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THN.com Blog: When did fighting become wrestling?

Chris Neil of the Senators throws Garnet Exelby of the Maple Leafs to the ice during a fight Tuesday. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Chris Neil of the Senators throws Garnet Exelby of the Maple Leafs to the ice during a fight Tuesday. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Battle of Ontario is always good for a little of the old ultra-violence, but Toronto’s Tuesday night 4-1 win over Ottawa also featured a couple of nefarious acts that cast a bad light on the rough side of the game.

The first was pretty cut-and-dry; Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson hitting Maple Leafs defenseman Francois Beauchemin squarely from behind into the boards. Alfredsson made a point of asking Beauchemin if he was OK after, which didn’t calm the Toronto blueliner’s anger one bit (and understandably so).

But the more complex incident came during a fight between Toronto’s Garnet Exelby and Ottawa’s Chris Neil, who always seems to get the better of the Leafs. In a chaotic scrap, Exelby downed Neil and had the Sens bruiser on his knees. Neil then grabbed Exelby by the leg and tackled him to the ice. Exelby, without a helmet, hit the back of his head. The rugged blueliner was OK, but it was unsightly to say the least.

This came one night after Columbus’ Jared Boll hit his head on the ice at the end of a tilt with Edmonton’s Theo Peckham. Boll was definitely the victor in the fight and Peckham’s takedown was less blatant than Neil’s – the Oilers bruiser didn’t grab Boll, it was more of a push while Boll was off-balance from throwing a punch. Peckham did show immediate concern for his fellow combatant, but what’s with all the takedowns in fights these days?

It seems as if some guys think landing on top of their opponent at the end means they get the ‘W,’ never mind how many jabs and uppercuts they sustained in the process.

Watch some old fights on YouTube – seriously, take a few minutes; it’s a lot of fun – and you will rarely see takedowns among the heavyweights. Going back to the 1970s, more often than not fights ended when the two enforcers were all punched out; they remain on their feet and the officials jump in to separate them. In fact, a lot of times the players kept each other upright in bouts of what I have to imagine were incredibly tiring wrestling. In one late-1980s tilt, Bob Probert and Al Secord battled in such a manner for a full two minutes.

If a player did hit the ice, it was usually because they got knocked out or, at least, flattened by a punch; the opponent rarely went down with them. While this, too, is tough for some people to watch, keep in mind it was Don Sanderson’s head hitting the ice that took his life, not a punch per se.

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The culprit, of course, is Mixed Martial Arts. The sport has become incredibly popular among NHL enforcers, particularly in off-season training respects. MMA schooling can provide obvious balance benefits, but clearly other aspects of the discipline are seeping into hockey.

The takedown was likely the first. In a Georges Laraque-Raitis Ivanans fight dating back to 2006, then-Phoenix Coyotes color commentator Darren Pang notes how Laraque favored taking down his fight opponents.

More recently, San Jose Sharks enforcer Brad Staubitz was accused of using his elbows, rather than his fists, in a spirited donnybrook with Nashville’s Jordin Tootoo, who was bloodied pretty bad in the process. It’s hard to prove given the speed of the fight, but the folks in Nashville weren’t too happy about the possibility.

Maybe I’m being hypocritical here: I like watching fights, but I don’t want to see guys get seriously hurt. Players from the Original Six era went bare-knuckled all the time and the majority of them seemed to live full lives. Eddie Shack is still a pistol at 73 and John Ferguson was sharp right up until the day he passed on. Could it be because no one ever tried to suplex them after a scrap?

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays. 

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

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