The last thing the NHL needs is someone inviting sports fans to ignore it. They are doing that already, as evidenced by lagging attendance in several U.S. markets and TV ratings that couldn't be located with a microscope.
Yet Derek Boogaard has trotted out that tired old taunt again. In a story about his hockey fighting camps for children -- an idea so grotesque it hardly needs to be stated -- the Wild brawler thumbs his nose at puck purists. "Hockey fights could last 30 seconds, max," he argues. "It's just like anything. If you don't like it, don't go and don't watch it."
Think Gary Bettman is cringing at that one? At a time when another round of salary wars seems destined to threaten the NHL's delicate economics, a guy employed to beat up people -- which, by the way, still lands you in the penalty box -- is calling out the customers who would rather see skating and scoring. Worse, he's taking that bully act to the youth level, under the guise of "helping" young players.
Aaahh, yes. It's all about the kids. At least, it's all about the $40 the young'uns pay to get a T-shirt splashed with fake blood and watch a videotape of Boogaard's most ferocious beatdowns. The big guy seems to have a gift for entrepreneurship, but he's going to have to work on his debate skills to sell this dubious venture to a sporting public weary of unchecked violence in its games.
"That is awfully young to even know the ugly side of the game," said Dr. Aynsley Smith, a sports psychologist and researcher at the Mayo Clinic's Sports Medicine Center. "It's counterproductive to the direction we're trying to go as we try to grow the game among kids [in Minnesota]."
Anyone who has spent enough time in an ice rink to get cold has heard the logic-bending arguments of the blood-hockey crowd. Skilled players need protection from physical opponents. Eliminating fighting would lead to more high-sticking and other dangerous behavior. Fisticuffs provide a necessary outlet in a physically rough game.
Of course, hockey has flourished without fighting in colleges, European leagues, world championships and the Olympics. The faster, more skilled game that resulted from NHL rule changes in 2005-06 drew rave reviews. But the segment of the population that revels in bloodlust -- and the players who provide it for a paycheck -- refuse to let go of their narrow interpretation of masculinity.
Boogaard's camp is indoctrinating a fresh generation of kids into that warped mindset even as hockey organizations work to eliminate it. Minnesota Hockey's HEP program, which Smith helped create, emphasizes skill development, sportsmanship, fun and clean play. Some youth teams have won titles with the help of the "Fair Play" points they earned for sportsmanlike conduct.
"[Fighting] totally contradicts what we stand for and what we're doing," said Minnesota Hockey President Dennis Green. "The HEP program is working, not only on the ice but in the stands. We're getting parents on board because they're starting to see the value of making the game more fun for their kids."
Boogaard also offers the false argument that people shouldn't complain about brawls on ice when caged free-for-alls have entered popular sport. But the object of hockey is to put a rubber disc into a net through talent and teamwork, not to subdue one's opponent through physical force. While ultimate fighting and boxing are clear about their brutality, hockey continues its tradition of doublespeak on the subject, condoning and condemning it in the same breath.
The Boogaard camp seems particularly disingenuous. He insists he is not urging his 12- to 18-year-old students to fight; rather, he is teaching them how to protect themselves. That hardly squares with the fake blood on the T-shirts, the multiple video replays of Boogaard crushing Todd Fedoruk's cheekbone and the instruction on how to throw a punch.
When people disapproved of Boogaard's camp, he complained that "a lot of times, when people don't understand something, they don't like it." No matter how much he tries to dress it up, it seems they understand perfectly clearly. Boogaard has a right to play the role of hockey enforcer. But please, leave the kids out of it.