The year is 2013.
We are inching towards the 100th anniversary of the NHL, and yet the arguments are the same as they were when Eddie Shore attacked Ace Bailey in the ’30s and when Murray Balfour beat Carl Brewer to a pulp in the ‘60s.
Having witnessed firsthand some of the “greatest” hockey fights ever, like Ron Delorme-vs.-Jamie Macoun and Stan Jonathan-vs.-Pierre Bouchard (and please, before you rip me, notice the word “greatest” is in quotes), I have seen the best and worst of what fighting does to the game and its participants.
There is so much to be discussed about fighting in the game. It’s not just a simple “ban it!” or “keep it!” but it is as easy as keeping the players safe.
This is a game of intimidation. The greatest intimidators in hockey were probably Gordie Howe and Mark Messier. Rarely as they grew to be adults in the NHL did they have to fight. Were they dirty? You bet. Did they cross the line every once in a while? Perhaps. But you never felt they were putting the opposing player in the position of a catastrophic, career-ending injury.
If you polled the league’s general managers on this topic, the decision would be split. Sometimes it would be as simple as a manager’s decision being reflective of his team’s ability to fight or lack thereof. Or perhaps the split is a sign of the game evolving.
I have sat beside two men I like and respect very much, Don Cherry and Brad May. Both men are as generous and gracious as any of my friends. They talk in glowing terms of the “high” of being in a fight and how it can change the momentum of a game. They truly believe that it is part of playing the game. The passion they exude in the discussion is convincing. And in terms of the NHL today, probably true.
However, as the game of hockey has grown from a post-war six-team league to a 30-team league from the sunbelt to the 54th parallel, the game has changed.
Arenas have changed. Equipment has changed. The size of players has changed. Coaching has changed. And so has our knowledge of the effects of the game on a player’s body.
With science, research and therapy, we have grown to know how to prevent and better treat career-ending knee injuries, sports hernias and torn labrums. And recently, we have started to understand the full effects on what this and other contact sports do to the brain. Concussion protocol has become part of our lexicon. And protecting the player, sometimes from himself, has become important to the powers-that-be.
I have long said that I hate staged fighting and the type of player called the “serial fighter.” You can insert any name you want here. Every player should be able to contribute on multiple levels to the success of his team. And while I am not lobbying for the total abolishment of fighting, I am suggesting the penalties for fighting, which is illegal in hockey by the way, need to be re-visited. The penalties should be much harsher.
The game of hockey has evolved. The rules have evolved along with it. And player safety, which was an afterthought for so many years, has become important.
And with that evolution, we should realize that fighting shouldn’t play such an important part in the NHL. And rather than being reactive to the situation, the league and its players should be proactive in changing fighting’s role in this great game.