On a freezing night on Long Island, David Singer left his wife and two sons and locked himself in his home office so he could pursue his hobby: watching men beat each other senseless. Singer is the founder of the site hockeyfights.com. When it comes to brawls — “scraps,” in hockey argot — he is a curator and a critic and an external hard drive for the NHL’s institutional memory. On this night, Singer left open a chat window so I could follow along as he collected violence.
Just after 9:30 p.m., Singer typed a message:
just had a scrap actually. put it on pause, opening up video capture software
We had a fight. It came during the Penguins-Islanders game on the NBC Sports Network. New York’s Matt Martin knocked down Pittsburgh’s Tanner Glass. A few seconds later, the incitement was reciprocated. Martin and Glass locked arms and traded blows as they skated in a lazy circle. It was as if someone had tied Rock’em Sock’em Robots to the top of a toy train.
so I am setting this up to record now and i’ll watch the fight as my computer is recording the video
Singer described the fight:
both players have good grips on each other. initial shots are short, hard to connect. they’re smart fighters, and the defense is getting a little weaker as they go
they open up a little, not a ton, but land a few as they spin around. tanner seemed to do better when switching to the left
Few hockey fights end in knockouts, or even knockdowns. Glass-Martin ended in a clutch. The referees intervened, and Martin skated away. This was about the time Singer heard his son’s footsteps on the ceiling above his office.
and now I’m being texted by my wife for help… brb
At first glance, Hockey Fights is merely an exotic research tool. What other site could tell you that Martin and Glass’s last bout was one year ago? And that their previous bout was two years before that? What site could give you video for both those fights, declare a crowd-sourced winner (Glass both times), and supply Zagat-like analysis: “monster shot … great tilt”?
“I did an Ottawa game two years ago,” said Hockey Night in Canada’s Glenn Healy, “and Sergei Gonchar got in a fight. I’m between the benches. I go to Hockey Fights on my phone and see that Gonchar hasn’t had a fight in 13 years. I used that right there on the broadcast.”
But Hockey Fights is more than a YouTube library. It’s the rare site that feels like a companion. “I go to Hockey Fights for the same reason I read Television Without Pity on what Doctor Who meant last week,” said Greg Wyshynski, editor of the Yahoo blog Puck Daddy. “You get that extra layer of analysis and history and context.”
After a few minutes, Singer returned to the chat. His clip of the Glass-Martin fight, complete with replay, lasted one minute and 41 seconds. He uploaded it to YouTube. Then he added the fight to the site’s log.
the log is the fight log — which is exactly what it sounds like — just a log of all fights that happen
The fight log for the 2013-14 NHL season had 346 entries at that point. Singer had posted all of them himself.
The fight clip was exported to both Martin’s Hockey Fights page and Glass’s page. The clip was sent out in a tweet. Under his handle, VodkaFish, Singer created a thread for the fight on one of Hockey Fights’ message boards. Soon, the commenters weighed in: “good scrap…pretty good scrap…draw…DRAW.” I refreshed my screen and found the full page, Tanner Glass vs Matt Martin, Jan 23, 2014 3pd 01:54. This is how a hockey fight gets remembered.
To appreciate the appeal of Singer’s site, you have to understand the strange, almost metaphysical space a fight occupies in the NHL. Singer prefers to remain fairly anonymous, but he lets a few details out. He grew up on Long Island; he went to SUNY Buffalo; he wrote for hockey historian Stan Fischler’s books and magazines; he is 36 years old. He also has a big job in Manhattan media that makes hockey a mere hobby.
When Singer began blogging, in the mid-’90s, he noticed something odd. Box scores showed goals, assists, and penalties. They didn’t say much about fights. Only fan-made VHS tapes, and the enforcer’s code of honor, kept a fight from being fudged in the retelling. “How can you exaggerate it?” said Knuckles Nilan, who logged more than 3,000 penalty minutes in 13 NHL seasons. “It is what it is. If you exaggerate it, you look like a fucking asshole.”
Singer brought the fight out of the realm of memory. He launched Hockey Fights in 1999. Within four years, he was posting videos. The fight became a sortable stat. When Colton Orr and Deryk Engelland traded punches on January 23, 2013, a Hockey Fights reader could trace the rivalry all the way back to an American Hockey League brawl on November 7, 2003. And if that weren’t enough, he could find Orr and Engelland dropping gloves in the Western Hockey League — as members of the Kamloops Blazers and Moose Jaw Warriors, respectively — on December 6, 2000.
