So NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says the GMs won’t have any “immediate knee-jerk reactions” when it comes to how they’ll deal with the fighting issue when they meet beginning Monday in Florida. He says it as though reacting swiftly and decisively to a player dying in a fight would be a rash thing for the league to do.
Forgive me for being cynical, but am I the only one who thinks the GMs’ “good, candid discussion” about fighting at their annual meetings is going to be nothing but a dog and pony show? My guess is they’ll spend a little bit of time paying lip service to fighting and things will continue on as usual until somebody dies at center ice in Madison Square Garden instead of in front of a couple hundred people in Brantford.
Because with all due respect, asking GMs about the fighting issue is tantamount to canvassing the membership of the NRA for its feelings about gun control. What the “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” crowd doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge is that guns, in fact, do not kill people. But people with guns kill people. When you give the public the right to bear arms, occasionally those guns are going to fall into the hands of bad people and sometimes they’re going to be used in a violent way. And like Don Sanderson’s “accidental” death, sometimes people will come to a tragic end because someone inadvertently left a loaded gun in the wrong place. Nobody in the NRA wants that to happen, of course, but it’s an unintended byproduct of allowing people to bear firearms.
It’s much of the same thing with fighting in hockey. GMs claim they want to get rid of the “staged fights,” but that will never happen because fighting is encouraged in the NHL. It works like this: if one team has a designated fighter, everyone has to have one because you’re not about to get caught without a nuclear weapon when your enemy has one. These guys contribute almost nothing to the game, so when they’re on the ice together they square off in a pathetic attempt to justify their existence and their paychecks. And just how would the league ever be able to determine whether a fight is staged or not? You know, it’s an emotional game and hockey players just have to have that outlet for all of their pent-up aggression – or so the pugilism apologists would have everyone believe.
It’s like love and marriage: you can’t have one without the other. If the league and the GMs were really serious about getting rid of staged fights, they’d ban fighting altogether. But instead, Bettman talks about “rules of engagement,” which is a military term and a silly and condescending one to use when troops from both the United States and Canada are currently putting themselves in harm’s way.
But if the league ever does anything about fighting, it’s bound to make up a couple more rules governing fisticuffs, which is just what we all need.
I recently spoke at a Violence in Hockey symposium in London, Ont., and former NHL referee and director of officiating Bryan Lewis was one of the speakers. At one point during the proceedings, Lewis produced the NHL rulebook that he used in his first season in the league in 1967-68. The rules governing fighting consisted of all of three paragraphs.
In the modern-day NHL rulebook, fighting occupies five-and-a-half pages of copy. We now have rules governing: aggressors, clearing the area of a fight, continuing or attempting to continue a fight, fighting after the original altercation, fighting off the playing surface, fighting while wearing facial protection, fighting other than during the periods of the game, fighting prior to the drop of the puck, players who remove their sweaters prior to a fight, players whose sweaters are not properly tied down and come off during a fight, being the instigator in a fight, being the instigator in the final five minutes of regulation time or anytime in overtime and third man in.
What we’re likely to get, if anything, is another half page or so of rules governing chinstraps and deliberately removing helmets in a fight. When the Ontario League did that earlier this season, commissioner Dave Branch reasoned that establishing the rule would effectively remove fighting from the game by the process of evolution. Then three nights after the league implemented the rule, the Barrie Colts and Windsor Spitfires had a game that featured four fights.
What the NHL has failed to understand is that the only way to get staged fights out of the game and eliminate the possibility of the Don Sanderson tragedy playing itself out on the world's biggest stage is to ban fighting entirely. And that's certainly not about to happen, not if it's up to the 30 GMs, so what's the point of them even discussing the issue?
What is probably most troubling about the whole thing is that even though there has been a death, there is absolutely no appetite at the upper reaches of the NHL to even have a meaningful debate about the place of fighting and whether it still belongs in the game. The league seems to want to bypass that particular conversation altogether and instead talk about how to further govern fights.
As Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke has said many times, any discourse concerning the elimination of fighting in the NHL, "will be an extremely short discussion."
Again, paralleling it to the right to bear arms, the Founding Fathers added the second amendment to the U.S. constitution in order to prevent any government from ever again oppressing its citizens. At the time, most rifles were expensive, slow and powder-loaded. Certainly they couldn't have foreseen that weapons would become as sophisticated and compact as they are today.
And when fighting gained acceptance into hockey more than 100 years ago, certainly they could not have predicted some players would one day be 6-foot-5 and weigh 245 pounds.
So if you're going to have fights, players are always going to get hurt. You're always going to run the risk of one of them dying from his injuries and you're always going to have enforcers whose fights are staged every bit as much as those in the WWE.
So my advice to the GMs is either talk about fighting seriously or don't bother talking about it at all.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.