Thursday, April 19, 2007

Brad May solves the fighting debate

My initial reaction to the news of Anaheim Duck forward Brad May’s sucker punch to Minnesota Wild rearguard Kim Johnsson was like every other hockey fan’s- disgust, it being a graceless act made even more gutless by the fact Johnsson isn’t known for committing dirty acts himself. As a result of his actions- occurring late in Anaheim’s 4-1 loss to Minnesota that averted a Duck sweep of the Wild- May was suspended by the National Hockey League for three games- the equivalent of nine in the regular season- although Wild fans may feel like it’s not enough considering an important part of their defence may be shelved for what is their most important game of the season in Game 5. May’s hit also called to mind when Tie Domi elbowed Scott Niedermayer in the 2001 Eastern Conference Semi-finals, and that hit cost Domi the rest of the playoffs, and although Domi’s hit was far more serious, the resulting injury is not- both Johnsson and Niedermayer were concussed as a result of their actions, so one feels that May might have gotten off lucky.

Then, after a minute, the thought occurred to me- “wait a minute, wasn’t Derek Boogaard playing?” Not only that, it’s not like Boogaard wasn’t noticed, as the Duck commentators couldn’t stop talking about how he was getting away with murder. Never mind their biases- if the Duck commentators dislike what Boogaard is doing, you can be certain so too is Duck coach Randy Carlyle. Boogaard, you may recall, is the Wild’s enforcer, meant to “protect” his team’s star players by acting as a deterrent to any would-be cheap-shot artists; and, at 6’7”, 270lbs., Boogaard is as threatening as they come. However, not even his presence was enough to deter May from taking a shot at Johnsson, one of the Wild’s star players, meaning that either Boogaard didn’t do his job correctly or May couldn’t care less.

Why is this important? Well, this season NHL vice-president Colin Campbell ignited a maelstrom when he posited the question about whether or not fighting belonged in the NHL. He asked this after Colton Orr knocked Todd Fedoruk unconscious in a fight, but the debate had been raging for weeks prior to that. The league had just witnessed Cam Janssen’s hit on Tomas Kaberle that prompted Toronto Star writer Damien Cox to write a piece denigrating fighting, because Janssen and his ilk are the main culprits of dirty hits, as well as the Pittsburgh Penguins acquire George Laraque and Gary Roberts to provide “protection” for Sidney Crosby weeks after he was assaulted in a game against the Montreal Canadiens. However, up to this point, none of those aforementioned incidents occurred when any of those players had a “tough guy” to “answer to” because, as the claim goes, when there’s an enforcer to answer to, players wouldn’t run around taking cheap shots at opponents because then they’d have “someone to answer to” in a fight.

However, after May did what he did, it became clearly obvious that this line of argument became nonsensical rather quickly. Here was a situation where fighting proponents could finally show their adversaries that enforcers do, in fact, protect the star players, and the experiment failed tremendously. Since Boogaard was dressed- and playing- in theory, May wouldn’t have taken a shot at Johnsson, because Boogaard was supposed to protect him. As stated before, it’s not like no one noticed Boogaard on the ice, and Boogaard did play following May’s hit- so despite the policeman being on patrol, a criminal act still occurred.

Now, I had always believed that the idea of the enforcer was a ludicrous idea anyway- intimidation is only as strong as the intimidator, so as long as there’s an even playing field in terms of enforcers, then the system works. However, have just one guy who’s over and above the other enforcers- or simply doesn’t care that enforcers are there- and the system fails. The latter is precisely what happened in Game 4- May knew Boogaard was present, but he didn’t care. Perhaps he thought he could also take Boogaard in a fight- although considering that Boogaard is half a foot and 50 pounds heavier May probably didn’t stand a chance. Regardless, the fact still remains that Boogaard simply wasn’t intimidating enough.

Of course, no doubt May’s actions are going to be forgotten in the coming weeks, stowed away as yet another ugly incident in a sport that’s full of them- from Eddie Shore’s hit on Ace Bailey to Rick Jodzio’s hit on Marc Tardif to Todd Bertuzzi’s hit on Steve Moore (which, by the way, was a retaliatory hit for Moore’s hit on Markus Naslund). Yet there may be the faint hope that hockey might see what May does and view it as the last straw and finally clean up the sport, which receives way too much negative attention when it receives any attention in the first place. However that would require a change in hockey thinking, which is not likely to happen with hockey people believing that “fighting draws fans” (never mind that gymnastics outdraws the NHL); but then again, how much lower do ratings have to fall and how much higher do negative feelings have to rise before hockey people come to their senses? Hopefully it will come soon- because hockey can’t afford to fall any further.


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