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Eliminating fighting in NHL wouldn't make game safer, players say

Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Colton Orr (28) fights with Montreal Canadiens right wing George Parros (15) during third period National Hockey League action Tuesday, October 1, 2013 in Montreal. Parros and Orr kicked off the 2013-14 NHL season by dropping the gloves twice, but the second time one man ended up in the penalty box and the other in the hospital. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

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Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Colton Orr (28) fights with Montreal Canadiens right wing George Parros (15) during third period National Hockey League action Tuesday, October 1, 2013 in Montreal. Parros and Orr kicked off the 2013-14 NHL season by dropping the gloves twice, but the second time one man ended up in the penalty box and the other in the hospital. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Montreal's George Parros and Toronto's Colton Orr kicked off the 2013-14 NHL season by dropping the gloves twice, but the second time, one man ended up in the penalty box and the other in the hospital.

It was opening night in the NHL, and the debate over fighting's place in the game was already raging.

Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ray Emery fuelled the fire last week when he skated the length of the ice to fight an unwilling combatant in Braden Holtby during a third-period brawl.

Any time fighting is in the spotlight, the conversation moves toward abolishing it at the sport's highest level. The discussion could continue for years before it's gone for good, but some in the hockey world do believe that fighting will eventually become a thing of the past.

"It's a different world today. Things are changing," said Hall of Fame defenceman Bobby Orr. "That new fan we're trying to attract, they don't want violence. ... (But) that fear of getting beat up is a great deterrent."

Fighting's elimination may not be imminent, even after Parros's concussion and a societal shift away from the acceptance of line brawls like the Flyers and Washington Capitals engaged in last week. But rock 'em sock 'em hockey isn't the norm anymore, and it's becoming increasingly possible to imagine the NHL without fighting.

"Some people would probably like it," Buffalo Sabres tough guy John Scott said. "It'd be a little more skilled and flowed and probably less hitting and more transition play, probably like games in Europe."

In European leagues and tournaments regulated by the International Ice Hockey Federation—like the Olympics—fighting is punishable by ejection along with a five-minute major penalty. Going that route in the NHL, and perhaps considering suspensions, would prevent, or at least drastically reduce, ugly incidents related to fisticuffs.

But there's no guarantee that it would make hockey safer. Many players and hockey officials argue that eliminating fighting will lead to a chippier game.

"The fact of the matter is I think this game is safer with fighting in it," said Brian Burke, the Calgary Flames' president of hockey operations. "The amount of fighting in the game has been reduced dramatically, and that's a good thing. It's not going to go up, but I think it's a central part of player safety."

In recent years the NHL has taken steps to improve player safety, mainly related to head shots. Rule 48 made hits to the head illegal, and suspensions increased to serve as a deterrent.

Fighting doesn't carry the same standard. There were no rules in place to suspend Emery beyond a game misconduct and 29 penalty minutes, even if the league doesn't support a player landing a dozen punches to an opponent's head.

But the NHL has taken steps to reduce fighting without banning it. The instigator rule was instituted in 1992 to punish players who clearly initiate fights, leaving the bench to join an altercation carries an automatic 10-game suspension and so-called "staged" fights are becoming less popular.

"I was happy when (staged fighting) was gone because that was just a waste of time, that doesn't change momentum. People have moved past that," said Bob Kelly, a member of the Flyers' "Broad Street Bullies" teams of the 1970s. "Two players collide, get up and want to have a fight, there's nothing wrong with that whatsoever."

That seems to be the consensus around the league. Current players would have to support rule changes that increase the punishment for fighting, and despite the recent public outcry most are in favour of keeping it. A 2011 NHLPA/CBC poll found that 98 per cent of players were against abolishing fighting.

Sabres captain Steve Ott fears that it would lead to so-called "rat" players taking over the game, while Chris Neil of the Ottawa Senators figures there will be more illegal stick work.

"I think there would be a lot more guys running around, a lot more high-sticks, a lot more hits from behind," Dallas Stars centre Shawn Horcoff said.

Of course there would be fewer injuries from fights, like the concussion Flyers winger Steve Downie suffered in a bout against the Capitals' Aaron Volpatti.

"Obviously stuff like that will be out of the game if there's no fighting," said Jared Boll of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who had the third-most fighting majors in the NHL in 2013. "But I think you'd see more just by people being dumb on the ice and running around and knowing that they don't have to face anyone or answer the bell if they do something stupid."

One of the common defences for fighting is that it's always been part of the game. But whether players and fans like it or not, it's not nearly as prevalent as it was decades ago, which partially has to do with the salary cap and teams prioritizing speed and skill over pugilism.

Through Tuesday, just 82 of 225 games played this season have included at least one fight, according to HockeyFights.com. There were a total of 30 in 86 playoff games last spring, and seven of those came in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarter-finals between the Canadiens and Senators.

