NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks at the podium at the NHL Board of Governors meeting press conference. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
MONTREAL - Colin Campbell played during the 1970s and early ‘80s when bench-clearing brawls were commonplace and heinous acts of violence – a lot of which would make some things that go on in the game today look tame by comparison - went undetected and unpunished.
If there were ever anyone who you’d think would be dragged into the fighting debate kicking and screaming, it would be the league’s director of hockey operations. After all, as an undersized NHL defenseman, Campbell had almost 1,500 career penalty minutes including playoffs. But, surprisingly, Campbell is a far more progressive voice when it comes to this matter than some of the people he works with who have Ivy League degrees and graduated from some of the best law schools in North America.
“That’s because my wife is always on my case,” Campbell said following the NHL’s Board of Governors meeting in Montreal Saturday morning.
But those of you who enjoy the sweet science on the ice, don’t fret. Among power brokers in the NHL, Campbell’s voice is a lone one in the wilderness. Just over a month after a senior player died in a fight and less than 24 hours after a pre-meditated fight sent an American League player into convulsions, those who hold the reins of power made it clear that beyond a little navel gazing and, perhaps a tweak or two to the five-plus pages fighting takes up in the NHL rulebook, fighting isn’t going anywhere.
Perhaps it’s the cynic here, but my impression is that the NHL is going to ride out this storm and do very little about fighting. To be sure, there is no appetite among NHL types to have a meaningful debate on its place in the game. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman talks about having a debate about “rules of engagement” – yes, he actually used that term – with respect to how a fight starts, how it finishes, chinstraps and takedowns. But as for actually exploring what place fighting has in the game and whether it might be time to consider abolishing it, forget it.
Unless you consider that the league will consult with the GMs on this one. Of course, the GMs are, generally speaking, 50-plus white guys who represent the hockey establishment that shuns any talk of banning fighting. As far as the Toronto Maple Leafs GM is concerned, any talk about fighting will be a short conversation.
So, as the injuries get more serious and the scary incidents work their way up the hockey ladder, it’s clear the league will do nothing concrete about fighting until someone in the NHL suffers the same fate as Don Sanderson. In the back of my mind, I think Colin Campbell is convinced exactly that is going to happen someday. Bettman talks about taking a “good, hard look at it,” but offers no structure of how that’s going to happen and no timeline for any changes.
In other words, the NHL is basically giving the issue lip service because of the perfect storm that has happened lately, but don’t expect anything drastic.
“Based on the conversations I’ve had with lots of constituencies – players, owners, managers, coaches – I don’t think there’s any appetite to abolish fighting in the game,” Bettman said. “There are lots of reasons for that, including that it has been a part of the game.”
Of course, so was the red line, the rover, rules that prevented forward passes and from goalies going down to make a save, too, but those were changed when they were found to be antiquated and a detriment to the game.
“Let’s start with the role of fighting in the game,” Bettman said. “That will be part of the discussion, but it may be a very short conversation because the combined hockey knowledge and experience that sits in the general managers’ room is probably 750 years and there may be no interest and appetite at all there.”
Meanwhile, fighting is up to about 1.3 fighting majors per game, a 24 percent increase over last year. Fighting is essentially at the same level it was prior to the lockout. The one thing that was encouraging, however, is there doesn’t seem to be any sense the league will abolish the instigator rule. Bettman pointed out it only gets called in about five percent of fights, anyway, a figure that might increase if anything comes of these debates.
Bettman did touch on a number of other topics following the meeting, most of which related to the economic health of the game. On the subject of the Phoenix Coyotes, Bettman said the franchise needs “an infusion of capital,” either in the form of additional investors or a sale, and the league is monitoring things, but said the franchise isn’t in the trouble most have been led to believe.
“They are not, I repeat not, on life support,” Bettman said.
He later went on to say, “We have a pretty good track record of fixing franchises that get themselves into trouble.”
• The participation of NHL players in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia is still very much in question. The players want to play in the Olympics and the International Ice Hockey Federation is also in favor of NHLers taking part, but Bettman isn’t certain it’s a great idea.
“There was no bigger proponent of going to the Olympics than me before Nagano,” Bettman said. “But I do have concerns about going to the Olympics, particularly when it’s not in North America and the benefits are not as great.”
• He said there are no plans for the league to relocate or expand and said a second team in southern Ontario – read, Hamilton – is not on the radar.
Bettman also seemed to throw water on any notion Jim Balsillie is an owner-in-waiting for a relocated franchise in Hamilton.
“This wouldn’t be something that would be a divine right. We would pick the person we think would be the best,” Bettman said. “You don’t make a billion dollar decision on intuitive instinct.”
Members of the THN team will be filing reports from Montreal throughout the ASG weekend.