This week I interviewed David Singer. David is the founder of hockeyfights.com, which is the number one resource for information, videos, statistics and news regarding fighting in hockey. He was also an executive producer on the award nominated documentary, Ice Guardians.
Josh Wahler: What was the inspiration for founding hockeyfights.com and did you ever think it was going to blow up the way it did?
David Singer: It started mostly because of curiosity. I wanted to know who fought who, how many times, things like that. I discovered that a lot of the players were the same way through an internship that I did up in Buffalo in the late 90s, if I can date myself that badly (laughs). Just hearing them speak and realizing if I created this database that it would satisfy more than just my curiosity, so I went with it. I could see that there was a potential for a big fan base in there but I didn’t know 10 years down the road exactly how big it would be. I just thought it would be active.
When the site first started it really was just a database of fights and eventually there was a forum of people and then there’s people requesting things that I had thought of, and if those two things intersected I would go ahead and build it. Things like voting and reviewing, all of those very standard things that you would now put on a website. It really took off in a way that I both didn’t predict but also wasn’t surprised by it. You can have both of those things at the same time. When web video became a standard thing it did become a bit of a beast of a site. I’m not sure I really thought it was going to be exactly what it was back then.
JW: When talking with players, do they ever tell you that they use your site as a resource? I mean I could imagine a fighter using it for research. Enforcers say they know the schedules in their head and know who’ll they’ll potentially be fighting on each date. I can see them using it to learn a guy’s tendencies and style. It seems like it would be a great resource from a player point of view.
DS: Yes, players have definitely told me that. In a short time period though. Yes, the site has been around for a while but in the grand scheme of hockey and the players I’ve spoken to across the leagues, there’s a very finite set of players who can actually use it as a resource. A few years ago I was on the South By Southwest panel with Greg Wyshynski, who was at Yahoo at the time, he’s now with ESPN and we had Brad May with us. When we were on stage May Day gave me a slap on the back and said my site extended his career a few years because he’d go in check whether someone was a lefty or a righty or whether they were going to square off versus jump him. He had a whole list of things he was looking for that he would scout them for all the time.
A few other players have told me very similar things. Did I set it up for that? Not originally, no. Once someone told me something like that 15 years ago I started keeping things like that in mind. The site itself had three or four very different audiences. One was fans, one was players, one was media and one was team executives or scouts. They all used the site for a very different purpose. It was really interesting to me as the person creating it and maintaining it.
JW: A lot of players talk about how they didn’t want to be fighters when they were growing up but they saw it as their path or their way of making it to the NHL. What do you think is the difference between the legendary guys who are able to do it for years, versus the dime a dozen guys who get called up for a handful of games and never make it back up?
DS: Usually the difference in those two players is either skill, luck or both. Usually luck is in regards to timing more than any sort of event or thing happening to them. What I mean by that is there are a lot of tough guys who especially fifteen, twenty years ago might have been on the same level as some other players who did make it and they just weren’t in the right system for it or maybe they didn’t have a coach who gave them the same sort of shot. There’s very little you can do about that.
Everybody in the NHL was probably the highest scorer on their team at some point in their life whether it was when they were five or ten or twelve, whatever it was. Most of them didn’t even think about fighting until they were in junior or post college and a lot of them made a very conscious decision to start fighting or at least incorporate that into their game. I’ve met very few players who regret it. Even if they say, “it’s not exactly what I set out to do but once I started doing it…” very few of them want to say on the record that they enjoyed it, but quite a few did.
That was one of the things that was interesting about making Ice Guardians which was getting a lot of players on the record saying, yeah people don’t want to hear that you liked doing it, but you did. And then there were players who didn’t. For me I’m not in the position of either of them. I can’t imagine what it would have been like, if the stress would have gotten to me or not. For me that was the most interesting part of it. It wasn’t really the physical aspects of throwing a punch it was thinking about it the night before and the stress that came along with that. There are players from every angle of this aspect of the game, meaning whether or not they enjoyed it or whether or not they wanted to continue doing it to make it to the NHL and then stay there. I simply can’t put myself in that position because I’ve never been there.
