Canadians are typically depicted in pop culture as overly kind people that tend to apologize too much. The recent hockey games that have taken place in the Canadian city of Alberta over the past couple of months, however, have been anything but kind and apologetic. Alberta is a province located in southwest Canada with just over four million people. The capital of Alberta is Edmonton, home to the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers, founded in 1971, have been members of the NHL since 1979. The most populous city in Alberta is Calgary, which is located about 190 miles south of Edmonton and is home to the Calgary Flames. The Flames have been members of the NHL since 1980.
The phrase the “Battle of Alberta” has come to describe the intense rivalry between the cities of Edmonton and Calgary. In recent weeks, however, the Battle of Alberta has been taken to a new level in the hockey rink. Games between the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames have become some of the most intense hockey that has been played since the beginning of the season.
In order to understand the melee that took place over the weekend, it is important to revisit where all of the animosity began between the two teams. Back in the middle of January, during a game between the Flames and the Oilers, Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk (pronounced kuh-Chuck) took a run at Oilers defenseman Zack Kassian. Tkuchuk landed a heavy hit near Kassian’s neck that some people, including Kassian, felt was a cheap shot. This devastating hit clearly angered Kassian and would push him one step closer to his breaking point. Later in the same game, while Zack Kassian was engaged with another Flames player, Tkachuk again made a run at Kassian, this time hitting him so hard that his helmet flew off of his head and across the ice. This was the last straw for Kassian, and he came up from the hit looking for blood. Kassian immediately sought out Tkachuk and dropped his gloves, ready to fight. Somewhat unusually, Tkachuk did not do the same. It is rare for hockey players to refuse to fight, especially after laying such a heavy hit. Tkachuk’s unwillingness to fight, however, did not stop Kassian. Kassian grabbed Tkachuk and threw punch after punch while Tkachuck refused to fight back. After the fight was broken up, only Kassian was penalized, and the penalty gave the Calgary Flames a power play that allowed them to score the winning goal.
This incident, when viewed in a vacuum, may appear to show that Kassian is a hothead and the person who acted out. This situation, however, is much more complicated when one considers Tkachuk’s past. Tkachuk is known for being one of the best instigators in all of professional hockey. Drew Doughty, a defensemen for the Los Angeles Kings, has called Matthew Tkachuk “dirty” and said that he thinks that Tkachuk could be the most hated player in the entire NHL. Tkachuk has a history of making dirty plays, so it is difficult to say he is in the right under any context.
Kassian made comments after the game accusing Tkachuk of being a coward, and on Jan. 13, he was suspended for two games for fighting Tkachuk when Tkachuk clearly did not mutually engage in the fight. There was some good news for Kassian regarding his suspension—he was only suspended two games, and the Oilers were scheduled to play the Flames on Jan. 29, just three games later. The next game between the Flames and the Oilers ended up exactly where people had anticipated. Near the end of the first period, Kassian and Tkachuk squared up next to each other during a faceoff. The instant the puck dropped, the two both dropped their gloves and exchanged blows. This fight further inflamed the rivalry between the two teams. In their most recent game, on Feb 1, there were multiple scuffles, and one even resulted in the goalies from each team throwing punches at each other. It is very rare for goalies to throw punches, and so for one goalie to skate down to his opponent for a fight, as the Oilers’ Mike Smith did, highlights the tensions in this rivalry.
These fights have been very beneficial to the league from a business perspective. The Kassian and Tkachuk scuffles have become talking points all over the sports world, and the reignited conflict between the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames has brought a large amount of hype to every game that the two play against each other.
While these games and fights have brought publicity to the NHL, they have also put the league in a very difficult situation. It is clear that fighting and intense, physical hockey games increase publicity for the League. In-game violence, however, has been a recent point of contention with the League. The NHL is currently being sued by multiple former players who claim that they deserve compensation for the medical care that they need as a result of brain injuries that they suffered while they were players. Much like some recent lawsuits against the NFL, multiple former players from the NHL claim that the violent nature of the game of hockey has caused them to develop Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. CTE is a neurodegenerative disease that can cause disorders like dementia and is caused by repeated blows to the head. The former NHL players claim that the physical nature of the sport has caused them significant suffering after the end of their playing careers and are seeking compensation for their injuries. The NHL has chosen to refuse to acknowledge a connection between hockey and traumatic brain injury. The League has fought every claim from former players in court, unlike the NFL, which has created a settlement fund for former players.
In the future, the NHL will need to proceed with extreme caution as the league continues to grow in popularity. It must balance the fact that the violence of hockey remains popular among fans, but results in crippling injuries for former players. The League is stuck in a tough situation because if they are seen promoting violence, they open themselves up to litigation. On the other hand, if physicality and fighting bring more people to games and make more people watch hockey, then the League stands to benefit as hockey’s popularity and viewership increases. At the end of the day, the NHL is at its heart a business and will likely operate accordingly. It shouldn’t be surprising if the League decides to promote violence and fighting, despite the future impact such a strategy might have on its employees.