Dixon on NHL: The great fight debate

September 30, 2011, 11:20 PM

BY RYAN DIXON

SPORTSNET STAFF

The only thing more predictable than staged bouts between goons is the manner in which hockey’s great fight debate always seems to play out.

The quick recap goes something like this; a person in my position writes that the game’s gatekeeper’s have an obligation to create a safer work environment for the players; a high-ranking official from the league says fighting always has and always will be a part of the game, and people who self-identify as “true fans” more or less overwhelming come down on the side that believes punching and pucks belong together…

Or something like that.

I’ll allow that, in recent years, criticism of those aforementioned contrived conflicts has become more pervasive. Though, acknowledging the absurdity of those encounters is akin to going on a diet and deciding maybe you should cut out fast food. That conclusion shouldn’t take long to arrive at.

For the most part, when it comes to fights deemed to be driven by genuine emotion, the hockey establishment’s tune hasn’t changed much-which is why it’s new discipline czar, Brendan Shanahan, even hinted change could be afoot while speaking with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge for an episode of Mansbridge One on One.

Shanahan has already caught the hockey world’s attention with a slew of stiff suspensions during his first pre-season on the job, which lends some teeth to his comments on fighting.

“We’re definitely very serious in making advancements in studying blows to the head, we have to also look at fighting.

“What the final decision is, I can’t tell you now, that’s something we’re obviously going to have to look at, but there’s no way we would ever deny that it’s not something we’re looking at closely.”

To be sure, “looking closely” at something doesn’t always directly correlate to immediate change and I, for one, don’t expect knuckle-chucking to be tossed from the game any time soon. But maybe the precedent Shanahan has set with tougher sentences for headshots will trickle down to haymakers. Automatic game ejections? Suspensions for serial offenders? Perhaps.

Again, change certainly doesn’t seem immanent, but when you step back and soak in the big picture, the pieces are in place for some movement. Start with the fact there’s no going back on the growing awareness surrounding head injuries and concussions. Basic as it sounds, brains aren’t bones and the startling information about the lingering effects concussions can have is slowly seeping into the consciousness of people in and around all contact sports. We don’t know what kind of link there was or wasn’t between the recent deaths of Wade Belak, Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard and the demands of being a regular scrapper, but it certainly calls for some question-asking.

In a sense, Shanahan is the perfect representation of what I believe is at the heart of the fighting debate. There’s a notion out there that only knuckle-draggers like punch-ups: That is patently untrue. Many sharp, intelligent people like “Shanny” can have a visceral reaction to violence; it stirs them up, in that good way. Heck, you’ll even find a writer or two who get amped up by a few jabs. That a huge portion and cross-section of people enjoy fighting has never been up for debate. The problem is, when you weigh the pros and cons, the fact a lot of people like fighting simply isn’t good enough rationale for its continued existence. The downside is just too severe and I believe more and more people are starting to acknowledge that fact.

Some maintain fighting is necessary to weed out weasel-like behavior on the ice. Maybe it is a deterrent, but so are the harsher suspensions Shanahan is starting to hand out. And by the sounds of it, the door is at least slightly open to expanding the definition of what requires supplemental discipline.

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