As a sports columnist, and later as a blogger, I rarely wrote about the National Hockey League except to criticize it. I found its tolerance of extracurricular fighting to be an obnoxious pandering to its least-knowledgeable fans. College hockey exists nicely without brawling and every four years the best professional players gather to stage a thrilling Olympics tournament while keeping their hands to themselves. A league that doesn’t respect its sport deserves no respect, I reasoned.
My unhappiness with the game was specific as well as general. In 1969, when I returned to my native Chicago after a 10-year sojourn, I fell into a piece of a season ticket for the NHL Blackhawks, and thrilled to the exploits of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and their mates. The trouble was that Arthur Wirtz, the portly pirate in a three-piece suit who owned the team, raised the price of everything every year. When he let Hull, an all-time Chicago sports hero, jump to a new league in 1972 for an annual salary that was soon to become ordinary ($100,000 a year), I kissed the team goodbye.
Arthur died in 1983 and bequeathed the Hawks to his son Bill, nicknamed “The Commodore” for his fondest for tooling around Lake Michigan on his yacht. Bill was as rapacious as his dad but much less smart. I cheered when he ran the team into the ground in the 1990s, causing attendance to dive and ridicule to rise. One news organization (can’t remember which) named the Blackhawks the worst-run franchise in U.S. pro sports during his ownership.
But Bill, too, passed on, in 2007, and the team went to his son, William Rockwell, or “Rocky”, who proved to be quite different from his forebears. From all reports he treats his team’s fans as customers, and thoroughly revamped its image and front office. In 2010, after some brilliant drafting, the Hawks won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years, and repeated that accomplishment in 2013 and last year. Chicago, which the great ex-Tribune columnist Bob Verdi once called “the city of broad shoulders and narrow trophy cabinets,” couldn’t be more pleased.
I’ve lived in Arizona for 18 years now but, I blush to admit, the Hawks’ success and my own nativism has sucked me back into hockey. I watched mostly playoff games in 2010 and ’13. Last season, thanks to expanded TV coverage, I watched some regular-season games as well, and this season I’ve further upped my viewing.
I was watching a Hawks’ game the other night when it occurred to me that, of late, the NHL had changed. Although I haven’t watched every minute of every one of the half-dozen contests I’ve tuned into, I couldn’t recall seeing a fight this season, and remarked as much to wife Susie, who watches with me. Last week Chris Kuc, who covers the team for the Trib, confirmed my observation with a story that said on-ice fights have been less frequent in the league as a whole, dropping to 236 in the 736 games that had been played to that point in the current campaign against 251 in that span the season before, 323 in the season before that, and 347 in 2012-13. A little math reveals that the three-year decline comes to about a third, a quite-substantial figure.
The piece was short on reasons for the reduction, venturing only that the recent advent of hard-plastic face masks, which deter fists as well as pucks, could play a role. It noted—significantly, I thought-- that neither the league nor the players’ union had taken any actions to address the issue during the period in question.
That leads to the unavoidable conclusion that the players have done this on their own—that they’ve wised up and decided, individually, that bare-knuckles fighting is a distraction from the skating, passing and shooting they are paid to do. Paid well, in fact, with the average salary in the league having risen to about $2.6 million. That kind of money has a way of making its recipients more protective of their careers, as well as their facial features.
And, maybe, they’ve read the newspapers and learned that the kind of serious head injuries that have received the most attention in the National Football League can affect their game also. A lawsuit by 10 former players against the league, alleging that it ignored or underplayed evidence of the long-term effects of concussions, first was filed for 10 plaintiffs a few years back. Now the plaintiff list has grown to 105.
Additionally, six former players who filled the role of “enforcer” for their NHL teams (a unique position in any sport, by the way) have died between the ages of 27 and 49 since 2010, of suicide or drug overdoses. The connection to the lawsuit’s charges is not difficult to make.
There’s been no indication that the NHL is likely to follow the lead of the colleges and Olympics in cracking down hard enough on fights to make them rare, so the old joke “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out” still will get laughs. Indeed, the continuing popularity of brawlers in the league was seen in the election of the pugnacious journeyman John Scott to the league’s recent All-Star Game, even though he’d been demoted to the minors for lack of other skills.
Other players, though, seem to have concluded that that sort of celebrity comes at too high a price. Good for them and for my enjoyment of their exercises.