Retro Relapse: The Impact of Goonery On the Modern Game

RETRO RELAPSE is a series of older articles from various places where I used to write before Talking Pulp.

*Written in 2016.

At this point, everyone should be aware of the Dennis Wideman incident from the other night.

If you aren’t, in a nutshell, he took a hard hit, which was missed by the refs. He responded by violently knocking down linesman Don Henderson. Now while Wideman says it wasn’t intentional, the video evidence is pretty damning. And whether or not he was dazed and meant to hit an opposing player, he still struck a referee and it was still a massive illegal hit even if he did strike a player.

Between this incident by the Calgary Flames, often times aggressive, defenseman and the recent sucker punch thrown by the Los Angeles Kings’ Milan Lucic, which also hit a ref, there has been a recent trend of Slap Shot style goonery.

The thing is, Slap Shot is a slapstick comedy movie and it is also about 40 years old. The NHL isn’t a backyard wrestling federation and has evolved significantly since those days. But some players still seem to draw inspiration from the fictional Hanson Bros. and the Charlestown Chiefs.

And sure, all the hockey purists, myself included, love a certain level of aggression in the sport. I will always defend fighting as part of the sport’s tradition and heritage. I’ve also seen the negative effects of what happens when you don’t allow fighting in hockey by witnessing ridiculous hits in the college and junior levels of the game where players have no real outlet to blow off steam other than smashing a guy into the boards more violently than necessary.

That is the point of fighting. It is to blow off steam or to let two men on the ice settle their beef with a bit of gentlemanly fisticuffs instead of an all out war on the human bodies of everyone in their vicinity.

At the end of the day, however, you never, ever hit an official.

But everything I am saying here is agreed upon by most, except for Neanderthals and pacifists.

I fully support the hefty suspension on Wideman and I think most people do. In fact, I may even say that it is too light. But that is up to the League to decide and they have.

If the NHL doesn’t make examples out of guys like Wideman and Lucic, things like this will become more commonplace. If that were to happen, there’d be a lot more push back by those opposed to hockey violence. More of these situations would add credibility to their argument. And even though these incidents aren’t true examples of what fighting in hockey is, it won’t matter. If the game is perceived as too violent, it is only a matter of time before the NHL has to crackdown.

If the NHL does feel as if its hand is forced to crackdown, we are looking at a league without fighting or a very diet form of fighting. The effects of that will create more violence in how the game is played on the ice. There will be harder hits and more injuries. This will have a bigger negative impact on the sport and be truly counterproductive to the solution pushed forward by those with these biases and criticisms. It’s like politics, some big change is born with good intentions but finds itself plagued by unintended consequences. Although, it doesn’t take a genius to see the writing on the wall.

The game is already evolving away from fighting anyway. I think it will always exist, to a degree, unless it is completely banned. But the old school giant goon of yesteryear is having a much harder time finding a job in the modern NHL. Teams would rather fill their rosters spots with snipers and d-men that can actually play defense. Also, the game is getting faster each year and big thugs can’t keep up with the action. And all this is reflected in the fact that fights have been decreasing each year.

Unfortunate things happen in hockey but it’s the same in all sports. Regardless, if it is caused by a few knuckleheaded individuals doesn’t matter to the busybodies. And that is why examples have to be made.

I just hope other players learn from incidents like these and have more respect for the game, their livelihood, the players and the officials on the ice.