"Basically fighting doesn't exist anymore. It's just about basically gone," Kelly said. "Watching these guys play the game, the Stanley Cup finals have been outstanding. It's just hard skating, and nobody fights in playoffs anyways. You get the odd one here or there. To me, it's pretty well gone as far as anything substantial out there."

NBC Sports broadcaster Mike Emrick has charted fighting statistics for 25-plus years and estimated that the Flyers had 85 fights in 86 playoff games from 1982 to 1989.

Emrick noted the grandfathering of helmets in 1979 caused the number of fights to decline dramatically in the late '80s and early '90s, and the implementation of visors could have the same effect.

"Eventually the knuckles on the helmets just wore guys down and made them less effective as fighters," Emrick said. "Now that we've adopted the face shields for all guys coming in, and we had 73 per cent of the players wearing face shields a year ago, eventually that evolutionary process, I think, will continue to where there won't be much fighting at all."

Beginning this season, all incoming players and those with 25 or fewer games of NHL experience were forced to wear visors. Previously a player with a visor could be given an extra penalty for initiating a fight, but now it's a two-minute minor if fighters remove their helmets before a fight.

Commissioner Gary Bettman called it "purely a safety issue because we don't want players getting hurt needlessly."

Even though it was a fall to the ice as opposed to a punch that injured Parros, it could be considered a needless injury. But not everyone believes eliminating fighting will lead to fewer injuries.

"I have played in leagues where they didn't have fighting, and there is a cheapness to a lot of players, a phoniness that you can't be challenged, if you will," Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "It becomes more a hack-and-whack with the sticks and cheap shots to get even."

In a world without fighting, Emrick believes more disputes will devolve into stick-swinging, like what Leafs star Phil Kessel did when challenged by Scott during the pre-season. Full face shields, like those mandated by the NCAA, could be the next step in protection, but that's likely a long way away.

The NHL could look more like the European, college or international game if it outlawed fighting.

"The Olympic program doesn't allow fighting," said former NHL referee Bill McCreary, who worked three Olympic Games. "I think when the Olympics take place or you watch the world junior tournament which is under the same umbrella of the IIHF, you have to compliment them for the way their program operates. All North American people that see their players from their favourite teams go and participate at the Olympics can't talk enough about the quality of the hockey."

Former Boston Bruins tough guy Terry O'Reilly agrees about the college and international game and doesn't believe fighting has a future in the NHL.

"Those are two of the best avenues of hockey that you could ever watch," O'Reilly said on the Murphy's Hockey Law radio program in February. "Watching Canada play the U.S. for a gold medal, there's nothing better you could watch and there aren't any fights."

Of course the primary argument against that theory is that comparing the NHL over 82 regular-season games to the highest level of international play is apples and oranges.

"You don't see them over the course of six months, you see them over a course of two weeks," Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I don't know how it would be."

Many around the NHL don't want to think about it. Three general managers—Pittsburgh's Ray Shero, Tampa Bay's Steve Yzerman and Carolina's Jim Rutherford—told TSN they would support a ban on fighting, but most of the current generation of managers don't seem ready for that move.

"When the fighting doesn't exist, it's a very physical game and there are times when you have to step up and let the other team know that nobody's going to take liberties with your best players," San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson said. "I don't see fighting going away."

It might take decades before that appetite is prevalent, perhaps when players who haven't yet reached the NHL retire and become GMs and the teams they run include those who grew up with a culture that was far less accepting of fighting.

But even if fighting is outlawed, it's likely impossible to get rid of it altogether.

"My opinion is that I think it's going to maybe not fade away to nothing but down to extremely isolated incidents," Emrick said. "In baseball and in basketball if you fight you get tossed out, and if something happened that was so bad, you'd go for the fight and get tossed out to settle the score because you're in the heat of battle and you're not going to trust the hierarchy in a board room to make the decision that you want to pay the guy back that did your teammate wrong."

Boudreau said hockey culture needs that. If Sidney Crosby takes a dirty hit, a Penguins teammate is likely to take action. Even if it's illegal, fighting may be the way to settle the score.

"There will still be fighting, there will just be harsher penalties," said former enforcer Jody Shelley, now a broadcast analyst for the Blue Jackets. "A guy gets mad at a guy and he drops his gloves and they fight and go to the box, OK, maybe they'll have to sit out a game. But at some point it's just going to boil over."

When tensions boil over today, a fight or two usually breaks out. Shelley can't picture the NHL without that mechanism in place, but Boudreau knows it would be "different."

Emrick agrees.

"If it were abolished altogether tomorrow, (the NHL) would become radically different, I think, right away," he said. "There are all of these dynamics that make it a fascinating argument. But until it's wiped from the books I guess we won't know."

—With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary

Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno

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