To understand hockey and its fans, first know that this is a sport unlike others in that it doesn’t automatically eject fighters.
Instead of banishment from that game, combatants are assessed a mere five minutes in the penalty box, or as the oldtimers used to refer to it, the sin bin.
Because of this relatively light punishment, fighting is an integral part of hockey. Defenders of the pugilism say it serves as a safety valve, helping prevent irritated skaters from using their sticks on their adversaries.
These people might want to watch video of Toronto’s Nazem Kadri crosschecking Boston’s Jake DeBrusk in the face during Game 2 of the team’s playoff series, which earned Kadri a suspension running through the remainder of said series.
Fighting also is used as a tool by coaches and players alike in an attempt to stem the tide of the game.
Team 1 finds itself in danger of getting run out of the rink. A player on Team 2, either on his own or at the behest of the guy behind the bench, tries to initiate a fight.
If a fight ensues, and regardless of who wins, players on both benches can be counted on to bang their sticks enthusiastically on the boards as a show of support.
And if Team 2 rallies, make no mistake that the fight will be cited by players, fans and media as a turning point. If Team 2 doesn’t rally, well, never mind.
Witness Game 3 of this year’s Carolina-Washington series, in which Carolina was playing well and Capitals’ star Alexander Ovechkin was only too pleased to accept a first-period invitation to drop the gloves from Hurricane – and fellow Russian – Andrei Svechnikov.
Ovechkin, more of a scorer than a fighter, dispatched Svechnikov with brutal ease, but the Capitals still lost the game, 5-0.
Do not misunderstand. Fighting in hockey neither bothers nor horrifies me. I grew up watching the Johnstown Jets play in the Eastern League, a circuit so renowned for its Wild West character that big-league teams often were reluctant to send their top prospects to play in it.
It just strikes me as amusing when fans are aghast that the on-ice fighting sometimes spills off the ice. This seems to have been the case when a post-game incident a week and change back at what I still prefer to call the Cambria County War Memorial Arena lit up social media.
Sources tell me key-tapping thumbs grew sore from weighing in with varying degrees of angst regarding a set-to in the concourse between an overly enthusiastic Johnstown fan and a member of the visiting team.
Details differ, but it seems the whole thing was small potatoes in historic terms.
For the younger set, our own Jets won the North American Hockey League championship in 1974-75 by effectively punching out and intimidating the remainder of the league.
That punishment was inflicted primarily by three Carlson Brothers and Dave Hanson. The Jets finished fourth in the regular season but raced through the playoffs. In an amusing twist, they swept the Binghamton Broome County Dusters in the finals.
The whole experience later would be captured by the 1977 movie “Slap Shot,” which to this day stands as the favorite movie of the hockey crowd.
Those were the days when police and their dogs might need to be called in to help the visiting team get off the ice, through the War Memorial concourse, and into the dressing room.
One vivid memory was of a pregame brawl with Syracuse that resulted in enough blood being spilled by one Syracuse player it looked like another red faceoff dot had been painted on the ice.
An oft-told story in this sports department involved officiating supervisor Len Gagnon, who was in Johnstown for a game to observe the on-ice officials.
Horrified by the behavior of the local fans, Gagnon opined that this was a reason beer shouldn’t be sold here.
Informed that beer wasn’t sold in the arena at time, Gagnon replied, “My God! You mean these people are sober?”
On Dec. 23, 1979, two years after “Slap Shot” debuted, the NHL had a moment many likened to the movie.
After a game in Madison Square Garden between the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers, the teams remained on the ice and exchanged pleasantries. Some New York fans got involved by reaching over the glass, striking a Boston player and stealing his stick, prompting the Bruins to go into the stands en masse.
You can see videos of this on YouTube, featuring current NHL analyst Mike Milbury pummeling a fan with the fan’s shoe.
“I went from happy and content, and ready to go home for Christmas, to full combat mode in about 20 seconds,” Milbury told the New York Times years later.
Imagine how all of this would have played on social media, had there been such a thing at the time.