Responding to questions regarding Wednesday night’s incident with Todd Fedoruk, Colin Campbell wondered if it was time to bring up a subject that’s been long debated.
“I think it’s time to ask the question,” Campbell told The Canadian Press on Thursday. “I think you have to ask the question because of what’s happening out there. It’s incumbent on me, because of my position, to ask the question.”
The latest evidence in the case against fighting was Fedoruk being stretchered off the ice Wednesday night.
Campbell is no namby-pamby. He used to drop the gloves in his day as an NHL player.
But the NHL’s director of hockey operations worries about what could happen today.
“I’m not afraid now to talk about the fact that we should look at fighting in hockey,” said Campbell. “I think if you discussed this even three or four years ago you would have got pooh-poohed out of the game.
“But now I think because of the size of our players, where we’re at in sports and in life, I think we have to look at it.”
It’s going to be a hard, long battle to convince enough people, though.
“I think you’re going to lose fans,” veteran Coyotes centre Jeremy Roenick said. “As much as I hate to say it – because you’d like to think everybody comes to see the exciting players do their thing – but there’s a large amount of people who love the physical, tough aspect of our sport. And fighting is a favourite of a lot of people.
“Would it kill me (to have fighting banned)? No. … I wouldn’t mind not seeing it, I don’t like to see anybody get hurt. But as far as selling tickets, there’s a large group of people who enjoy the fights.”
Retired Flyers captain Keith Primeau agrees that people like the odd fight, but says nobody wants to see players injured.
“There was nothing fake about what happened last night,” he added.
Despite recent high-profile incidents such as Chris Simon’s vicious stick-swinging or Jordin Tootoo cold-cocking Stephane Robidas, the game is no more violent today than it was in years past.
“I played when bench-emptying brawls were accepted and all too often a common occurrence,” said Campbell. “I played in the old World Hockey Association one year where it was really dangerous because you didn’t have the same number of players in your lineup some nights, and it became scary when you had a brawl and you had 2-on-1s. Just talking about it now, you can’t imagine that would have ever happened but it did happen.
“I think all of hockey has really cleaned up that aspect of our game.”
But what’s changed is what people find acceptable.
Flyers enforcer Fedoruk ended up in hospital after being KO’d by Rangers tough guy Colton Orr. Luckily, he said Thursday he’s fine.
But what about the next time two big tough guys square off?
“This year we’ve had two players carried out on stretchers because of fair, consenting fights that had taken place. . . . It scares you,” said Campbell.
“I think we, the players and the managers, have to look at this aspect of the game.”
Today’s enforcers are bigger than ever before, so their punches carry more impact, Campbell argues.
“You take a Tiger Williams, you take a Dave Shultz, or even a Bob Probert of the ’90s, and you pit them against our players today – our players today are much bigger and stronger and more well-conditioned,” said Campbell.
Buffalo Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff, also a former player, agreed.
“I think there is truth to that, that they are a lot bigger and lot stronger,” said Ruff. “We’ve seen some KO punches that you wonder if the guy is ever going to get up. …
“I’ve never even approached the idea that it would be banned, but I think there is some reality when you see scenes like a guy getting hit with a bare fist from a guy that weighs maybe 215-220, he throws one heck of a punch now.”
“When I came into the league in 1990, I could fight most guys,” said Primeau, listed at 6-5 and 220 when he played. “But in the last seven, eight years, there were guys there was no way I was going to drop my gloves with. Because they were in a position to be able to hurt you.”
Campbell says players are sustaining more than a bloody nose in fights these days.
“Guys being carried off on stretchers was never a common occurrence,” he said. “It’s happened too many times already this year. I think we have to ask the question, is the risk worth it? Is this part of the game worth it?”
There is a counter-argument to banning fighting, however.
Some players could take more liberties with the stars without fear of answering to a tough guy.
