Fighting belongs in hockey

Let’s be real here. What happened to Whitby Dunlops’ defenceman Don Sanderson was an unfortunate incident, and should never happen, but is an anomaly more than a regularity.
Sanderson was knocked cold when his head struck the ice after he had fallen at the end of a fight in early December. He had been in a coma before passing away earlier this month.
The NHL, and all other professional and junior leagues, know their paying fans prefer that fighting be left in the game. This is obvious in any arena on any given night as fans respond enthusiastically whenever two gladiators square off.
They stand, they cheer, and the buzz lasts well after the two combatants are sent their separate ways.
This is a known fact.
But every so often the inevitable happens—and someone unfortunately gets hurt. What happened to Sanderson is in a whole new category, but the percentages would suggest these occurrences are extremely rare.
In fact, Sanderson’s death has been the first reported to result directly from a hockey fight among the thousands and thousands that have happened in rinks across North America over the decades.
From a player’s perspective, fighting is part of the game. I never played in a league where fighting was encouraged, but there’s nothing quite like a big hit—or, yes, a fight—to rally the troops and sway the momentum of the game.
You can sense the bench come alive in support of the teammate willing to put himself on the line for the team, and anyone with a heartbeat will get a little extra jump in their step as a result.
Fighting also holds players accountable, as just last week hulking Atlanta Thrashers’ defenceman Boris Valabik took some liberties with Boston Bruins’ star Phil Kessel, and in his defence, the giant Zdeno Chara came to Kessel’s aid and dropped the gloves with Valabik. The players can police themselves to a certain extent, and this sort of action from Chara surely did not go unrecognized by his teammates.
In Ontario, where the Sanderson story has made major headlines, OHL commissioner David Branch felt compelled to react, but not to the extent of outright banning fighting. That would take away some of the league’s paying clientele—and affect the pocketbooks of the people who run the game.
Not an option, of course.
Branch’s initiative means the OHL now will hand out a one-game suspension to any player who removes his helmet or undoes his chinstrap prior to a fight. However, the OHL requires that its players wear half-visors, so 99.9 percent of those players who have taken their helmets off in the past did so for this reason.
Seeing two men fighting in visors is stupid, and the number of hand injuries and wrestling matches that will result will far out-weigh the rare head trauma that happens without helmets on.
Most would say that’s an obvious trade-off, and I’d be hard-pressed to disagree with them.
Players at the NHL level are already thinking twice. Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames fought with the Phoenix Coyotes’ David Hale on Saturday and neither player considered taking off their helmets despite the visors attached to them.
I’ve seen Iginla fight countless times in the past, and he always used to take the helmet off intentionally to avoid this. Not anymore.
In contrast, as recently as last Thursday, Daniel Carcillo of the Coyotes was thrown to the ice by the Vancouver Canucks’ Rob Davison, and came up clutching the back of his head (both players took their helmets off prior to the fight).
Carcillo went to the penalty box and continued to play the rest of the game, but just as easily could have been spending the night in a hospital bed. So why take the risk?
The traditionalists will argue that fighting serves a purpose and keeps players honest, and seeing Chara step in with Valabik last week suggests there might be some truth to that.
Maybe the NHL can introduce an extra minor penalty for purposely throwing your opponent to the ice at the end of the fight, instead of banning fighting completely. The problem would be determining if a player was thrown to the ice or if he just lost his balance, and the deicision would ultimately be the referee’s discretion.
Regardless, with all these potential risks associated with fighting, why did Branch not ban it completely in the OHL? The time would be now, considering the ever-increasing anti-fighting stance is at an all-time high with what happened to Sanderson.
I think the answer is obvious: fights sells tickets, and the majority of die-hard hockey fans enjoy this aspect of the game.
And for that reason, with the business of hockey outweighing the health of its players, especially in the NHL, fighting isn’t likely to be going anywhere anytime soon.

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