Our love-hate relationship with hockey fights



Turtle Day was 20 years ago this month. Unless you’re a hockey fan or live in Michigan, you probably think that involves reptiles with shells on their backs.

Ask a hockey fan from Michigan about Turtle Day and he or she will tell you about the day Claude Lemieux got what was coming to him.

The best hockey rivalry in the last two or three decades began when Lemieux smashed Kris Draper’s face against the boards with a highly questionable hit during a 1996 Western Conference playoffs between Lemieux’s Colorado Avalanche and Draper’s Detroit Red Wings. Draper, who published a first-person column about the incident and its aftermath this month in The Player’s Tribune, was left with one side of his face caved in and the Red Wings were left looking for revenge.

To rub salt in Draper’s wounds, Colorado went on to win the series, leaving the Red Wings — consistently one of the top teams in the league at that time — having come up empty again.

It wasn’t until the next season — March 16, 1997, to be exact — that the Red Wings exacted their revenge in one of the better hockey fights of all time. Gloves littered the ice. Both goalies joined the fray. And Darren McCarty pounded on Lemieux, who lay balled up on the ice in a defensive posture that hockey players call “turtling.”

According to McCarty, that’s actually not what Lemieux was doing — he says Lemieux later told him the first punch actually knocked him out momentarily — but the legend still lives in Michigan. McCarty, now retired, says he’s asked more about that fight than anything else he did in his career, which included three Stanley Cups.

Why do so many of us remember a fight that happened 20 years ago? Why are there stories still being written about it? Why is McCarty so revered in Michigan for it?

Yes, it may be viewed as an important factor in the Red Wings finally breaking out of a playoff funk and winning their first Stanley Cup championship in 40 years that same season — the first of a run of three in six years under Scotty Bowman. Yes, it fueled what became a great NHL rivalry.

But underneath it all, there’s this: Most hockey fans love to see a fight — especially when it involves justice.

Fights have long been how hockey, in a sense, polices itself. Yes, there’s the penalty box for those who break the rules. But there was also the enforcer for those transgressions the refs don’t catch.

Take a gratuitous shot at a team’s star player and there would be retribution. Everybody in the building knew it was coming. And many of them couldn’t wait to see it.

For the fans, hockey fights are the train wreck that we wait alongside the tracks to see, half-hoping it doesn’t happen but wanting to have a good view in case it does. We know we shouldn’t glorify this type of gratuitous violence. But we want to see it anyway.

Hockey’s not the only sport that has this type of phenomenon. Racing fans don’t want to see a driver get hurt, but if there’s a major wreck in Sunday’s race they know what they’ll still be talking about on Monday. Football fans now understand the dangers of CTE and the long-term effects of multiple concussions, but they still want the adrenaline rush that comes with seeing a big hit. Boxing fans want to see a knockout, but they don’t want to think about what it does to a brain.

As we learn more and more about the long-term damage the violence of sport does to its athletes, we look for ways to mitigate that damage. We make safer race cars. We penalize helmet-to-helmet contact. And we discourage hockey fights. Or, perhaps more accurately, most NHL teams nowadays would rather have one more skilled guy in that roster spot once filled by a goon.

According to hockeyfights.com, the number of fights in the NHL has dropped from just over 800 in 2001-02 to fewer than 350 last season. Can you name your favorite NHL team’s enforcer? If you can’t, it’s because they probably don’t have one anymore.

A lot’s changed in 20 years. Colorado and Detroit, once the best two teams in the NHL, are last and next-to-last in their respective conferences. Their former stars, Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman, are now both running NHL franchises.

And fights like the one that kicked off one of the NHL’s best rivalries are becoming as rare as hat tricks, which is a good thing. Even if we have to admit there’s still a part of us that misses them.


(Darren McCarty. Photo by Grinderfanforlife25 via Wikimedia Commons)
(Top photo by ArtBrom via Wikimedia Commons)

Categories: NHL

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