This week’s discussion focusing on fighting in hockey is a conversation with Andrew Dwyer, a Canadian hockey player who spent some time playing professional hockey. In his opinion, fighting in hockey is something that could and maybe should be eliminated from the game … except professionally.
Having gone through the development system for hockey in Canada and the US, he himself has been in a few scraps on the ice. He remembers them fondly saying, “I think when I was younger, when I deserved to get punched in the mouth, I usually did. Then, I didn’t do whatever I was doing to deserve to get punched again. Or if I did, I knew I was going to get punched.”
Dwyer started playing at age four, then continued up the ladder, playing rep at age seven then on to play for the Burlington Cougars (in Ontario) at the tier two junior level.
Having accepted a scholarship to Western Michigan University, he then played for a short time in Memphis in the Central Hockey League, and then spent four years in Columbus in the Southern Professional Hockey League. Moving back to Canada he became a coach at the rep level in his hometown.
He explains, “Not till you get junior age do you really have the chance to fight, when you become a 15 or 16-year-old. The fighting in minor hockey is very minimal.”
Looking back on his experiences Dwyer says, “I think when it comes to kids, I would not disagree with getting rid of fighting in minor hockey. It is too dangerous for kids and we know more about concussions now than we used to. I think that when you’re 15 or 16 or even a bit older, there are some kids who like to fight and they’re not scared and there are some kids that are so scared they will probably quit playing hockey because they don’t want to get punched. I don’t think there should ever be a 14 or 15-year-old who should have to quit playing because they are afraid to fight somebody.”
Moving up to the junior leagues, an intimidating issue with fighting is the potential age gap between players. “When you get to be junior aged, you can be 16 and have to fight a 20-year-old, it can be like a kid fighting a man sometimes. I’ve been on the wrong end of a couple of those when I was younger. It’s the younger guys who don’t really understand respect in fighting yet. For that reason it can be a little more dangerous,” explains Dwyer.
As in most team sports, there are those who play classy and those who play dirty and even though a fight is a fight, there are still some guidelines for respecting your opponent. “There are clean fighters and dirty fighters. The unwritten rule would be that a really tough guy would never go after a guy who is not tough. You would never go fight the goal scorer if you were a tough guy. You wouldn’t punch a guy when he was on the ground. They talk about there being a code of respect, whether or not that exists or not…” he continues, “They try and be noble about it, the guys who get any type of respect are noble about it, but, for every guy who does it the right way, there are five guys who do it the wrong way, and there are more and more guys doing it the wrong way now than before.”
But one thing that has been around forever is another unwritten law: if the protector loses a fight, there will definitely be a next time. For example, this season’s brawl between Colton Orr and George Parros. Dwyer explains, “Everyone in the world knew they were going to fight again. It’s a cultural thing to a degree, the protector of the flock. He’s got to go out and show the flock that he’s not scared. Just because one bad thing happened to him, he’s not going to shy away because if he’s scared he loses all use. He is literally useless.”
So, what about professional hockey players as role models; how can you say it’s ok for them to fight, but not the lower levels? He answers, “When I played in Georgia, we did all sort of community engagement because you have to market the team like crazy, because no one knows anything about hockey. So, ‘Stay in school, eat your vegetable, be nice to your mother’ that kind of thing. I…can see why some people would say you have a responsibility, but I know when I played, when it comes to playing, I couldn’t care less about what the people think of me. I’ll give you an example. We had a game once a year when I played in the southern professional league where it would be a school day. All of the kids from the local schools would come to a game that would start at like 11 a.m. Generally you would think a game at 11 a.m., this will be a bit of a snoozer that won’t get too crazy…but…it was a full-blown brawl. The schools were writing letters saying they would never come back because we set such a terrible example. It was the worst case scenario with eight or nine thousand little kids in the stands watching us play, and it turned into a total circus. But you would never think about it while you’re playing—sometimes, it’s just the way it goes.”
Even though sometimes it is just the way it goes, Dwyer still believes you can have an awesome hockey game without the fighting. “I think you can get rid of fighting in every type of level except professional hockey. You can have adult hockey without body contact and the game is great. You just go out and skate it is more of a skilled game.”
