NHL Fights and the Headshot Debate: Where's the Science?

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NHL Fights and the Headshot Debate: Where's the Science?
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Asham's two-punch knockout of Jay Beagle brought accusations of NHL hypocrisy in the head shot debate.

It would seem to be dark days for proponents of fighting in the NHL. Our champions in the media are few and far between and the loudest of them (see: Cherry, Don) appear to be descending further into senility by the minute.

This week, Arron Asham's knockout of Jay Beagle and subsequent Razor Ramon impression was more goon than enforcer and will surely give all the ammo in the world to anti-fight pundits like Dave Hodge and the cantankerous crew that joins him Sunday mornings on TSN's yawn-inducing The Reporters

But what seems to be gaining momentum following the Asham/Beagle affair is the perceived hypocrisy of a league that is working feverishly to eliminate checks that target the head while allowing its players to engage in a consensual toe-to-toe that will most likely result in a series of bare-knuckle punches to the body part they're so desperately trying to protect. 

Pro-pugilists are struggling mightily to explain the difference, as evidenced in the following exchange between Rob Ray, the former Buffalo Sabres enforcer, and TSN's Michael Landsberg in an interview on Landsberg's Off The Record, yesterday:

Landsberg: Do you see any hypocrisy in a league that says "We'll try to get rid of as many head shots as we can" and then allow the Asham head shot to Beagle last night?

Ray: Well, you know Lindy Ruff said it this morning at the rink, he said "What is the difference between taking a head shot on somebody than actually getting in a fight and punching somebody in the head?" It's the same intent, it's the same thing so, you know, if you're going to limit one you're going to have to limit the other, but it would be unfortunate if it does happen.

Landsberg: So...so, so I don't understand what your stance is on that.

 

Ray: I'm saying is that [sic] yeah you want to eliminate the shots to the head, you know the body checks, the shoulders, the elbows, and all that kind of thing when you initially attack the head, but there's no difference than when you're getting in a fight and punching an individual in the head so how do you differ from the two?

Landsberg: I don't know, I guess I'm asking you: do you want to get rid of shots to the head?

Ray: Yeah, you do want to get shots to the head, but I don't want to eliminate fighting, I think it's part of the game.

If fighting is to survive, I think it's fair to say the head shot issue needs to be reconciled a little more eloquently. But to me the answer seems obvious.

Science.

In an online forum on Science.ca, John Jones, an engineering science professor at Simon Fraser University, calculates that the total energy of a punch (in this case a karate punch) can be measured at anywhere between 100-450 Joules. Rocky Marciano's best punch was reported to reach 1028 Joules. Let's assume that two men standing on skates trying to keep each other off balance will not exceed the 450 Joule mark.

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Now let's look at the energy created by a body check, using a handy little calculator on Exploratorium. Using the example they provide, in which Eric Lindros takes on Jeff Friesen, and assuming that each player is traveling at roughly 15mph, the resulting collision is equal to 4356 Joules, nearly ten times the energy that is produced from a hard punch.

This analysis is not perfect, but its results should be pretty obvious. The force of a 200 lb. man, covered in body armour and traveling at a high speed, is significantly greater than that of a fist and forearm, weighing in at around ten pounds and being launched from a stationary position.

 

That no one in the hockey media seems willing to address this disparity speaks to how skewed the argument has been in favor of an all-out ban on fighting. "Get it out of the game" is the constant refrain from reporters who like to forget that 15,000 fans in any NHL arena on any given night will jump to their feet the moment a fight breaks out.

In the wake of the NHL's tragic summer, I have no problem with engaging in a rational discussion about the culture of fighting in hockey. But if we're going to have this conversation, let's at least keep it honest, and lose the ridiculous notion that what happened to Jay Beagle at the hands of Arron Asham is akin to what happened to Marc Savard at the hands of Matt Cooke. They are not one in the same. 

They are not even close.

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