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Campbell's Cuts: Changes in fighting philosophy won't come from within

Riley Cote of the Flyers and Pierre-Luc Leblond of the Devils fight. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Riley Cote of the Flyers and Pierre-Luc Leblond of the Devils fight. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Bob Probert is the patron saint of all enforcers and Andre Roy is one of the toughest players in the NHL. The fact they have come out in favor of the Ontario League’s new helmet rule in the wake of the Don Sanderson tragedy should tell people something about what a positive move it was for the OHL to make.

But sadly, for the most part, it has become crystal clear that anyone looking for concrete change from within the hockey establishment will be hugely disappointed.

As expected, much of the hockey community has rallied around fighting the way it would a friend in need. People often don’t question a friend’s scruples or past behavior in the face of scandal, no matter how damning the evidence is against them. They stand by out of loyalty and friendship and that’s what the fighting lobby is doing now. A young man is dead and people in this game not only are against abolishing fighting, they’re opposed to even opening the subject up to a healthy debate.

Consider what Jason Spezza, a noted pacifist and member of the NHL’s competition committee, had to say about whether or not the NHL should adopt the same rule as the OHL.

“You don’t want to make a drastic change because of something tragic,” he said.

Huh? Isn’t that the best reason to make a drastic change? Think about it. How many times in NHL history has a puck gone into the stands? Probably hundreds of thousands of times, but all it took was one fatality in 2002 when 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil was hit by a puck while watching a Columbus Blue Jackets game and died two days later.

The NHL responded quickly, almost in the same “knee-jerk” fashion the OHL recently did. It immediately mandated all of its rinks put up protective netting at each end and almost every arena in every city in North America has followed suit. Funny, I don’t recall the NHL being too worried about fan outrage – and there was plenty of it from people who felt they were paying $100 for an obstructed view of the game – at that time.

The fact of the matter is OHL commissioner David Branch is one of the most progressive voices in the game. He has gone on the record as saying he thinks this rule will evolve into a drastic reduction in the number of fights in his league and he deserves kudos for having the courage to do it in the face of criticism from the hockey establishment.

Contrast that with the feelings of Western League commissioner Ron Robison who said, “Looking at our game, we don’t really have any concerns relative to the safety of our players or injuries which occur as a result of this terrible incident.”

First, if anyone can make heads or tails of what Robison is actually saying, good on you. But then Robison went further in a recent piece in the Vancouver Sun: “The players understand if they are in an altercation and they remove their helmets, they’re subjecting themselves to risk as well, but it is a gentlemen’s agreement as to when that situation takes place.”

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Again, aside from using 10 words when three would do, hey, as long as we’re all being gentlemen about it…

Then there’s Ernie McLean, who was a part of the WHL when bench-clearing brawls were all just a part of the fun.

“It’s the do-gooders just trying to take fighting out of hockey,” he told the Sun. “Every time something happens it’s another chance to start making some noise. I’ve been around a long time and I’ve never seen a kid seriously hurt in a fight from a punch or falling down in a fight. But believe me when I tell you I’ve seen the damage those visors can do to a fist.”

Words fail me.

But perhaps the most disappointing comment came from Eric Lindros, whom I consider to be a thoughtful, intelligent person and one who has a genuine concern for the game. I was shocked to see him go back to that tired “abolish the instigator” refrain you hear so much from hockey types.

“They might think of it as a black eye, a step backward,” Lindros said at a recent hockey concussion summit. “But if you look back at the mid-‘90s, the respect level on the ice was much higher than it is today.”

This has never had anything to do with respect. Players have hated and abused each other from the time they started playing this game. Look back in the history of the NHL and you’ll see how little respect players have had for each other from time immemorial.

The instigator rule is a red herring the fighting lobby likes to trot out every time somebody gets hurt. First, the instigator is a penalty that is rarely called, so it’s a non-factor. Second, I don’t see too many players thinking about the ramifications of the instigator rule when they’re beating down an opponent for putting a clean hit on their teammates. Third, do people really believe that abolishing the instigator rule is going to deter players such as Jordin Tootoo and Colby Armstrong from “finishing their checks” from the other side of the rink?

Those who love fighting and view the death of Don Sanderson as a “tragic accident” and a one-in-a-million occurrence can rest easily knowing they have a champion in those who run this sport.

Things will never change, it seems.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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