The NHL has always been a league where toughness is valued. Hockey is at its very core a game that requires toughness. You cannot play it if you are not able to take a check into the end boards or if you are afraid to give one out. Players need to be willing to step into shooting lanes to block a hard rubber puck with their bodies. Some players will stay in front of the net so that their teammates can actually shoot the puck at them, hoping for a deflection and a goal. Every year, there are players on the ice with black eyes, bloody noses, and the scars of old cuts on their faces.
The biggest thing that embodies this general spirit, though, is the fighting. There will be a fair amount of pushing and shoving during the game, but the real fighting is much more than this. Players will actually take off their gloves, stand apart like two boxers, and start to throw punches. When this happens, play is stopped and the referees stand back to watch. They circle the fight and make sure that they can stop it if they need to, but this is an accepted part of the game. Players will take penalties for fighting, but both players will get the same punishment most of the time, so it all evens out. At least one fight is generally anticipated during a game.
This is a normal part of hockey, but it would seem amazing and out of control if it happened in any other sport. Can you imagine an NFL receiver taking off his helmet and trading punches with a defensive back while the referees watched? Can you imagine Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum deciding to spend a few minutes boxing under the hoop in an NBA game? If that happened, it would be the biggest story in the news for days to come. In hockey, it barely gets reported at all.
While hockey purists love the fighting and the way that it allows players to police the game, there has been a movement lately to get the fighting banned. A lot of this has stemmed from the recent advancements in knowledge about how dangerous repeated blows to the head can be for athletes. In the NFL, many players have experienced severe problems coming from concussions and other head injuries. Some suicides of former players have even been linked to this. Those who want to take the fighting out of hockey want to make the game safer for the players.
Those players, however, do not want to see it removed. They were recently polled and it was found that over 99 percent of them wanted fighting to stay. Even smaller players such as Pavel Datsyuk and Valtteri Filppula, players who rarely fight, do not want to have it banned. They understand the function of fighting in the sport as a whole. They have grown up with it, and they respect it. They know that it is more that just a brutish addition to the sport. The fighting has a point, and there are rules to it. Many of the players who will fight each other during games are actually friends off the ice.
In some ways, though, safety does have to be considered. If too many concussions are linked to fighting, it might have to be banned. As it stands now, though, the fighting in hockey is not all that dangerous. When you compare it to boxing or UFC fighting, it is not very violent at all. The NHL should focus on working to reduce illegal hits. Those produce far more serious injuries than fighting. Working on this would keep the players and the fans happy, all while making the game safer.