An Ode to the NHL’s Pugilists

Consider the last time you felt personally wronged. Was there an avenue of recourse available to you? Did the slight leave you feeling jilted, jostled, or unfairly judged? Did it involve a 200-pound goon on ice skates body-slamming you?

Hockey players are just like you and I, you see. They demand their white-gloved, pistol-drawn satisfaction. They suffer not the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, but grab justice by the scruff of its jersey and bash their knuckles against it until it complies.

Some say there is no place in hockey for the fight. Some say it’s a shameful vestige of a bygone dark era of buffoonery.

In reality, it’s the final tenuous thread holding together the milky hologram we call society, and the last micron-narrow barrier holding back the lapping tides of lawlessness from our shores of civility and reason.

Hockey is a sport in which 6’9”, 270-pound defenseman Zdeno Chara shares the ice with 5’6”, 170-pound forward Martin St. Louis. Now, Chara has mastered any number of techniques with which he can dislodge the puck from Mr. St. Louis. He can poke it, prod it, lift it, or generally persuade it to leave. Or, he can simply smash into St. Louis with the seismic force of a Mack Truck impacting a whoopee cushion full of lettuce. Which of these methods would you reckon is more effective, but also more inherently dangerous?

Similarly, hockey is a sport in which the dazzling sticky-limbed dexterity of soccer and basketball is given a big middle finger and goosed in the ass by being performed atop ice skates. Skill players dangle, drag, deke and dodge with the puck, sidestepping sticks, skates, smacks, and seismic activity. Performing these skills requires focus and attention, and again: defensemen are allowed to simply wallop you when you aren’t looking. They can clean you out like a dorm fridge on moving day.

So how is decorum maintained in what would by all ostensible appearances seem to be a lawless frontier state bordering full-on Mad Max dysphoria?

It’s fighting. Fighting keeps the order.

When a dump truck of a defenseman takes a run at a finch of a forward; when a busy puck-carrier gets blindsided by a brutal boarding penalty, when the game is made even one iota more dangerous than it already is and than it strictly needs to be, fighting helps keep players safe. It is the speed limit and the highway patrolman, the jury and the executioner, the rod and the staff.

Take Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals this year, in which Philadelphia’s Brayden Schenn waited until after play had been blown dead–and Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov wasn’t paying attention–to slink up behind him and cross-check him clean in the ACL. The referee was none the wiser, otherwise distracted. Fortunately, Kuznetsov was not hurt, but he could have been, and in a gruesome way, and in a manner that has absolutely nothing to do with “playing hard” or “finishing your check.”

Enter Game 5. Before the puck could even be dropped for the opening faceoff, Washington’s TJ Oshie, a bona-fide star and USA Olympic hero (insert fireworks and F-22 flyovers here), could be seen lined up next to Schenn, nudging him and asking, “Are you ready? You ready to go?” Sure enough, no sooner had the puck left the referee’s hand than Oshie and Schenn had dropped the gloves and were going at it, throwing haymaker after haymaker in one another’s general direction. Both managed to connect a time or two, but if you’ve ever been punched in the face, that’s enough. This jungle law is the only thing keeping a player like Schenn from going out and cross-checking someone else’s knee tomorrow night. The fear of retribution keeps good players safe and bad players honest. It is the nuclear deterrent, and mutually-assured destruction is the game’s gap-toothed peacekeeper.

So the next time someone tells you there’s no place in hockey for the fight, ask them if there’s any place in society for consequences.

Or just punch them.

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Jason Rogers can write a mean hook–left or right. You should follow him on Twitter.

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