Fighting just won’t go away

For better or worse, hockey fights have been in the sport since Day 1.
But do they still belong?
Some hockey prognostics strongly believe they do while others, who once encompassed a small minority, adamantly are against it—and gaining a bigger following of late.
This debate has been fuelled by the recent death of senior men’s player Don Sanderson following a fight in which he hit his head on the ice. Even more recently, Garrett Klotz of the Philadelphia Phantoms was taken off the ice on a stretcher after suffering a seizure after a bout in the AHL.
Two major incidents so close together may force the sport’s biggest league, the NHL, to act. Or maybe not.
The NHL plans to officially examine the role of fighting during the general managers’ meeting in March, but will they consider an all-out ban? Unlikely, considering an anonymous poll by TSN found only two of the 18 GMs surveyed voted in favour of stiffer punishment for fighting majors.
But even so, there may be proposed changes to the “rules of engagement” to improve players’ safety, from possibly adding an additional penalty for throwing an opponent to the ice or adding further deterrents to prevent players from removing their helmets prior to or during a fight.
The OHL recently added a helmet policy, where players who voluntarily remove their helmets for a fight get ejected and suspended.
However, 11 of those same 18 NHL GMs said they were opposed to the OHL helmet rule. NHL GMs seem to be opposed to change by nature, and it might take a serious injury at the NHL level before they are forced to act.
Then again, they adapted the game after the lockout in 2004-05 to make it more exciting for the fans, so what’s stopping them from making a change that will make it safer for their players?
Some would say it comes down to dollars and cents, and suggest the NHL won’t act because the fans who buy the tickets want to keep it around. It’s hard to argue with that assessment.
The players probably would adapt to the lack of fighting like they’ve adapted to a crackdown on stick infractions, and I suspect the fans would, too. And maybe there are an equal number of fans out there who were driven away from hockey because of the fighting (as unlikely as that may sound) who might return to watch a cleaned-up game without the sideshow?
A Harris-Decima survey conducted during the NHL all-star weekend and released to The Canadian Press might support that theory, indicating 54 percent of respondents think fighting should be removed from the league.
The poll suggested only 40 percent of Canadians believe fighting should remain in the game. Still, 68 percent of those considered NHL fans (the die-hards) say it belongs. They, ultimately, are the ones paying the tickets, but again, maybe some of that 54 percent majority opposed to it would start buying more tickets after a ban is in place.
“Opinion is pretty split on this issue, [though] there’s a slight majority overall among Canadians that say that they think fighting should probably be banned from hockey,” Jeff Walker, Harris-Decima’s senior vice-president, told The Canadian Press.
“However, you’ve got a core group of hockey fans—the most ardent fans—who do not want fighting banned from hockey at all.”
If you ask the players, they also appear to be universally opposed to a ban on fighting.
“It’s part of the game, obviously,” Fort Frances Jr. Sabres’ forward Graham Dyck said. “It stops a lot of other problems like the stick work and stuff.
“It’s not something I go looking for, but for some guys that’s their job,” he added. “And if the time comes when someone runs our goalie or whatever, then you’ve got to get in there and stick up for your teammates.”
Sabres’ defenceman Will Morrisseau agreed. “Especially if your team is down, guys need a little boost,” he noted. “It gets some energy going through the team.”
Asked if they could do without the pre-orchestrated fights where two guys line up at centre ice with the sole purpose of squaring off, Sabres’ defenceman Zach Morton said the outcome of those fights still is positive.
“I think it still gets the team going,” he echoed. “[You] get pumped up no matter what when you’re watching someone throw bombs.”
But Dyck also admitted there are other ways to sway momentum in a game without dropping the mitts. “A big hit, goal, lots of pressure on net, all those things get the team going,” he remarked.
Sabres’ goalie Ryan Faragher said a fight can deter all of the unnecessary after-whistle scrums that sometimes take over a game, but also echoed Dyck in saying that it’s not the only way to energize a team.
“If you’re going to do it, then drop the mitts, for sure, then that way they are both out of the game, we’re done, and hopefully the guys [on the bench] get into it,” he stressed. “If not, we have to find other ways to get ourselves pumped up through a big goal or big save or something.”
There’s no denying the NHL product is as exciting as ever, and maybe could do without fights and still be an entertaining product, but fighting as been as frequent as ever in recent years.
According to hockeyfights.com, the NHL is on pace for 784 fights this season—up from 664 a season ago and 497 in 2005-06. That’s back to pre-lockout numbers, which had 789 fights in the 2003-04 season.
Interesting stuff, wouldn’t you say?
Some have suggested the NHL now stands for No Hit League, where every time a player is hammered with a bone-crunching hit—regardless of whether it was clean or not—a fight ensues. That theory certainly holds weight, but it may be more likely because the intensity of every game is higher than ever.
In the salary cap-era, most every team has a chance at the playoffs, and the importance of every game is magnified with overtime losses still warranting one point. That extra point or two could mean a playoff spot, so emotions are high for all 82 games for every team.
Needless to say, the players are the ones who play the game and they have spoken.
Fighting isn’t going away anytime soon.

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