Along with bloggers and posters on sites like Hockey’s Future, Singer was helping form an American hockey media more or less from scratch. “It was a combination of two things,” said Wyshynski. “It was the dissatisfaction of not being able to see hockey get covered with any regularity — locally, on ESPN, or on sports radio. Basically, hockey fans created their own press corps. But it was also the way hockey was covered in Canada. It was very straitlaced. Sites like mine were a direct reaction to taking the piss out of Canadian coverage.” By canonizing the fight, rather than the wrister or the glove save, Singer extracted another bag of piss.
Hockey Fights gets more even interesting when you think about the NHL’s tortured relationship with the fight. The Canucks-Flames battle royale on January 18 — the one in which Vancouver coach John Tortorella tried to shove his way into the Flames’ locker room — proved the fight is still the gold standard of hockey highlights. “It’s the spectacle, right?” said TSN’s Darren Dreger. “A highlight-reel goal will draw the same attention, but only fleetingly. We’ll go, ‘Ooh, look at that play.’ Then we’ll move on to something else.”
That the fight is insanely watchable has led the NHL to rein it in — but only so much. Twice in the 1990s, the NHL tweaked its rules to further penalize a player who starts a fight. Players now get around this by starting fights “simultaneously.” This year, the league added a two-minute penalty for taking off your helmet before a fight. In the preseason, Krys Barch and Brett Gallant carefully took off each other’s helmet.
“I think the league would like fighting to go away, but without having to change the rules in such a way that it’s outlawed,” said Michael Grange, a columnist at Sportsnet. That same hedge has crept into the hockey press. In November, Sports Illustrated invited readers to watch “50 landmark hockey fights,” but added a disclaimer: “This is not a compilation aimed at glorifying brutality and bloodshed.” You might call that aggregating your cake and eating it, too.
The specter of brain injuries adds further complications. Just as with former NFL players, Boston University’s Ann McKee has found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brains of ex-hockey players. Just like the NFL, the NHL is facing its own concussion lawsuit.
On Hockey Fights, then, Singer isn’t just capturing an event that disappeared from the official record. He’s capturing an event that a growing number of people wish would disappear. The hockey fight clip has become the Joe Theismann leg break, the botched wrestling spot, the announcer blooper spotted by Timothy Burke’s T.J. Eckleburg eyes.
Singer’s uncomplicated love of fighting puts him in the minority of youngish hockey writers, the ones whose age prevents them from getting misty-eyed over Tiger Williams and Dave “The Hammer” Schultz. Around 10:30, as Singer was scanning his TV, I asked him why he was pro-fighting.
i like it. some people want to get into some conceptual reason[s], many of which I do agree with (as a game element), but it’s exciting and pro sports are entertainment, despite what some of the media want to admit.
You might call this the essential pro-fight position. Most in the pro-fight camp argue that fighting makes the ice safer — an enforcer looking to take a shot might hesitate in the face of mutually assured destruction. Singer doesn’t dispute that, but he’s an aesthete: He enjoys a fight on its own terms. He talked about personal responsibility:
people call them gladiators at times, but they’re willing, well-paid gladiators, some ivy league educated. i’m not going to tell them what or what not to do. i don’t want to see anyone suffer at any point in their lives, and i’m sure more research will advance detection [of brain injuries] and hopefully rehabilitation for all, not just the players who took more punches.
Singer’s sons are 3 and 5 years old. The older one knows about Hockey Fights. Singer had just taken him to his first Islanders game.
people ask me how i explain this to my kids …
me saying they got into a fight and now have to sit in time out makes more sense to a kid than anyone else in the arena. five minutes in time out is fucking forever
Singer flipped to the Nashville-Vancouver game when Rich Clune and Dale Weise started brawling. That’s what the announcers reported, anyway, but the TV feed was showing the opposite side of the rink.
camera was pretty late getting there. not good for a Canadian feed…
By the time the camera found the pugilists, Weise’s helmet had flown off to reveal a mop of blond hair. It looked like Clune was fighting Jeff Daniels. Clune forced Weise to his knees — the usual endpoint of a hockey fight. But Weise wanted more and the fight continued.
Singer started his routine again. He made a clip (slicing out a TV commercial that had run between the fight and the replay) and posted it on Hockey Fights. His army of ring judges scored the fight overwhelmingly for Clune. The next morning, NHL.com’s official highlights package for the game included video of two hits, three goals, and 34 saves by goalies Carter Hutton and Roberto Luongo. The highlights contained no trace of the fight.
