Capitals Player Has Found Niche As 'The Enforcer'

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The Stanley Cup playoffs are underway, and every hockey fan knows that means the thrill of a close game, the agony of the seven game series, and, of course, the fights. Despite the fact that many other sports have taken measures to eliminate fighting, the National Hockey League all but encourages it. Host Michel Martin speaks with Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi who profiled Matt Hendricks of the Washington Capitals — a player who has found his niche as an "enforcer."

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, we'll talk with the new head of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He happens to be the first Latino to hold that post. We'll hear his priorities for the commission in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to open up the pages of The Washington Post magazine, something we do just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now. Now, if you're a hockey fan, then you know that the Stanley Cup playoffs are just underway. And whether you're rooting for the Habs, that's the Montreal Canadiens, catching a game in hockey town, USA - that's Detroit, or rocking the red here in Washington, D.C., you know already that there will be a fight or two or three in the course of those high stakes match-ups.

And while most professional sports seem to actively discourage fighting, the National Hockey League, what is it, say, encourages it? Perhaps enables it? According to this week's Post magazine, staff writer Paul Farhi profiled one of the so-called enforcers of the NHL, Matt Hendricks of The Washington Capitals. And Paul Farhi's with us on the line now to talk more about the role that fighting actually plays in the game. Paul, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. PAUL FARHI (Staff Writer, The Washington Post): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Paul, you begin your piece by referencing a particular fight between Capital's forward Matt Hendricks and Tampa Bay Lightening right winger Steve Downie. And I just want to play a short clip from when the fight started.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: Hendricks and Downie are ready to go. That's (unintelligible) the other way as the gloves are coming off at the other end of the rink. Hendricks (unintelligible) Downie with an uppercut. And now Hendricks can't reach. Nope. (Unintelligible) goes over his head. Hard way to fight a fight when you can't see.

MARTIN: Now, you know, the thing of it is, for people who don't follow hockey, it seems as though they're kind of - the announcers are announcing the fight just like they're announcing the play. Does the game encourage it? Do they enable it? Do they accept it?

Mr. FARHI: Yes. I think all of the above is accurate. Fighting has been in pro hockey since there has been pro hockey. The NHL starts right after World War I and fighting is part of the game. And the fact is the NHL does encourage or at least enable it for the simple reason that the fans love it. And there are strategic reasons for it, and it becomes part of the play itself. The fact of the matter is, is that the NHL can't do without fighting.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about that. I just want to point out one thing about Matt Hendricks is that you say that he actually took on the role of enforcer or fighter to help save his professional hockey career. And you say that that's not the only thing he's good at. But how can that be?

Mr. FARHI: It's really a game of toughness. It's not just scoring goals, it's who intimidates whom. And part of that is not being pushed around. Part of that is not allowing your best player to be slashed or hacked. So you turn to people like Matt Hendricks to show the other team that you won't be pushed around and that you won't take the kind of dirty play that is endemic to the NHL.

MARTIN: Well, forgive me, but isn't that what referees are for?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Call me crazy, but...

Mr. FARHI: Yes. There's what's illegal and then there's what's kind of people do and get away with in a game. You know, there's so much action and so fast in hockey that even with four officials on the ice, you're not going to see all of it. Somebody's being pushed, someone's being hacked, someone's being slashed.

And the whole idea is to get under the other team's skin to push them around, to irritate them, to make them get out of their game. And so, when the other team does that, someone's got to step in and enforce and that means taking on the other side and possibly beating up somebody.

MARTIN: So they think that fighting actually cleans up the game. They actually feel that it keeps the game more fair in a weird way.

Mr. FARHI: That's right. That's the phrase you always hear. We've cleaned up the game because once things get a little dirty, once things get a little underhanded, it kind of stops that action. And, you know, the players get the message, this team cannot be pushed around.

The other value of it is simply momentum. My team is down three goals to nothing, I got to inspire my team. You know, a guy wins a fight and his teammates, they'll tap the ice with their sticks and it'll inspire them to come back.

You can notice with Matt Hendricks he's had about 14 fights. I think 12 of them were when the team was losing and had no goals. And in several of those games they came back and won the game.

MARTIN: You also talk about head injuries, which has become a big issue in other sports. Does nobody in the NHL take this possibility seriously? You know, hitting your head on the ice, being hit, hitting somebody's head against the boards. Does - nobody thinks that's a problem?

Mr. FARHI: They think it's a problem. The question is, what can they about it and what should they do about it? There's a whole subculture around hockey fighting. There are tapes. There are websites. There's a whole world in which people just want to get into fighting. So the NHL knows that. And the NHL knows that it can't get away from fighting.

And yet, it tries to take this high road which says we discourage this and we penalize this, but the NHL is now caught between this desire to sell tickets and get TV ratings and this emerging science which suggests that its players are increasingly at risk for long-term damage to their brains.

MARTIN: And so, what do you think about it, if you don't mind my asking? Do you become more of a fan now that you kind of understand it a little bit more? What do you think?

Mr. FARHI: It's horrifying to see grown men throwing punches at each other, hitting each other in the face and yet you can't turn away. I'm not sure I approve, but I certainly pay attention.

MARTIN: Paul Farhi is a staff writer for The Washington Post. If you'd like to read his piece in its entirety, and we hope you will, it's called "Swing Man." It appeared in this week's Washington Post magazine. We'll have a link to it on our website. Just go to npr.org and select TELL ME MORE from the programs tab. Paul Farhi, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. FARHI: Thank you so much, Michel.

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