NAPLES, Fla. – The issue of fighting in hockey is about to be placed under the microscope.
With the NHL’s 30 general managers set to gather for their annual meetings from Monday to Wednesday, fighting will dominate the discussion.
The GMs will examine a range of issues to do with fights in the sport, looking at what commissioner Gary Bettman has termed “the rules of engagement.” Everything from potential safety measures to what types of fights should be allowed is expected to be debated and discussed.
While the issue is hardly a new one for the league, the tide of popular opinion seems to be changing. A chorus of different voices have chimed in on the issue since Ontario senior men’s league player Don Sanderson died in January after striking his head on the ice during a fight.
Now the GMs will look at fighting closely. It could potentially lead to a new rule or regulation.
“We will have a good candid discussion,” Bettman said recently. “We are not going to have any immediate knee-jerk reactions.
“We’re going to have to study things before we make changes – if we decide to make changes.”
The commissioner has said many times he believes fighting still has a place in hockey and the majority of GMs seem to share that sentiment.
One thing they’ll discuss in Florida is the merits of instituting a rule similar to the Ontario Hockey League that requires players to keep their helmets on during fights. NHLPA boss Paul Kelly and Montreal Canadiens tough guy Georges Laraques are among the people who have publicly supported that kind of change.
The general managers will also discuss ways to reduce the number of fights between goons. Kelly, for one, isn’t a fan of what he’s termed as “staged fights.”
“I’m not so sure those are the fights that we need to continue to have in the sport,” he said last month. “And if they’re the most dangerous fights, we ought to take a good, hard look at those.”
Any potential rule changes by the GMs must first be reviewed by the competition committee and approved by the league’s board of governors.
Fighting is an issue that has been touched on many times in the past at these meetings, but the tone of the conversation is expected to be much different this week. Even Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, a staunch supporter of fighting in hockey, concedes Sanderson’s death has given new reason to look at the issue.
“I have personally never seen a player hit his head on the ice in a fight,” he said recently. “I know it happens.
“I know that’s how the Sanderson boy passed away. I’m not belittling that. I’ve never seen it personally (and) I’ve been to a lot more hockey games than the average adult person in their life is ever going to see.
“But when you have a tragedy of that nature, you have to step back. We’re not heartless people. You have to step back and look at the rules of engagement or the mechanics of it.”
While fighting will receive the most attention at the meetings, other proposals and ideas will be discussed.
Kelly and Glenn Healy have been invited to make a presentation on Monday to talk about issues on behalf the players. The GMs will also discuss making regulation wins the first tiebreaker in the standings, requiring a team about to penalized to clear the puck from its zone before the whistle is blown and the mandatory all-star game participation rule, among other things.
Burke plans to re-introduce his idea of allowing teams to trade cap space – something he essentially accomplished at the deadline in the Olaf Kolzig deal with Tampa Bay. His plan has been rejected in the past but could get through this time.
“It’s like Groundhog Day, I just keep putting it on (the agenda),” said Burke. “My theory is that at some point the people that don’t care will stop voting against it. The people that don’t like it may see some merit in it. …
“I think sometimes if you’re progressive, ahead of the curve, you have to wait for some people to catch up with you. I’m not saying you’re smarter than people at all, but you might have an idea that’s out there in one year and three years later people say it makes sense. You just have to be persistent.”
One thing this year’s gathering will be missing is trade buzz. The meetings have traditionally been held just before the trade deadline but they were moved this year because some GMs believed the rumours caused a distraction.