A League of Fans Special Feature
Paul Busch is a passionate hockey fan. He’s also passionately opposed to fighting in hockey, so much so that he started his own website on the topic: It’s Not Part of the Game.
Busch, a typical Canadian kid, grew up playing neighborhood and minor league hockey. Later he played in a variety of corporate leagues. He’s remained a student of the game but is troubled by the fighting and cheap shots he sees too often in the game he loves.
Ken Reed, League of Fans’ sports policy director, recently interviewed Busch.
Reed: How did your website “It’s Not Part of the Game” come about and how old is it?
Busch: It will be two years old this December. The impetus was a New York Times article by John Branch on Derek Boogaard that I came across. It was part of an excellent three-part series. What really struck me from that article was that when he was 15, his coach encouraged him to take boxing lessons because he believed that was the only way Boogaard was going to get to the NHL. I know that stuff goes on and it really bothers me.
I’ve never liked fighting. Always hated it. And that series by Branch was what spurred me to start the website. I just feel that fighting takes the focus away from a great game, it interrupts the flow, there’s just so much good about the game in terms of passing and hitting, and goaltending …
I don’t think there are any positives to fighting in hockey. With the website, I basically just wanted to try and address all the falsehoods that people put forth to support fighting.
Reed: Fighting isn’t an accepted part of the game of hockey in other countries; it’s not part of Olympic hockey or college hockey in the United States. Can you explain the cultural factors that allowed fighting to become such an ingrained part of the NHL?
Busch: I know it goes back well before this, and I’d have to guess at what happened in the junior ranks at the time, but I saw the Philadelphia Flyers have some success in the 70’s with a fighting mentality and style of play. Everyone remembers they won two Stanley Cups in the 1970’s with that style but they forget that the Montreal Canadians won many more Stanley Cups during the same time period and they hardly fought at all. That fact kind of gets glossed over. You certainly didn’t have to fight to be successful in the 70’s, or at any time during the history of the game.
Reed: Do you think the NHL is concerned about fighting and how it’s starting to impact the future of the game, i.e., the fact fewer kids are playing hockey because of fighting and the dangers of concussions?
Busch: I think there’s a huge raft of parents that are steering their kids away from the game. I’ve seen studies about it in Canada. They don’t want their kids involved the way the game is today.
Reed: If you had the opportunity to get on an elevator up to the 25th floor with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, what would be your quick “no fighting in hockey” elevator speech be?
Busch: Well, I don’t focus that much on the concussion issue in my arguments against fighting. There are a lot of people that do a better job with that issue than I do. However, according to the league, fighting causes 8% of concussions in the NHL. That fact alone is enough to take immediate action and ban fighting – especially for a league that claims to be concerned about concussions.
Besides that, I would tell the commissioner that putting an enforcer in the game takes a spot away from a skilled player. You’re keeping talented hockey players out of the game by giving roster spots to these guys.
Third, I’d tell him that all the arguments supporting fighting are false. They’re based on myths. For example, the policing argument. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, enforcers were at their peak, that was their heyday, but the game wasn’t played any cleaner, it wasn’t any safer. If you look at all types of penalty minutes from that period, they were at record highs. It was the most violent time period in history. So, the policing argument in favor of fighting doesn’t hold up. The stats show that quite clearly.
Reed: What’s another myth about fighting in hockey?
Busch: Well, one of them is about how fighting changes momentum in a game. Supposedly, it gives a team a big momentum boost. It doesn’t. I’ve got links to three different studies on my website on this topic. Two of the studies show that there’s a very small lift after a fight for about three minutes. The other study shows no impact at all. Even with the studies that show a very small lift, teams would have to fight 30-60 times a year to get just one goal from the small momentum boost!
Reed: What makes Don Cherry, the former Boston Bruins coach and leader of the fighting proponents, tick?
Busch: Well, for a long time he’s put out a line of videos called “Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Hockey.” One comes out every year. They feature all the big hits and all the big fights. He’s always been a proponent of that type of game and culture. Plus, he coached the Bruins when they were called the Big Bad Bruins. He’s always loved the “tough” guys. Last year, he said something like “If you don’t like the fighting in hockey go watch tennis.” I guess that kind of explains his mentality.
Reed: Why can’t NHL execs, coaches, players, and fans take a look at European hockey, Olympic hockey, and American college hockey and see that fighting isn’t necessary, and, in fact, actually takes away from the beauty of the game?
Busch: They’ve all grown up in junior hockey. They’ve all played on teams where an enforcer was there with them. They came into the NHL and saw there was an enforcer or two on every team. Until the dinosaurs die out of the game and move on we won’t see much change. They don’t see a problem. They don’t perceive that there’s an issue with the game. They’ve all grown up with the game this way. It’s all status quo to them. They’re insiders. Until they understand that there’s a problem on the outside, nothing will change.
You still have coaches at the junior level, telling players they can’t skate, and if they want to get to the NHL they’ll need to learn how to beat people up. They’ll need to take boxing lessons, etc. There are still too many coaches at the junior level who think they’re helping players get to the NHL by teaching them how to fight.
Reed: If you were named commissioner of the NHL tomorrow, what would be the first thing you’d do?
Busch: Well, obviously, I’d start being more progressive on fighting because I think it’s just a waste of time. I think you have to hold the players accountable, and the teams and coaches accountable as well.
The USHL put in some rules last year that I thought were just great. They addressed not only fighting but cheap shots. So, penalties like slashing, boarding, elbowing, etc., are tracked, along with fighting. They basically track all penalties in which there’s an intent to injure. When players get to a certain point with these types of penalties, they’re called in for an interview, along with their coach.
It’s those types of penalties that lead to fighting. So, if we can deal with those types of penalties, the fighting will begin to drop off.
Reed: Well, let’s hope someone doesn’t have to die first …
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
A League of Fans Special Report