The Sharks and host Ducks engaged in a nasty little bit of NHL business late Sunday night when the two teams combined for 165 penalty minutes, nine fighting majors and eight misconducts in San Jose’s 4-1 win over Anaheim. Included in the mess were multiple ejections to players from both teams (including Ducks star Corey Perry and Sharks blueliner Justin Braun) a third period brawl and the second fight of the game between Anaheim’s Tim Jackman and San Jose’s John Scott, who left the bench in direct violation of Rule 70.2 to get into it with Jackman late in the third period.
(Some will say Scott was on a line change, but Rule 70.2 stipulates even legal line changes that lead to the instigation of a fight can be subject to supplemental discipline, and there’s no doubt that’s what Scott did.)
The win snapped both the Ducks’ seven-game win streak and the Sharks’ four-game losing skid. But the game also was significant in that it was arguably the first game of the regular season in which the NHL has sufficient evidence by which to suspend a player for his on-ice actions. Things can change in a single game, obviously, but when many teams have played ten percent of their season without some episode of superfluous chest beating occurring, there might just be evidence of an actual culture change beginning to take root among players and within league management circles.
The evidence of the different times in which the NHL now operates is all around us: over here, Sabres coach Ted Nolan, no dainty peacenik in his playing career, correctly notes the pointlessness of a staged fight; over there, former Canucks, Oilers and Rangers head coach and new Hockey Canada president Tom Renney is taking a bold stance against fighting (“(H)ockey is not the WWE. And this sport must teach many things to young people about character, integrity, teamwork, not fighting.”);
over here, the league is asking linesmen to step in and stop fights before they even begin; over there, a slew of enforcers including George Parros, Colton Orr, Krys Barch and Paul Bissonnette have failed to find an NHL job.
“There’s plenty of guys who didn’t get deals,” Scott told the Boston Globe this weekend. “(The NHL) really went after fighting. It was so drastic this off-season where (none of Scott’s peers) got signed.”
Is it really so hard to imagine that, with the changing attitudes and the league employing fewer players who have been famous over the years for snapping and engaging in highly aggressive behavior, there could be an attendant decrease in instances of snapping and highly aggressive behavior? Not for some of us, it isn’t.
But it’s more than just that. In numerous conversations I had with Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan when he was working as the NHL’s chief disciplinarian, he regularly talked about the need for the players to ultimately create change in the way they played the game. Shanahan took that job in 2011 and immediately improved the suspension process, focusing on educating players more than punishing them. Three years later, is it not reasonable to conclude players have begun to accept the message the league has been sending? Some of us think it is.
Some things haven’t changed, of course. There will still be the same predictable, risible and ineffectual ad hominem attacks on those who stubbornly point out simple concepts such as logic, or who have the audacity to do things such as place greater value on the analysis of neurologists than, say, on that of retired hockey coaches with a vested financial interest in maintaining the professional fighting subculture within the sport.
Those who don’t like the way hockey is evolving shouldn’t be mad at hockey writers, or “kids today”, or whatever other boogeyman mirage they need to invent to feel as if they’ve been wronged or the world is nearing its end. If they want to be mad at someone, they can be mad at science, at the simple physical principles behind brain injuries, at the harrowing stories of the men who’ve suffered while serving in the enforcer role. Those are the things that are leading to a new NHL in which the Ducks and Sharks’ shenanigans are an increasing rarity. And there’s no going back to what for some are the league’s “glory days” of nightly brawls. Just listen to Scott talk about how “terrible” the new NHL is:
“It’s a huge load off my mind,” Scott told the Globe. “It’s very refreshing to go out there and be like, ‘OK, I don’t have to fight tonight.’
When even enforcers like Scott say the NHL is “very refreshing” without him having to fight on any (or every) given night, the battle is over. And the losers of that battle can complain all they want that other people’s consciences have gotten in the way of their alleged right to enjoy carnage on demand, but it won’t reverse the path the game is inexorably on.