JW: Speaking of Ice Guardians, one of the topics that comes up that I think is fun to talk about with any skill set is who’s the greatest? In your opinion, is there any one guy that stands out to you? If you were coaching and your team was getting roughed up and pushed around and you could send any guy in history over the boards to make it stop or settle things down is there that one guy for you?
DS: It’s Bob Probert. I went on the record in the movie saying that and I can’t back away from it now that’s for sure. I’ve had this question thrown at me a lot and Bob Probert was really the culmination of so many different things. From being able to keep up with the play, to being able to throw a big hit, to being able to fight, being able to keep it clean and being able to get really dirty. He was willing and able to do all of it, or it at least it seemed that way to me and it seemed that way to anybody I’ve ever spoken to. It’s very easy then to pick him because not only was he willing but he was so great at almost all of it that you say alright if you had him you could get through so many different situations that arise. A lot of other players, fighters or not, can’t handle every single situation out there and you have to pick and choose. If you’re going to say who do I want, it’s going to be Bob Probert because he’s going to be able to handle it no matter what it is.
JW: What’s your opinion on the instigator rule?
DS: It’s a very vague and complicated rule. I’d love to say just get rid of it but there have been times where I’ve seen it called well, but most of the time it really just doesn’t apply. Not only does it not apply but it doesn’t apply for the reasons that it was created for which was one player jumping another player. They were trying to prevent things like that when the rule was created. Oh they’re not going to go out there and just grab him and make him fight. Well, that really wasn’t how it was ever called and if it was, it was right away and it never sticks.
So we have twenty years of this rule, I guess we’re closing in on thirty now and it’s really never been applied for the reasons it was created for. It’s really just been applied in situations that all they seem to do is give a power play to team for no reason whatsoever. If it was used properly I think a lot of people would have a lot less complaints about it. I mean what are you doing with it now? Does it have any relevance in today’s game? Is anybody going to do that?
In any situation where you’re going to make an instigator call, is the game actually benefiting from that? Is the player themselves probably not also picking up another 25 minutes of additional penalties on top of that? So why do we even need those two extra minutes, because the player’s probably thrown out, probably got a misconduct, a game misconduct and a fighting major and if the other play doesn’t have one you’ve got a major five minute penalty on the board anyways, why do you need an extra two? That seems like the more common situation nowadays.
I have tracked when and where they’re called. I have not published the numbers, I probably should. It’s not the rule that people think it is and I don’t think it’s benefited the game or the players or the fans. So, I’m not saying to eliminate the idea of it but they should probably redraw it especially for the modern game today.
JW: What do you think would happen if we took fighting out of the game all together? What would the league look like?
DS: I think we’re starting to see it. I don’t know if I’m going to need to answer that one because I think in a few years we’re going to see what that result is and we’re going to find out if we like it more than the game that we used to see. I’m not sure. I don’t know what it’s going to be like. This is still a very fast, physical game and I still think fighting has a place in it, but clearly we’re not on the road to keep it there. Whether or not it’s going to be a better game, I don’t know. My knee jerk reaction is no. Then again, I still love the game so I’m going to wait and see and if it’s the game we have. I hope I’m wrong because I never want to be one of those guys who longs for yesteryear.
JW: So you do think that within a few years we’ll see an elimination of it all together, that fighting will be extinct?
DS: I don’t think they’re ever going to have to create a rule where if you fight you’re ejected because they’ve been able to eliminate fighting through supplementary rules, discipline and other changes in the game. It’s just being phased out little by little, sometimes a lot by a lot. With the player turnover that there’s been over the last four or five years there’s been so many fewer players who where brought up that can fight, that there’s been less fighting.
So will it be eliminated in two or three years? No. Will it be eliminated in ten? Depends what your definition of elimination is. If you say there’s no fighting in baseball then it’s probably going to be something a little more than that. We’ll say there’s no fighting in hockey but we’ll see what we see in other sports where there’s just an eruption every once in a while. I hope the rest of the game is still great.