Hockey Fighting Poll Adds Little to Debate, As NHL Must Listen to Fans Rather Than Game’s Detractors

Hockey Fighting Poll Adds Little to Debate, As NHL Must Listen to Fans Rather Than Game's DetractorsSometimes poll results can be enlightening. More often, the numbers are likely to elicit a response along the lines of, “They needed a poll to find out that?”

Consider the recent Environics Institute poll in the latter category. A sample of 1,001 Canadians were polled on several questions relating to hockey, with one focused on the always contentious issue of fighting. The results were hardly startling.

Of the respondents who identified themselves as “huge fans” of the game, a majority opposed a ban on fighting. Of those who identified themselves as “not interested” in the sport or actively “dislike hockey,” the majority supported eliminating fighting from the game.

So who should the NHL listen to, the actual paying customers who go to games, watch on TV and buy jerseys, or the people with no interest or flat-out disdain for the game? A radical change like completely banning fighting is likely to drive off a lot more of the game’s current fans than it would attract anyone not following the game just because of fighting.

Let’s be realistic here. Does anyone really believe that eliminating fighting is going to convince any of those detractors to suddenly start following the league?

Fighting has already been greatly reduced in the game. This past year saw just 546 total fights in the regular season, an average of just 0.44 fights a game (stick tap to the good folks over at hockeyfights.com for the stats). Those were the lowest numbers in the league since 2006-07.

Only 34.4 percent of the league’s games featured a fight this season, and just 98 games all season had more than one. Considering that the average game lasts around two and a half hours and few fights last more than 30 seconds, the time spent on fighting is pretty miniscule. Are we really to believe that an action that takes up that tiny a percentage of the overall time of the event is really keeping people away in droves? Or is it more likely that those people will continue to ignore or hate hockey no matter what changes are made to the game?

And while fighting does represent just a small percentage of the overall action of the game, it is an important component. The instigator rule has limited its effectiveness as a deterrent to dirty play, but it does serve that purpose to a degree. It also has strategic value in changing momentum and provides an outlet for aggression far less dangerous than the alternatives of stickwork and dirty hits when tempers flare, and tempers will flare in a contact sport played in a confined space by men wielding weapons.

Those reasons are understood by most who follow the game closely, which would explain why the majority of those identifying themselves as fans in the poll opposed banning fighting.

That also brings up an important point when dealing with any poll like this, and that’s the inherent bias that can be revealed by the wording of the question. The results may have been different if the question was posed as, “Do you support keeping fighting in the game?” as opposed to how Environics framed the question. This poll asked, “Do you support eliminating fighting, as in other professional sports?”

That’s a pretty loaded question. Not only does it force a supporter of fighting to take the negative stance, the “as in other professional sports” adds even more of a bias against that position. Hockey is not like any other sport. Every sport has different rules and conditions. Should we poll fans to see if football should eliminate tackling, as in other sports? Or maybe if baseball should eliminate the use of bats, which have no place in other sports?

There is not going to be a consensus in the fighting debate any time soon, and there probably never will. The results from this poll illustrate that, but that is hardly enlightening. Beyond that already established tenet, the Environics study adds little to the discussion.

Have a question for Douglas Flynn? Send it to him via Twitter at @douglasflynn or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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