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NHL concussion reignites debate about violence in hockey3:05

Yet another concussion in the NHL has reignited the debate about violence in hockey. Has fighting finally met its match?

NHL concussion reignites debate about violence in hockey 3:05

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George Parros hits the ice hard in home opener3:37

Parros concussed during fight re-opens debate about fighting in hockey

George Parros hits the ice hard in home opener 3:37

EA Sports has given the world one of the most realistic simulations of what it’s like to be punched in the face on skates.

The newest instalment of the company’s big NHL-licensed video game NHL 14 was released this fall, and it features a completely revamped fighting system called the Enforcer Engine, built directly from its boxing game technology.

Eschewing the old fighting system (that admittedly was closer to Rock Em Sock Em Robots than a proper hockey fight) EA made some big changes, aiming to create “the most authentic and electrifying fighting experience yet.”

Players can choose, for example, to fight as Hamilton native and Philadelphia Flyers enforcer Zach Rinaldo.

And to make sure they got things right, they consulted a host of NHL tough guys — including one of the toughest: George Parros.

The same George Parros who is out indefinitely after slamming face first into the ice during a fight with the Toronto Maple Leaf’s Colton Orr during the Montreal Canadiens’ home opener last week.

The incident got players, GM’s, fans and now even Prime Minister Stephen Harper all debating again whether or not fighting should be taken out of the game. While that was happening, hundreds of thousands of players were throwing NHL 14 in their Xbox or PS3 and getting one of the most intense hockey fighting experiences ever in a video game.

For some, the NHL's commercial licencing of the game raises the question of just how deeply fighting and violence is ingrained into hockey culture, and just where the NHL’s priorities lie — but others say it just makes for a more accurate and entertaining experience. 

Real time bruising and black eyes

As one of the NHL’s most popular licensed products (with over 170,000 units sold to date), the fact that fighting has become a focus in the game speaks to where the league’s priorities are, says Henry Giroux, a renowned cultural critic and professor in the department of English and cultural studies at McMaster University​.

“Why do we need this? Why isn’t the skill of these players enough?” he asked. “Why are we only entertained by whacking each other around?”

Both EA Sports and the NHL refused repeated requests for interviews about the game and its revamped fighting engine. But EA explains the upgrades in this video:

New features include:

  • The same mechanics that are used in EA’s Fight Night boxing games
  • NHL enforcers coming to the aid of downed superstars and initiate a fight
  • “Physics-based punch targeting” that make blows more realistic
  • Real time facial damage, so bruising and black eyes remain through the game

"For us this year it was all about capturing the big hits, real fights and unbelievable speed and skill of hockey," NHL 14 producer Sean Ramjagsingh told The Canadian Press in a previous interview.

"When I look back at NHL 13, I feel like we fell short a little bit on the aggression piece of it," Ramjagsingh said.

That new focus on fighting is all about pure spectacle, says Giroux.

“It’s about the bottom line, profits and drawing the fans in,” he said. “It points to the fact that violence has such currency that it seems to saturate all parts of everyday life.”

“It’s very difficult to find video games that don’t push violence,” he said. Granted, EA’s depiction of violence is miles away from other games, like Gears of War’s chainsaw bayonet or Resident Evil’s ravenous zombies.

'No damage done, nobody gets hurt'

Fighting in hockey doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Just before the NHL season opened, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge that “we don't go out of our way to market or promote that, it is what it is and happens when it happens and while some people would prefer not to see it in the game, other people enjoy seeing it."

Bettman also told Mansbridge, "No damage done. Nobody gets hurt, [it] takes down the temperature."

With Parros out indefinitely with a concussion, the Hamilton Bulldog’s Nick Tarnasky could be next in line to be the Canadiens’ new enforcer. Tarnasky has split time between the Lightning, Panthers and Predators at the NHL level, and racked up 297 penalty minutes in 245 NHL games.

The Alberta native told CBC Hamilton that he has no problem with EA Sports beefing up fighting in its NHL games.

“Video games are what they are — they’re for the fans. And from a fan standpoint, fighting is a big part of the game,” Tarnasky said. “It’s part of what people enjoy seeing when they get to the game.”

“I think it’s fine for the fans and for them to enjoy doing it.”

George Parros

Montreal Canadiens centre Tomas Plekanec checking on his downed teammate George Parros after a fight with Toronto Maple Leafs right winger Colton Orr during the third period of the Habs' home opener at the Bell Centre. Parros is out of the Canadiens' lineup indefinitely. (Jean-Yves Ahern/USA Today Sports)

Where kids playing the game are concerned, things can get a little greyer, he admits. “But I think differentiating between the NHL hockey game and a video game should be pretty easy for someone to explain to them and for the kids to understand.”

Jeremy Widerman, the guitarist from Hamilton’s Monster Truck, has a special connection to EA’s NHL franchise. He’s been a fan for over a decade, and his band play fanatically and regularly take on Halifax band Wintersleep in online matches. The band’s song Seven Seas Blues was featured in NHL 13, too.

He says that the response among players he’s seen has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

“It has to be there just for them to sell games,” Widerman said. “I think it really has helped them sell copies.”

Widerman is a big hockey fan on top of being an avid video game player, and says fighting is so popular among fans because it’s one of the “last true old-school barbaric things.”

NHL players have been polled in the past, and voiced overwhelming support to keep fighting in the game. Slightly less than 98 per cent of NHL players who filled out a National Hockey League Players' Association poll in 2012 voted no to banishing fighting.

And as long as hockey players are speaking that decisively, other people don’t really have a right to tell them what’s best for themselves, Widerman says.

“I hate trying to save people from themselves,” he said. “If players don’t want to stop, and the NHL doesn’t want to stop, then why should we?”

“For player safety, if they’re not concerned about it, then I’m not going to be.”