The skill of the game was something touched on by Brandon Braam in part one of the series, him saying in minor hockey they should be working on their skills rather than fighting. Dwyer, as a former professional player, feels the same for minors and juniors, but thinks the protector of the flock will always be there.
He says, “I think in junior hockey they are trying to make a lot of new rules to take fighting out of junior hockey, which I can understand. But, I think that if you get rid of actual fighting in pro hockey that the new fighter would just become something else, because when you have to teach somebody a lesson you have to teach them a lesson. If it’s not by punching them, it will be by something else. When a guy gets knocked out and smashes his face off the ice and is bleeding everywhere, sure that doesn’t look good, but when there is not a fighter and a guy just skates as fast as he can like a cannon ball, and starts flying around and hitting guys and breaking guys arms and blowing guys knees out, which will happen far more often than anything bad ever happens in a fight, people will say, oh, maybe that fighting wasn’t so bad.”
Dwyer feels the fighting in hockey discussion is intrinsically linked with football and the potential for injuries. “Think about how gruesome some football hits are, they have nothing to do with people’s heads, they are getting hit and legs blow out or hips blow out and stuff like that. I don’t know too many football players who can run as fast as a hockey player can skate. Think about how much worse the carnage would be? It would be insane, BUT, no one does that in the game of hockey because if I ran around like an idiot, I knew I would have to answer to somebody, so I didn’t run around like an idiot. I had more respect,” he continues, “When there is that much money involved, the guys who weren’t good enough to stay otherwise will just be the new idiot, in a different type of way. I think the alternative would be much more detrimental than just having fighters.”
An interesting piece to the puzzle is that, as Dwyer explains, lots of the players in the NHL have gone through the American college system, that doesn’t encourage fighting. “If you look at a lot of the enforcers in the NHL, a lot of them are college players and a lot of them in fact were ivy league college players, and there’s not really any fighting in college. I never saw a fight in four years, other than in practice,” Dwyer continues, “ut for a guy like me, I go from junior hockey where as a 16, 17-year-old, I maybe fought five or six times in two years, and then I went to college and didn’t fight for four years, and then when I was a grown man, I go and start playing professionally and you have to learn. There is only one way to learn—you learn.”
But on the flip side, there are still those players who have been the enforcer since they were teens. “Some fighters now, when they get to the NHL, they started fighting when they were 15 or 16, and that’s all they’ve done and by the time they are 22–24 in the NHL, they’re like trained boxers. They aren’t hockey players who get in a fight once in a while, they are fighters who play hockey once in a while. So, I think the chance that they can really hurt someone is a lot higher than it used to be.”
“That is why I’ve always said if they got rid of the Colton Orr’s and the George Parros’, I would be fine with it. I don’t think you need to have meat heads who can’t play, but I think you need to have the guy who can play, but also who makes sure nothing crazy happens. Ideally, every player on the ice should be able to play and take care of themselves, in my opinion, but that would never happen because too much money goes to the good players.”
With every sport, as players scale the ladder of quality, there is also the expectation of a higher level of difficulty. For hockey this includes fighting…for some, but for Dwyer the fighting in hockey discussion is more about violence in sport, and most importantly football, as he mentioned above. He continues with those thoughts, saying, “The whole discussion goes hand in hand with football, and the only reason people are talking about fighting in hockey is because of all the concussions in football. It’s impossible to not see the links between the two. It’s going to change. I think it will be complete elimination of fighting from minor hockey, they’ll probably make some changes in junior hockey and I don’t think they will make any changes in the NHL until someone at a high level of pro hockey dies in a fight. It’s going to be such terrible PR, that they are going to need to make a change. When they do, I think everyone will be worse for it.”
That is a bold statement, but Dwyer backs it up saying, “There have been football players who have been paralyzed playing football. Are you going to take body contact out of football? Are we going to make it touch football? I’ve watched players break their legs; I’ve watched a player break his femur. But, I’ve also watched a guy go paralyzed playing hockey. And, does that scare you? Yeah it scares you, I didn’t want to get hit for a couple of days, but, that scares me a lot more than getting punched in the face.”