Don’t like NHL fights, don’t hold your breath

Have we cooled down yet?

Are we done over-reacting to, as one hockey writer squealed, “THE NEAR-TRAGIC EXCHANGE BETWEEN COLTON ORR AND GEORGE PARROS.”

Because if we’re ready today for some sober, non-partisan chat on fighting in hockey, here’s a good place to start: Fighting will not be banned in the near future, nor will the penalties for fighting change during this season. Those are not opinions, but facts. So, let’s talk about why, and what changes can occur.

The NHL Players’ Association has bargained hard for the right to have a 50 per cent say in rule changes. The players signed-off on visors and hybrid icing, and—read closely now—there will be no changes to the rules governing fighting until NHL players wish for there to be.

So where are the players? Well, in a 2012 poll conducted by CBC and the NHLPA, 98 per cent of players responded to the question, “Should fighting be completely banned?” with a resounding, “No.”

If it were up to concerned hockey writers, a growing faction indeed, fighting would be banned beginning Friday. But consider this: Bob Goodenow used to believe that players should wear visors, and he stepped down as the NHLPA executive director eight years before the rule was grandfathered into the game. That is because Goodenow believed more strongly that it was the players’ choice to make, and until they collectively did so, no dice.

Fighting also lies with the rank and file of NHLers, and there isn’t a stitch of evidence this week that banning it has any traction among players of any age. “We’ll play with a tennis ball before we take fighting out,” Vancouver defenceman Kevin Bieksa, 32, said. Winnipeg’s 23-year-old blueliner Zach Bogosian agrees. “(Without it) you’d have guys running around playing a lot tougher than they normally would,” he told the media in his city. “It keeps everyone honest.”

We’re not here to debate the merit of fighting, or weigh the time-honoured arguments like Bogosian’s. The point is, the people who engage in and are directly affected by fighting are vastly in favour of keeping it in hockey.

Inside NHL quarters however, cracks are appearing. There is growing concern among general managers and league officials, and internally, there is momentum to remove the one-dimensional fighter from hockey. That would mean rule changes that make players like Steve MacIntyre, Brian McGrattan and Parros completely useless to their respective coaches.

Even that will take time, however. Because here is how rule changes happen in the NHL:

The next meeting between the 30 NHL general managers is scheduled for Nov. 11-12 in Toronto, right after Hall of Fame weekend. As of today the subject of fighting is not even on the agenda, though I suspect that will change. Traditionally, they debate a topic, whittle the options down, and then go back to their jobs, mentally applying any new rules to games they watch over the course of the season. Then they meet again March 10-12 in Boca Raton, Fla., at which point they will discuss the options further.

On a topic of this import, the GMs move slowly. But let’s just say they propose a rule change in March. It would then go to the Competition Committee—comprised of five players, five GMs, plus non-voting participants Colin Campbell and Mathieu Schneider from the NHL and NHLPA—at which point more discussion would occur. The Competition Committee traditionally meets during All-Star weekend. But there is no All-Star game this year due to the Olympics, so that group may not meet until June.

The NHLPA members then take any proposed changes back to the NHLPA’s Executive Committee, which is comprised of 30 team representatives. Their purpose is to get an accurate read on how every player feels. A new rule would have to be OK’d by the Committee, as well as passing by the NHL Board of Governors, which is traditionally the final rubber stamp for all major rule changes.

The fastest that could happen is in the summer. And that’s if the players were in favour. I’ve talked to a few people this week who indicate that, while the league may be feeling some of the media pressure to start down the road of re-writing the rules around fighting, the players are not. In fact, after 25 years of writing hockey, I’m pretty sure that any initiative championed by hockey writers will push the players in the opposite direction

Theoretically, the league could unilaterally impose new fighting standards, followed by an NHLPA grievance, but that is unlikely.

Or concerned hockey writers could win the day. And then we would truly see a “near tragic” event.

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