It's a question that splits many hockey fans apart, and one that has been quietly creeping up on the National Hockey League's list of things to think about as they constantly assess and make changes to the game.
This summer the big focus was on head shots, after Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby suffered a concussion back in January and has yet to play another game since. The NHL vowed to take a look at the game and decide how to better protect it's players, meanwhile the repercussions of other issues moved to the forefront of discussion after a tragic summer for hockey.
First broke the news of the death of former-NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard, who was found dead in his apartment after inducing a lethal mix of alcohol and oxycodone, and soon after news surfaced of Boogaard's struggles with addiction prior. A few months later, Rick Rypien, who had just signed a new contract with the Winnipeg Jets, was found dead in his Alberta home. Rypien committed suicide, and battled depression for over ten years.
Then, just two weeks later, Wade Belak, who had just signed on as a broadcaster for the Nashville Predators' upcoming season, hanged himself in his Toronto condo. As more information was released, it was reported that Belak too suffered from depression, and suddenly fighting and the affect it has on players became a hot topic in the league.
For players like Boogaard and Belak, fighting wasn't just part of the game, it was their main job out there on the ice. In 277 games, Boogaard scored just 16 points, while racking up 589 minutes in penalties, and taking on some of the toughest fighters around the NHL in his six seasons with Minnesota and the New York Rangers. Belak, who split 549 games between five different teams over his career, had 1,263 penalty minutes and even took on Boogard a few times throughout his tenure in the league.
Former-NHL enforcer Georges Laraque, widely considered to be one of the top heavyweights of his time, provided some terrific insight to the life that fighters live while he was a guest on TSN 1050's Cybulski & Company shortly after Belak's death.
"It's the night before, the day of the game, before it starts," he said
. "It's the shivers that it gives you, the worry in the head and the brain. It's when you go to a movie and you can't watch it because you're thinking the next game about having to fight Derek Boogaard or someone like that. Or you don't feel well, but something happens and you have to go out there.
Laraque opened some eyes into the culture and revealed himself as a human behind the tough guy image that he is so renowned for. But despite what Laraque said, the retired French-Canadian refused to support the notion that fighting should be taken out of the game, and it's a sentiment likely shared by tough guys around the league, if anything for fear of losing their job.
Even newly-hired league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan addressed the issue this past week, telling CBC's Peter Mansbridge that the NHL will have to look into fighting as part of its commitment to reduce head shots around the league.
"We're definitely very serious in making advancements in studying blows to the head, we have to also look at fighting," said Shanahan
. "What the final decision is, I can't tell you now. That's something we're obviously going to have to look at, but there's no way we would ever deny that it's not something we're looking at closely."
For traditional hockey fans, changes to the rules seem like a step away from the game we've all come to love, filled with physicality, aggressive play, and yes, the occasional fight after a big check on a star player or a lengthy battle between two competitors. These types of incidents are much different than what Laraque and so many others have made a living doing for years, and the difference between the two is the same difference in what constitutes a good hockey fight and a bad one.
It's a situation fans of hockey are all too familiar with. Two players line up next to each other at the faceoff circle and after a bit of trash talk, off come the gloves and away they go. Often enough they are the two designated tough guys on each team, and from time to time these fights are set up before either team even steps onto the ice.
It would be hard to find a large group of fans that support staged-fights, and I think almost anyone can agree that these kinds of altercations have no reason to be in the game other than sheer entertainment value. They're the extreme example of the so-called "goonery" of hockey, and in some cases, cause severe injury for no reason other than the fact that both participants are known to fight often.
As the NHL walks the thin line between making the game safer for everyone involved and looking after its players, while maintaining the physicality and energy that has made hockey so popular and unique from every other professional sport, there will certainly always be a divide somewhere on the issue.
Since the crackdown on obstruction in the post-lockout NHL, the game has become all about speed and skill, and to its credit the league is bigger than it ever was. It's far from the brawl-filled NHL of the 70's and 80's, which saw the likes of the Broad Street Bullies and legends like Bob Probert, Dave Schultz, and Tiger Williams to name a few.
But fights still occur on a nightly basis, and offers a sense of justice that the league can't offer with a penalty or suspension. Occasionally you will even hear announcers or hockey analysts criticize a team if a star player is hit, and there is no immediate fight afterwards.
The debate will continue to rage on, and if we happen to be a part of the generation when hockey finally decides it can do without fighting, the debate will only rage on further as fans debate whether it should be brought back or not.