NAPLES, Fla. – Gary Bettman would be happy to sit down with Georges Laraque and talk about fighting.
The NHL commissioner thinks he might be able to convince the Montreal Canadiens tough guy that rule changes proposed by general managers this week aren’t actually so bad for enforcers. Laraque was quick to criticize the recommendation by GMs that the instigator rule be more stringently applied next season and that a 10-minute misconduct penalty be given out to players who drop the gloves right after a faceoff.
Bettman was careful when asked to respond to the comments.
“I’d like to talk to George about it 1-on-1,” he said Wednesday. “I think with an in-depth discussion, these rules aren’t so far off the mark from things that he would be comfortable with.”
After 16 years as commissioner, debates about fighting are nothing new for Bettman.
Laraque’s biggest concern is that the proposed changes might end up eliminating the role he has filled for more than 600 NHL games over the last decade.
“The GMs need to find ways to make fighting safer instead of taking fighting out of the game,” Laraque said Tuesday in Montreal. “With the instigator rule, you have more cheap shots in the game than ever. Having a 10-minute misconduct won’t stop that. They should look at helmets or whatever to make it safer, not more penalties.”
Fighting was the major issue tackled by the GMs over three days of meetings.
The final session was held Wednesday morning and included several housekeeping items. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly delivered a presentation about the financial state of the league, but didn’t reveal anything new.
Essentially, the league still expects the US$56.7-million salary cap to remain fairly stable next season before dropping the following year. It remains to be seen how big of drop that might be.
“I think the biggest thing to 2010 to ’11 is the uncertainty – nobody knows,” said Bettman.
That uncertainty kept at least one proposal from becoming an official recommendation.
Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke has been lobbying to allow teams to retain some salary in trades because he thinks the added flexibility will prompt more movement. The idea was more warmly received this time around than in the past.
“I think it’s gathering support but at the same time it’s a CBA issue,” said Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland. “There’s so much unknown here going forward given the cap. We’re going to stay the course for the next little while.
“At the appropriate time, it will be re-addressed.”
Burke indicated that Bettman killed the idea: “The Big Kahuna said it’s not going to happen and that I should stop bringing it up.”
Holland’s proposal about tiebreaking rules didn’t get very far. He would like to see regulation wins become the first tiebreaker in the standings to reward teams that take care of business before overtime.
Several other ideas were kicked around and debated as well.
“It’s fun to watch the people that love the game like this talking about rule changes, the thought that goes into it,” said Burke. “And when you’re a rookie GM and you first come in you realize the passion these people have for the game.”
There was a more relaxed atmosphere around these meetings than in years past.
Since the lockout, they’ve been held a week or so before the trade deadline and included a lot of buzz about potential moves. While the GMs are aware that they’ve lost some sizzle by moving the meetings to after the deadline, many believe it gave them a better opportunity to focus on rule changes.
“I like this much better,” said Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi. “It’s impossible to really focus on these issues when you’re at the trade deadline.”
Added Bettman: “We had some very good in-depth important discussions and I thought the focus was really good. I think part of that is because guys weren’t out on their phones in the hallway as much as they were before the trading deadline.”
Even with so much time to focus on tweaks to rules around fighting, there isn’t a sense that the topic will stop being debated any time soon.
It’s something the NHL will always be wrestling with to some degree.
“We’re always trying to be self-analytical,” said Bettman. “We’re watching every game, we’re looking at trends, we’re trying to make sure that we have a sense of what’s going on.
“Fighting has always been an emotional issue but in terms of any interaction that I’ve had with hockey executives, coaches, players, fans – the overwhelming sentiment is that it’s part of the game and there’s no burning desire (to get rid of it).”