The simple truth about the place of head shots and fights – not to mention such nonsense as finger-biting, taunting, name-calling, elbow-throwing, jersey-tugging and assorted other excesses – is that it should have ended years ago.
Various entertaining and exciting pro hockey games – the deciding game between Boston and Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Finals, for example – have demonstrated that the NHL can produce an exciting product absent mayhem and concussions. That particular exciting product transpired without even a penalty.
But every time somebody gets rocked the way Nathan Horton of the Bruins did in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals, the old debate begins anew. On one side – the loud side that doesn’t much like to listen – are those who feel hockey without a body count can be characterized by two words, “namby” and “pamby.” Their reasoning is that lots of the people who buy tickets to games and watch the NHL on TV would not do so if they could not confidently anticipate that players would be knocked over and out.
If that’s true … if pro hockey currently needs goons and cracked crowns, then it’s past time for the sport to educate its followers and lift them out of the realm occupied by fans of pro wrestling, cockfighting, and muggings.
Pro hockey is a fast, contact sport played by ever-bigger and stronger guys. So is pro basketball. When was the last time you saw an NBA player trying to pull an opponent’s jersey over his head? Every down in the NFL features huge men pushing and shoving each other, and lots of plays end with somebody getting slammed to the ground. But nobody in the football establishment claims that fights between the players or more blindside hits would increase interest among fans.
Nathan Horton was the victim of unnecessary violence, but despite the tentative moves the NHL has made to limit same – including the suspension of the guy who hit him – the shot that ended Horton’s season was not remarkable in the current context of the game. Until hits like that one – and the fights, and the other witless excesses that have characterized the NHL for many years – come to be regarded as indefensible rather than as necessary and even righteous – the debate that should have long ago been settled will rumble on.