From The Desk of a Hockey Apologist: The Fighter as Substitute

Ryan LengCorrespondent IApril 29, 2008

Every time a player injures another player in the NHL, the media drags out their watchdogs, who wonder what to do about the “crisis of violence” in the sport. I remember the coverage after the Bertuzzi-Moore cheap shot. Before cutting to the machine gun racket of a skirmish in Iraq, Fox News produced a trio of “analysts” (emphasis on the anal) to deride the sport. They repeatedly showed Todd Bertuzzi sucker-punching and slamming Steve Moore’s head on the ice, as well as several other clips of violent incidents.

Granted, nobody can deny that those incidents happened, but when you splice together ten minutes of goon footage, of course the sport looks horrible and barbaric, regardless of how many clean players there are in the sport.

Reader, I humbly submit the following: I’m a beer-league hockey veteran, who has never made peace with cell phones (I smashed mine last year after a dropped call), computers or copy machines. And if someone had filmed my whole life, I’m sure s(he) could come up with ten minutes of violence and shameful behavior. Trust me, if you watched that film, you wouldn’t want to be around me for long. But that film would not be an accurate portrayal of my life, as I am docile and harmless 99% of the time.

The NHL has a difficult time trying to justify the violence that occurs in its games. Hockey has a unique system of dealing with violence in the game. It is substitution. I know of no other sport that has this. Let me explain.

We see it less and less, but traditionally, that substitute has always been the fighter. Whenever a player injures or attempts to injure an opposing player, the fighter steps in to fight the injurer, or even better, to fight the other team’s fighter. If the injurer has a sense of courage and accountability, he accepts the fighter’s challenge. If the injurer fags out, the fighter on his team will surely accept the challenge.

After the fight finishes and the referees break it up, the players sit out for five minutes, at the end of which, the fighters are almost certainly cooled and collected. Having seen justice carried out, the crowd and teams can relax and enjoy the rest of the game.

Notice that the injured player, the one who has the most cause to fight, is not supposed to enter into the violence. If he were to do so, his rage has a variety of weapons at its disposal: a hard stick and fist, two sharp skates, and the ability to skate very fast. Therefore, the fighter, or substitute, metes out justice in a relatively fair and orderly way to restore peace to the community.

The fight tradition is a simple acknowledgement of the contagious and reciprocal nature of violence, and an attempt to stem it. Don’t get me wrong. The fight is not a good tradition in a moral sense. Violence still exists in the game in spite of it. But it is the lesser of two evils. The fight is a mechanism—albeit a flawed one—for stopping the upward spiral of violence, whether it is sucker punching or taking a run at a player. Without such a mechanism, the escalation would continue indefinitely. 

Which is exactly what you see with the Bertuzzi-Moore incident. If you think back, you will remember that Bertuzzi’s sucker punch happened in response to a check that Steve Moore gave to Marcus Naslund (the league-leader in scoring at that time), which gave him a concussion and a few broken bones. The problem was that a fighter did not fight Moore during that game. Instead, the Canucks were left to brood over the incident for three weeks before Bertuzzi committed his crime.


The fighter’s role as substitute is to stop the revenge cycle before it reaches a boiling point and affects the whole group of players. What the media fails to understand is the nature of substitution, which has been around since time out of mind. The ancient Hebrews had animal sacrifice, and the Anglo-Saxons had weregeld (man gold) to fix the same problem of escalating violence.

My suggestion, then, is that all this crap could have been nipped in the bud by a fight during the game where Steve Moore hurt Marcus Naslund. Yet four years later, the feud seeks new victims, and the game suffers for it.