Ducks make their home just 15 miles from the UC Irvine campus. Who knows, you might even be able to witness a man assault another man on ice without having to post bail.