The recent concussion injury suffered by Montreal Canadiens enforcer George Parros during his club’s season-opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs once again sparked debate over fighting in the NHL.
Granted, Parros wasn’t injured by a punch but instead from an awkward tumble to the ice with his opponent Colton Orr, but critics of fighting say if they weren’t fighting, the injury wouldn’t have occurred.
Following the game, players on both clubs defended fighting in the game, calling what happened to Parros an unfortunate accident.
Still, there are fears among those who oppose fighting that one day a player could be killed.
I’ve made no secret of my belief that fighting no longer belongs in hockey. Though I’m no shrinking violet and for years enjoyed watching my share of hockey fights, I came to the conclusion over a decade ago fighting serves no meaningful purpose in hockey.
Most hockey fans, players, coaches, general managers and team owners disagree, for a number of reasons.
The majority of fans enjoy the added entertainment value fighting brings to the game. Players believe it has psychological benefits and helps them “police” the game. Coaches and GMs believe it helps give their clubs a physical edge. Team owners consider it part of the game’s attraction.
The fact there’s little statistical information which supports claims of fighting’s positive impact on the game, or that fights almost never occur during meaningful games (like the playoffs or the Olympics) punches holes in most of those claims, though there’s little doubt fighting remains popular among hockey fans.
Some critics believe it would take a death from a hockey fight for the NHL to abolish it, but I have my doubts.
The cynic in me believes the league would of course immediately express condolences and sympathy to the player’s family, perhaps even setting up a fund in conjunction with the NHLPA to either support the deceased’s family or to be given away to the late player’s favorite charity.
The league would also launch an “immediate investigation” while downplaying the incident as an unfortunate accident, noting it’s the first time in the league’s nearly 100-year history anyone died from a hockey fight.
Its legal deparment would also be on standby in anticipation of lawsuits or a criminal investigation. A “blue ribbon panel” would probably be convened to look more into player safety.
I believe the league would drag things out for weeks and months, wait for the uproar to settle down, implement some minor restrictions and carry on with business as usual.
It would take more than just one player dying in a hockey fight to eliminate it entirely from the NHL game.
As long as hockey fans don’t turn away from the spectacle, potentially threatening NHL revenue, the league won’t eliminate fighting from its product.
And yet, despite my cynicism, I must acknowledge the gradual changes implemented by the league over the years to limit the occurrence of hockey fights.
Bench clearing brawls – so prevalent during the 1970s and early-80s – are so rare now their occurrences over the past 20 years can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
The implementation of the “instigator rule” (put in place before Gary Bettman took over as league commissioner, so settle down, Bettman haters!) has significantly reduced donneybrooks involving multiple players on the ice.
This season sees the implementation of a rule in which players who remove their helmets before a fight will receive automatic minor penalties in addition to their five-minute fighting majors.
The league also tried in 2009 to eliminate“staged fights” between enforcers but their plan failed to pass muster with the NHLPA.
The role of the enforcer is also changing, as more NHL coaches prefer their tough guys to be able to play regular shifts. The one-dimensional “goon” seems to be on his way out in the NHL.
More team executives are speaking out against fighting. Tampa Bay Lighting GM (and NHL Hall of Fame player) Steve Yzerman joined Carolina’s Jim Rutherford, Pittsburgh’s Ray Shero and Chicago Blackhawks executive (and Hall of Fame coach) Scotty Bowman recently called for the elimination or reduction of fighting in hockey.
In the junior levels, where brawling once used to be even wilder than in the NHL, crackdowns on fighting and one-dimensional enforcers seems to be having an impact upon the quality of players reaching the NHL.
Given how entrenched fighting is in hockey, the NHL may never eliminate it from their product, but they certainly seem to be taking steps toward reducing the frequency of fighting in the game.