“I worry about what would happen if there wasn’t a way to let out the frustration with a fight,” said Roenick. “Because let’s face it, there is absolutely no respect in the game any more, with the way guys are taking runs at people and with the cheap shots and the late hits. Guys are getting hurt. If you take fighting out all of a sudden these guys are going to take even more liberties because they don’t have to be accountable for themselves.
“I think somebody is going to get hurt more from a vicious hit from a guy not being worried that he has to drop his gloves and get his ass kicked.”
Primeau agreed with JR and has a solution.
“It has to go hand in hand,” said Primeau. “If you’re going to outlaw fighting, you absolutely have to outlaw any kind of stick infraction. So if you’re saying, for example, that fighting is a 10-, 15-or 20-game suspension, then a reviewable high stick has to automatically be a 10-, 15-or 20-game suspension.
“Because sticks are just going to get higher when guys know there is no recourse or retribution.”
While there have been other ugly moments this season, Campbell says supplemental discipline has dropped “tremendously” since the lockout.
Campbell handed out 31 supplemental suspensions in 2003-04 (not counting automatic suspensions), which dropped to 21 last season.
Amazingly, despite all the headline bad behaviour this season, only nine supplemental suspensions have been handed down this season.
While Campbell worries about the current landscape, he still shakes his head at the violence of earlier eras.
“We’d put Vaseline in our hair so guys couldn’t grab our hair,” recalls Campbell. “Really, it was ‘Slap Shot’ out there. Our game has changed totally.”
And may one day, sooner rather than later, change even more dramatically.
A look at some ugly moments in the NHL this season:
-On Wednesday night, Rangers tough guy Colton Orr KO’d Flyers enforcer Todd Fedoruk, who went to hospital after being taken off the ice on a stretcher;
-Last Saturday night, Nashville winger Jordin Tootoo levelled Dallas star Mike Modano with a clean and hard hit. When Stephane Robidas came in to protect the Stars captain, Tootoo turned and socked him with no warning, knocking the defenceman out cold. The NHL suspended him five games;
-On March 8, Simon took a vicious stick swing at the face of Rangers forward Ryan Hollweg, earning himself a 25-game suspension. The Islanders winger was retaliating after a borderline hit from Hollweg;
-On March 2, New Jersey’s Cam Janssen hammered Toronto’s Tomas Kaberle with a late hit. The star Maple Leafs defenceman sustained a severe concussion and Janssen was suspended three games;
-On Feb. 22, a hit by Ottawa’s Chris Neil levelled Buffalo star Chris Drury, who sustained a severe concussion. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, angered by the hit, sent out tough guys Andrew Peters, Patrick Kaleta and Adam Mair to rough up Senators skilled players Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Mike Comrie. A mini-brawl ensued that featured Ottawa goalie Ray Emery first taking on Sabres goalie Martin Biron and then Peters. The brawl lasted five minutes and led to 100 minutes in penalties. No suspensions are handed out but Ruff was fined US$10,000;
-On Feb. 10, Emery slashed Maxim Lapierre in the face after the Montreal centre crashed his crease. Emery was suspended three games;
-On Feb. 10, Toronto winger Kris Newbury was carted off the ice on a stretcher after a fight with Ronald Petrovicky. The Pittsburgh forward caught Newbury with a hard punch, and the Leafs winger’s helmet came off. When Newbury fell back, he struck his head on the ice and was knocked cold. He sustained a severe concussion;
-On Dec. 30, Orr cross-checked Washington star Alexander Ovechkin in the head and was suspended five games. Earlier in the game, Capitals tough guy Donald Brashear punched Rangers defenceman Aaron Ward in the face and got a one-game suspension for it;
-On Dec. 21, Nashville winger Scott Nichol sucker-punched Jaroslav Spacek from behind, the Buffalo defenceman crumbling to the ice. Nichol was suspended nine games;
-On Dec. 7, St. Louis forward Dallas Drake delivered a hit to the head to Detroit defenceman Brett Lebda. He got two games;
-On Nov. 22, a mini-brawl between Atlanta and Washington saw Brashear suspended for three games after beating up non-tough guy Vitaly Vishnevski.