I wanted to hear what a player thought of Hockey Fights, so I drove to Islanders practice in Uniondale, New York. I sat with members of a Chinese junior team in town for a tournament. We watched Eric “Boulty” Boulton, a 6-foot, 225-pound left winger, skate around the rink. Boulton had brawled in Hockey Fights’ “Fight of the Week.”
After practice, I informed Boulton of the honor.
“Ah, cool,” he said.
For enforcers, Hockey Fights is more than a video library and a literary companion. It’s preventive care. Just as Tony Gwynn scrutinized video of his swing, enforcers study old bouts to pick up their opponents’ tendencies. “Back in the minors and juniors, you’d get the cassette tape to watch,” Boulton said. “Now, if you’re going to fight somebody that night, you can go on there and look the guy up. If you don’t know the guy very well, you can study a little bit and know what you’re in for.” Boulton notes whether an opponent fights righty or lefty, and whether he jumps his man immediately or squares off.
Boulton is short for a heavyweight. He has a soul patch and shoulders like the Ural Mountains. The “Fight of the Week” occurred on January 18, in Philadelphia. The Flyers’ Jay Rosehill asked various Islanders to have a go. Boulton volunteered. The Wells Fargo Center played a recording of a ring bell like the one on Jerry Springer. Here is where the Hockey Fights video library became important. Boulton and Rosehill had fought back on October 26. Rosehill swung hard but wildly in that one, and Boulton won the Hockey Fights vote by a margin of more than two-to-one.
Rosehill came out determined to land those early punches, and his rights met the side of Boulton’s head. Last time, Boulton had weathered the initial flurry as a matter of strategy: “You might eat a couple. Nature of the business.” But Boulton was fighting against the film, too. He changed up his tendencies. He countered Rosehill’s rights with his own. The fight was even — “a straight-up draw,” Boulton said — until the end. Boulton tried to grab Rosehill’s helmet, lost his balance, and flopped onto his back.
Not even C.J. Ross would score it a knockdown. But Rosehill let out a Mortal Kombat roar.
“He acted like he was king of the ring,” said Matt Carkner, an Islanders defenseman.
“No need for that after a good scrap,” said Kyle Okposo, an Islanders right winger.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to do all those antics,” said Boulton.
Within the context of the hockey fight, everyone agreed the roar constituted a breach of decorum.
The clock passed midnight. Singer was still staring at his TV. As a chronicler of hockey fights, he’s at the mercy of West Coast games.
it may not be true, but they all go into shootouts to fuck with me
After five straight hours, hockey begins to lose its moorings. It becomes an undifferentiated mass of Geico Intermission Reports and birthday wishes to Sharks defenseman Scott Hannan and ads that can only be described as grotesquely Canadian.
the commercials are all sticky sweet like all of canada lives in one village
Singer grabbed a beer from the fridge. The footsteps on the ceiling had stopped. Everyone but him was asleep.
The business of fight collecting sometimes keeps Singer awake until 2 or 3 a.m. He sleeps until 7:30 at the latest, and then rides the Long Island Rail Road for almost an hour into Manhattan. By the time Singer gets home, there is usually a hockey game playing on television. Singer farms out some AHL and Kontinental Hockey League fights to volunteers, but he insists on posting every NHL fight himself. He is at his computer nearly every night, and on some days, from October 1 until April 13. Then the playoffs start. He has a short break for the Olympics and is thinking about a vacation.
i’ve had some offers to buy, and some have been good, but many don’t understand what it’s about and i want to make sure that if I did hand it over to someone else it would continue to thrive.
At 12:26 a.m., Nashville put away Vancouver.
At 12:39, the Ducks put away the Kings.
just this one game left
Twenty-eight minutes later, San Jose–Winnipeg came to a merciful end. Singer had watched six hours of hockey to log three fights. But to miss even one would have been to lose a bit of grubby history, to let an act of violence pass into the phantom zone. Also, Singer would likely get an email from a reader telling him Hockey Fights used to be cool but has really started to suck.
When I’d gotten Singer on the phone a few days earlier, I asked him what his wife thought of his hobby. “She is extremely patient,” he said. “That’s probably the best and only way I’d dare to describe how she feels about it.”
Couldn’t you get someone to help you?
“I’m not sure,” David Singer said. “I don’t know why anybody else would do it. I guess I could always ask.”
Illustration by Muideen Ogunmola.