SALT LAKE GOLDEN EAGLES Coach Paul Baxter has come to the defense of his sport in the wake of last weekend's serious head injury to Denver's Mark Janssens, suffered during a fight in the Salt Palace.
As told yesterday to Linda Hamilton, the hockey writer for the Deseret News, Baxter maintains that hockey is a terrific game getting a bad rap - for being the sport of hooligans rather than kings. The fighting is over-rated and exaggerated; hockey is a beautiful and artistic game, he says.Well, it is as long as you're not unconscious.
Baxter's point on the beauty of hockey is well-taken, although it's unclear just what that has to do with fighting.
Hockey certainly qualifies as one of the world's best sports. It requires skill - try skating backward sometime; try skating forward - plus a tremendous state of physical fitness, plus a high level of hand-eye coordination, plus a good deal of strength and stamina, plus the ability to use both your hands and your feet, plus the dexterity to leap the boards to get onto the ice.
It is not a glandular sport - unlike, say, basketball and football, where height and weight are respecters of persons - which makes it fair for all sizes, and you cannot smile while you're doing it, which is the fundamental requirement for any True Sport.
Hockey is played by no-nonsense tough guys, many of them Canadians, where the game was invented. The object of the game is simple - get the puck into the enemy's net. It is an aggressive contact sport, and should not be played by heart patients, pacifists, or anyone without dental insurance.
It would no doubt be on TV as much as football or baseball or basketball were it not for the sport's Big Flaw: There are no timeouts.
English translation: Ad time is extremely limited.
Nonetheless, as Baxter says, hockey is a great sport. It's just that the sport's aggressive nature can lead to violence. Or, as the old joke goes, "I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out."
The coach doesn't address that problem.
Baxter says the fighting in hockey isn't much different than the beanballs in baseball, or the late hits on the quarterback in football.
Even if that were true - which it isn't - that doesn't help, or solve, anything. Tell Mark Janssens to take that and a half-dozen Advils to console his headache.
Body checks and overaggressive skating are actually hockey's answer to beanballs and late hits - and, for that matter, to well-timed elbows in basketball. Those tactics should remain a part of the game - and should be penalized when done to excess, as has always been the case.
It's the fighting that ought to stop.
In last week's Sports Illustrated, writer E.M. Swift chronicled the escalating fighting problems in the NHL. He noted that in the first 248 games played this season, 13 players and two coaches were suspended for fighting, for a grand total of 89 games - all believed to be all-time highs - and that fighting has gotten so out-of-hand - let's face it, a hockey fight makes baseball's brawls look like Mr. Rogers raising his voice - that Lloyd's of London, which underwrites the NHL Players' Association's disability insurance, is threatening to pull out of its contract when it expires in 1990, or at least increase the premiums.
Swift suggests that the hockey establishment doesn't want to curb fighting because fighting is exciting and helps fill the seats.
Not to mention the beds in the trauma ward.
When people in high hockey places, like Coach Baxter, defend fighting - "I believe in the release value of fighting, at times," he says - it makes you believe that Swift is right.
Especially when the solution to end fighting is as simple as a good whack on the head.
Why doesn't professional hockey make fighting illegal?> If you fight, you're out. For the year.> That's how the Olympics runs its hockey tournament. Fighting is strictly prohibited. Fight and you're knocked out of the Games.
There wasn't one fight in Calgary in '88. There wasn't one fight in Sarajevo in '84.
There was a lot of aggressive, hard-nosed hockey - some of the best in the world. There were collisions and body checks and they had to scrape some guys off the glass, starting with their noses. There were a lot of guys who wanted to fight. There were penalties and power plays and arguments with the referees. Nobody in the stands went home thinking he'd been at the opera.
But nary a punch was thrown.
It made the game Paul Baxter sees as beautiful even more so. The NHL and IHL should take note. If they're really worried about popularity and fan appeal, they should get around to instituting TV timeouts. That's where the real money is, anyway. Fighting is nothing but a headache thiiiis big. Ask Mark Janssens, when he comes to.